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Pulling off the perfect high key photograph can be a daunting proposition. For one thing, the very technique itself is so new.
Older techniques such as painted muslin may be tried and true, but come off as too traditional and stodgy compared to the exciting modernity of the high key technique. So, as there is every chance in the world that you’re going to be asked to create the perfect high key portrait, you’d better learn to do it correctly!
The concept of high key photography is simple enough. A bright, white background creates a simple, distraction free, portrait. There’s no hassle involved in arranging the objects in the background to conform to the image your portrait subject wishes to portray. It’s just them and a bright white background. What could be simpler?
If you really want to create the simplest, most cost effective, high key portrait, then a simple and solidly white background is the way to go. And we mention the phrase “cost effective” for a reason. You can achieve the ultimate high key portrait with little more than a camera, your subject, and a white paper background! Best of all, you don’t need to go investing in an expensive, top of the line, camera. When it comes to high contrast photography, nearly any sort of camera will do the job!
However, don’t go thinking that a simple white background will provide all the light you need to make a perfectly white background for your portrait. You may well need to call on an additional source of light. Luckily, here on Earth we have access to the biggest ball of light in the entire galaxy: The sun! If you don’t have enough natural light in your studio to provide the perfect amount of overexposure needed to create a bright white background, don’t panic. To achieve the desired effect, you’ll need to have roughly 16 times (4 stops) of light on your background than on your foreground subject. Your best bet, therefore, is to use the natural light of the sun to provide the necessary overexposure for your background. Pose your subject in front of a white background outside at midday, with the sun shining directly behind them. This will give you a background of solid white, perfect for high key photography.
We suppose this one might be a no brainer, but it’s one that some budding portrait photographers tend to overlook. Pose your portrait subject a meter or two away from the background you’ve created. Hide a flash directly behind your model, making sure to point it directly at the background, rather than your subject. If all goes well, the light created by the hidden flash will completely overexpose the background, making your model stand out all the more against a completely bright, featureless white background.
Even though we heartily recommend a certain degree of intentional overexposure for high key photography, the old maxim of “Everything in its proper proportion” holds true here. You don’t want to overly overexpose your background! If too much light bounces off of the background you’ve created, this will “wash out” your foreground subject and ruin your portrait. To achieve a perfectly proportioned white background, you will need to start out with your background light at the lowest possible power level. You will then need to slowly increase the power, moving up one stop at a time, until the background is just barely overexposed. You won’t get it right the first time. Every camera and lighting situation is distinct.
You’ll need to experiment until you get it right. Practice makes perfect, so don’t give up!