For portrait photographers knowing how to use high and low-key images is a basic fundamental photographic element you should master. Our eyes are naturally drawn to contrast and using keys properly draws attention to your subject and helps set a mood. Both keys require controlling your lighting, background, and the subject’s clothing.
Let’s take a deep dive into high & low-key portrait photography with some examples from a session with Joelle. Joelle came for a basic portrait session, but all these examples are headshots from her session.
Above we have 3 examples of low-key photography images. With low-key, you want everything in the image darker than your subject. Notice the dark background and the dark tops she’s wearing set the mood and key of these images. Joelle’s face is the lightest portion of the image and that contrast also brings the viewers’ attention to her. Notice that these 3 images have different moods and feeling, but they are all pretty much the same. She did change from a black top to a purple and the position of the key light is different in the first image, but for the most part, things are the same. Something I like to do in post-editing is to make the session appear there was more variety. The first image is something I love to do with people and that is a warm tone of black & white. The image in the center is a cool tone of black & white and the last of course is color. This works well with low-key images and clients appreciate the variety.
Above we have 3 examples of high-key photography images. With high-key, you want everything in the image lighter than your subject. Notice the white background and the white top she’s wearing set the mood and key of these images. Joelle’s face is the darkest portion of these images and that contrast also brings the viewers’ attention to her. Notice that these 3 images all have a happier mood and feeling. She’s wearing a white top in all three images, but light shades and pastels also work well for this key.