Lesson 3 – Exposure: High Key

A high-key photo is basically white on white. This style of photography conveys a feeling of lightness and clarity. Typically what happens is the camera wants to make the white of the photo - without dark areas to 'balance' the exposure - too dark. So your white's become gray. You may have seen this particularly when shooting a snowy field on a gray day. However, exposing for high key is fairly easy.

With an in camera meter, you can measure the light hitting a white area, and open up two stops - such as changing the aperture from ƒ11 to ƒ5.6.

Exercise: Put a large piece of white paper or white fabric on a table beside a large north facing window, place a white object such as a Styrofoam cup or egg in the middle.

Take a picture with the exposure that the in-camera meter suggests. You may have to use a tripod to keep the camera still if the shutter speed is too slow.

Next, meter off a white area and open up  1 and 1/3 or 2 stops - as described at the top of the this page. Compare the images.

This can work well for other scenarios where exposure is a tricky thing - like weddings where the bride is wearing white and the groom is in black. Quite often, the dress winds up blown out with no detail in the dress. By metering off the dress and opening up two stops you can prevent this from happening.

You can also use a hand held meter to measure the light hitting the subject, which will be more accurate than the in-camera meter.

Note: Be aware that some digital cameras have exposure compensation built in to prevent overexposure. If exposure is too bright the highlights could be "blown out" and detail lost int the brightest parts of the image. By artificially "darkening" the image, the camera makers try to make sure the exposures aren't too bright. This doesn't affect all cameras but it does seem to be the case for some. That means that the exposure needed in lessons 2, 3 and 4 may be slightly higher than suggested in the lessons. You might use the "expose to the right" method.

Next Lesson: Low Key

37 thoughts on “Lesson 3 – Exposure: High Key”

  1. When you say “open up two stops”, is this the same as setting the ‘exposure compensation’ or ‘+/-‘ on my Digital SLR to +2?

    1. Hi David – yes, that pretty much is what I mean. I would suggest learning to do all these exercises in manual mode so you really get a handle on how the camera works – and in manual mode, the exposure compensation is not used. You just change the aperture or shutter speed.

      1. What if you are just trying to learn how and you don’t have a camra yet to take the pictures. Do the Rest of the lessons need a camra?

        1. You’re certainly welcome to read the lessons and watch the videos and you’ll come away with some good understanding. However, photography is about – first – knowing how to create the image you are looking for rather than settling for a snapshot, and to do that it is best to actually practice the recommendations. So once you have a camera, it’s a great idea to come back and actually DO the lessons rather than just reading. I love to think I learn by learning, but I learn absolutely the best learning I do is by doing it. I find all of the students I’ve had also learn the best that way. Have fun.

        2. All I have is an LG phone and a galaxy 111. I am yearning to learn how to cature the beauty around me. My family are all photographers. Formerly professionally. I feel I should be best e than I am

  2. when the exposure is high the pictures are white and white so its looks nice and so then u would be able to know how ur camera works and how u will know how to take the right thing.

    1. Hi – as long as you can control exposure – which with manual settngs on your camera, you can – then yes this lesson works for you.

  3. THANKS FOR THIS LESSON, I HAVE AND EASYSHARE KODAK DIGITAL CAMERA Z760 AND A OLUMPUS 18X OPTICAL ZOOM 28MM 15FPS BURST RATE DUAL I.S IMAGE STABILIZATION I USE THESE 2 DIGITAL CAMERAS FOR EVERY THING

    1. The idea is to increase the amount of light entering the camera – so you can change the aperture or the shutter speed – but its best not to do both.

    1. I really wish I could comment on each camera – but there’s so many I can’t keep up with each one – you should have a manual with your camera, its time to read up. If you don’t have the manual, you can generally look up the manuals online – do a google search.

  4. I have this one comment. There are two types of High Key formulas ( plain white backdrop and model images or a white tail deer in the forest snow scene) – either of the two.

    The Other option is lighting priority. Camera’s are more available to the hand in the moment of truth, however I always chosoe quality of light over exposure sensitivity and refraction intensity of a lens capturing the specific scene. Outside your formula is correct. To the T. 5.6 is great for mornings at a medium low ISO of 500 in the snow. Where whites are white and not gray. I just wanna say thanks for sharing this and thank you for teaching people correctly.

    Just don’t cut options too short. High key is definitive for portraits, in that you are using intense lighting very specificially. I generally choose just above the gray area myself, and alow a lighting drop off through softer fading lights all within a 5-7ft. You gain quality out of closeness when it ciomes to light that is bounced and then diffusd giving you about %60 of the original intensity but changing the behavior of which the light moves and reacts to skin.

    Always expose for skin. Dresses tend to fall into place nomatter the color. White and yellow is most challenging but not when you realise light has a character and behavior depending on the source and it’s managability. Thnks!

    1. I appreciate your comments. The purpose of this page is to learn about what the meter sees, and getting into high-key portraiture etc is a different matter despite the similar name. You are right that a real-world high key photo is often a scene such as snow or fog, both of which can fool a meter and require opening up the exposure by 1 to 2 stops.

  5. I rarely edit, even the most challenging shoots btw. Even in this day and age of technolgoy and editing software, I enjoy the sport of getting that shot. I love to edit for fun, dont get me wrong. Everyone loves and HDR and skin touch ups arent a lighting issue really. As far as captured light goes, I just wanted to share my source of information as being from my own experience with a minimum of %95 accuracy as my history of lighting images as well as using and diffusing natural light itself. Thanks bub!

    1. As documentary photography goes, yes – keeping the editing to a minimum through good handling of light and exposure is ideal.

      I would suggest that if one is after a more artistic representation – one which not only shows what was there but also how the photographer ‘feels’ about the scene may require more in the editing department. As an example, Ansel Adams would never have sold a direct print from his negatives without hours of darkroom work to bring out the details and mood he was looking for.

      But that’s the lovely thing about photography, we each have our approaches and philosophies regarding how and what we capture. I can really appreciate the documentary approach as a great way to show scenes you find.

  6. As an artist first before falling in love with photography, I found myself defending the “art” of photo tweaking by always stating that Ansel Adams was the first photo tweaker of our time. He had thousands of negatives that have never been published… the only ones he chose to release for print were after he spend hours in his dark room burning and dodging each photo to create beautiful depth and richness to each one. I am still learning how to control my f-stops and shutter speeds with my Pentax Digital SLR in manual mode to get what I see in my head through the lens of my camera. But photoshop is my dark room and I am an Ansel Adams of sorts in the perfecting of my own photography. My love extends from RAW to enriching or enhancing depending on the photo itself and how it speaks to me. And in my artistic mode I merge photos together to get an artistic twist in creating new photos. Coming upon this website I am excited to further my knowledge and skills as a photographer. There is always something more to learn!

  7. Hi, these lessons are really helpful and m learning a lot but 1 suggestion i can give to enhance the lesson quality is “if possible then admin can add some pics taken before and after doing all the above settings in camera “. Beginners like me can use those pics as reference.

    1. I tend not to provide examples but suggest you try it yourself to see the difference – many people think they’ve learned a lesson if they see examples, but will not actually internalize the lesson unless they actually do it. That said, I’m adding more videos to go into each subject in depth.

  8. Here i would really say the instructor is sort of true at his place, myself i have too encountered such a situation, i would rather suggest gaurav to do the lessons as i did it usually till now having a hand upon the keyboard where else the ither one on the camera, read it and try it thats the key i think.

  9. cool I tried both high key and low key and it went exactly how you said but you should try to use different types of cameras because most people don’t have the same camera as you other wise thanks : )

    1. Actually, it works exactly the same on all cameras that have a manual method of exposure.

      However if your camera doesn’t have manual control, it should have an exposure compensation button – and you can make low key images darker by going into “minus” (-) exposure compensation, and “plus” (+) exposure compensation for high key images.

  10. Hello, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge of high key with all of us. I have one question though, I´ve been shooting high key portraits against a window with a thin curtain to filter the light, it works well BUT I´ve been having focus issues. Many photos turn out not so sharp!… My settings in manual are around 200 speed, f2.8 -4.5 and iso 800. I use a prime lens. Please advise…

    1. Hi Robert – It sounds like the focusing of your camera is having trouble with the strong backlighting. Do you put a reflective surface (like a reflector or even just a white sheet) beside or in front of your subject, opposite from the window, to bounce light back onto your subject so the contrast isn’t as strong?

    1. ‘Openning 2 stops’ means you’re letting in MORE light. Four times as much light actually.

      You can do one of the following:
      1 – Change your aperture to a smaller number (smaller number equals bigger opening equals more light) – for example IF your camera was set to f11 you could change that to f5.6 – Two stops more light. or
      2 – Make your shutter slower – the lower the number the more light gets through – for example IF your shutter was set to 1/500th of the a second, you could go to 1/125th
      3 – increase your ISO – the bigger the number the more sensitive the sensor is to light (but you may get a lot more noise/grain in the picture) for example IF you were at ISO 100 you could go to ISO 400.

      I hope that helps.

        1. LOL – thanks for the comment.

          The honest answer is that I constantly learn, I’m always reading books and magazines, take workshops, and watch webinars. But mostly I just do it – a lot. Nothing makes me do photography better than doing it wrong, then learning how to do it right and practicing that.

    1. Camera’s are actually pretty smart when it comes to everyday scenes – and if you’re not thoroughly versed in using manual mode, it’s pretty good bet the camera will do a better job. It’s when you start pushing your images into situations more difficult to expose for that manual mode is the best choice.

      An example would be photographing a person with the sun right behind them, or a white cat on snow, or a dark scene with just a sliver of light on your subject. Those are very hard for a camera to make good decisions on.

      But for everyday scenic photography and family photos, auto often works fine for getting a decent image.

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