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HIGH KEY, LOW KEY

High key and low key, the twin extremes of brightness and contrast in photography, together make up an idea that began as purely practical and ended up creative — at least, taking a position on image style, atmosphere and even mood. There’s a lot more to this idea than being either basically very bright or basically very dark, and there’s the possibility of taking it further into a range of keys, in itself an idea waiting to be discovered.

A little history. The beginnings were mundane and wholly practical, and in case you thought key had anything to do with musical key (F major, B minor and so on), as I used to, it doesn’t. No, it started in the movie industry, and the key in question is what lighting cameramen called the key light, in other words the main light for a scene. This is slightly old-fashioned by now, because lighting equipment has hanged, audiences have become more sophisticated, and modern digital sensors mean that you can film without relying on fixed studio lights; indeed, without any photographic lighting at all, if you like. In old movie terminology, there was the key light, the fill light and backlight, and together they made up the standard three-point lighting that was standard for run-of-the-mill productions. The advantage was purely practical and financial: three-point lighting lit everything predictably and brightly, avoiding contrast — but avoiding, modelling, mood and character also. A production team could shoot scenes faster by not having to change the lighting very much each time. High-key became the term for this, but as time passed and this kind of filming became passé, it came to mean a brightly lit scene with low contrast overall, became more used in still photography than movies and video.

A high-key treatment depends on a large area and high value of whiteness, and on high contrast. More fundamentally, for high-key to work well, there usually needs to be some smaller darker elements that are integral to the image. Raising the brightness and contrast throws emphasis on whatever smaller darker areas remain. Both of the examples here, in different ways, rely on this feature — small key subjects in an expansive white setting. In the case of the portrait, the key subjects are the eyes and lips.

Japanese sushi warpped with gold leaf. A fad that arose in Japan during the booming economy of the 1980s — gold-leaf sushi — became an over-priced speciality of some restaurants. Since gold is inert, in these quantities it has no biological effect on the human body, good or bad.

Japanese sushi warpped with gold leaf.
A fad that arose in Japan during the booming economy of the 1980s — gold-leaf sushi — became an over-priced speciality of some restaurants. Since gold is inert, in these quantities it has no biological effect on the human body, good or bad.

Sushi wrapped in gold leaf, given the high-key treatment in the studio, with the set-up illustrated below. In this, a sheet of translucent plastic with a pre-formed front curve downward is curved up at the back by fitting it against a steel frame. Then, the combination of a light from below and a diffuse toplight give this ‘flooding’ effect which virtually guarantees a high key for a still-life set.

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In fact most of the high key studio imagery that you see tends to be in black and white, and the reason is that black and white can take more extremes, particularly in the brightest highlights. Highlight clipping is always an issue with colour, because the channels often blow out at slightly different points, with unpleasant tired colour banding a risk. Here’s a black and white version of the portrait.

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But of course, although high key is an established studio still-life lighting technique, it has its counterparts in the real world. There’s no control that you can have over the lighting here, but some situations simply lend themselves to this treatment. Fog and mist, particularly backlit by shooting toward the sun, are classic situations, as in the banner picture at the top of this article. Water adds to the mix by helping to continue the bright background to the lower edges and corners. Intentionally high exposure is essential, but just short of clipping anything significant, as in the wintry shot of fields and a tree-line below.

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As there was a high key, there had to be its opposite, low key, and in the movies (again) this quickly came to mean a scene full of shadows, with just the chief character or action picked out with a spot. Low key became the staple lighting for film noir (which you might have oticed is having a revival). The name’s not quite right for this dramatic style, because it’s ALL about a key light, yet one that’s from the side or three-quarter back, but low key has stuck as a description of mainly dark and very high contrast. Here are two typical situations, both with daylight from a single doorway or window in an otherwise unlit interior. Edge-lighting, which features in both of these shots, is notoriously difficult to get right in exposure, and needs significant exposure compensation (toward darker).

Burmese man in a café in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar).

Burmese man in a café in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar).

Yi funeral, Xue Hua (Snowflake) Village, below Yulong Snow Mountain, nr Lijiang, Yunnan, China.

Yi funeral, Xue Hua (Snowflake) Village, below Yulong Snow Mountain, nr Lijiang, Yunnan, China.

While a darker key can be applied to any image, according to the mood of the photographer, certain kinds of lighting and scene lend themselves more readily to this treatment than others. Ideal conditions are when a large area of the frame, even most of it, is in shadow, when most of these shadow areas carry no essential detail, and when there is a structure of lighter tones to make a contrast. Indeed, contrast, if only on a finely detailed scale, contributes greatly to the success of many low-key images. But, as with all special treatments, from infra-red to high-key, simply following a formula of ‘this is a low-key kind of image’ misses the point. What matters is how each individual photographer sees the scene and its potential.

In landscapes, you can find a similar distribution of light and darkness at sunrise and sunset (especially with clouds), and starlight, when a shaft of light penetrates a stormy, overcast day. Again, it’s critical to keep the exposure significantly darker than average overall.

In the heart of lonely Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, Dozmary Pool is where, according to Arthurian legend, the wounded King Arthur was carried by Sir Bedivere. Arthur commanded Bedivere three times to cast his famous sword, Excalibur, into the waters. From the lake an arm rose ("clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful" according to Tennyson), caught the sword and sank with it beneath the surface.

In the heart of lonely Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, Dozmary Pool is where, according to Arthurian legend, the wounded King Arthur was carried by Sir Bedivere. Arthur commanded Bedivere three times to cast his famous sword, Excalibur, into the waters. From the lake an arm rose (“clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful” according to Tennyson), caught the sword and sank with it beneath the surface.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of processing in enhancing both high key and low key. Shooting Raw will typically give you up to a couple of stops extra information at both ends of the scale, dark and light, and the recovery controls such as Adobe Camera Raw’s Highlights and Shadows give fine control. Here’s an example.

This first image below, dawn over the Altausseer lake in Ausria’s Salzkammergut region, actually works well in colour, and was shot that way.

The Altausseer See, Salzkammergut, Austria

The Altausseer See, Salzkammergut, Austria.

Nevertheless, it lends itself to this other, high-key treatment below, by raising Exposure in the processing. Critical to the image is that the fisherman in his small boat is seen against only the reflections of the mountains in the still water, not against the mountains themselves. The position of the boat in the frame and its size add to the delayed reaction in seeing it and consequently the ‘inversion’ of the landscape. Making a high key version, we should keep this in mind.

19014_61_Altaussee_highkeyThen again, there’s more that we could do by converting it to black and white. It can go more extreme, as here below. At this time of day, the mountains and sky in the reflection are bathed in blue, and so can be lightened and darkened, while the low mist is more white. Simply then, in making the black and white conversion, raising the blue strongly, with cyan and red to a lesser degree (both are present in the bluish cast), whitens the image overall without affecting the rowing boat.

The Altausseer See, Salzkammergut, Austria

The Altausseer See, Salzkammergut, Austria.

And this is its histogram, with almost all the tones pushed way to the right — though without clipping.

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Low key also responds to thoughtful processing to maintain the depth of shadows and the contrast between them and the small lit area. This example is reasonably conventional for low key — the setting is a dark interior, with weak sidelighting that reveals enough of the subject to make it obvious, and a background that can easily go to black. And probably should go to black in order to keep attention on the texture of skin and beard.

Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia

Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia.

The histogram that you can see when we make the Levels adjustment is typical of a mainly-dark image with low-key potential.

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Now let’s see what happens when we make a black and white conversion, when there’s always the option of using the hue sliders to alter tonal relationships and contrast. Here there are two alternative versions, one to maximise the contrast between beard and skin, the other to minimise it. The procedure is predictable and straightforward. For the former, lowering red and yellow darkens the skin, raising cyan and blue whitens the beard. For the opposite effect, doing the reverse makes it possible to blend the beard in with the skin until it is almost unnoticeable — if that were wanted.

Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia

Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia.

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Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia

Man in shop, Villa de Leiva, Colombia.

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© Text, photographs and illustrations by Michael Freeman

Michael FreemanOther articles by author

In a 40 year career, internationally renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman has focused on documentary travel reportage, and has been published in all major publications worldwide, including Time-Life, GEO and a 30-year relationship with the Smithsonian magazine. He is also the world’s top author of photography books, drawing on his long experience.
In total, he has published 133 books, with 4 million copies sold, including 66 on the craft of photography, published in 27 languages. With an MA in Geography from Oxford University, Freeman went first into advertising before launching his career in editorial photography with a journey up the Amazon.