Experimenting With High Key Setups

XE2-2219

I typically shoot a lot of Low Key leaning images simply because I really love the look and mood of that type of setup, but when done right, High Key images can be simply stunning. Being a big Lindsay Adler fan and reading everything she writes, I came across one of her books, Creative 52: Weekly Projects to Invigorate Your Photography Portfolio, and wanted to try Challenge 29. Shoot a Very High-Key Image. In her setup she has a white seamless paper background which she blows out with two flashes to turn into a white glowing setting for her subject. Being lazy, I figured I’d just put up a large softbox pointing directly at my camera for my background and not have to setup my seamless paper stands and mess with putting up a couple of strobes to blow it out (over expose to remove all detail). So I put my softbox directly behind me, touching my chair in fact, and set it on it’s lowest setting. (The reason I set it so low is that I knew I’d be shooting with my Fuji 60mm f2.4 lens wide open which means I’d have to set my main light around 1/64th power, so I’d have to balance my softbox with it.)

For my main light I used my Beauty Dish set at 1/64th power, placed high center, directly in front of my face pointing down at me. This is pretty much the same setup I used here.

Now that the gear is all set where I needed it to be it was time to tweak the power on the flashes to get the effect I was looking for. I pretty much already know that I’ll be at 1/64th power on my main light, so I went right to the softbox background light. The trick with it is that you want it bright enough to blow out (remove detail by being too bright for the camera’s sensor to capture), but just so. To much light will over expose not only the background, but the subject as well. I wound up using the lowest setting the strobe had. Using just the background light without the main light will leave the subject’s face almost black, but with the background lit as desired. Here is an example image with just the background light. Note just how much light is wrapping around my face from the softbox. It almost looks like I have two more rim lights coming at me from the sides. Pretty cool!

Lit using just the background light.
Lit using just the background light.

Next I turned off the background light so I could set the main light’s (the Beauty Dish) power and as expected, the proper exposure ended up sitting at 1/64th power. He is what the image looked like with just the main light and the background light powered off.

Main light only.
Main light only.

Now that each light’s power setting have be determined, let’s rev up all the lights and see what we get. As you can see in the image below, the background is a very nice and even, glowing white, while the main light provides what I need up front. One thing worth mentioning when shooting High Key and white clothed subjects is that it is very easy to overexpose and wipe out the fabric’s detail, and likewise, if your exposure is off and you under expose, your white shirt will be a muddy gray. In the image below I had a grid on my Beauty Dish so I expected the light to fall off starting just below my face, so you start to see shadows on my shirt just below my collar. Perfect exposure all around if I do say so myself.

Main light and background lights are both on.
Main light and background lights are both on.

While I had the gear all setup I thought I’d experiment with using a different modifier as the main light and see what it looked like as opposed to the Beauty Dish, so I stood up a Westcott 43in White Umbrella as my main light and set it up above me face at about a 45 degree angle off to the camera’s right a bit. I set the flash at 1/64th power and took the exposure. You can see the difference in the catch lights in my eyes with the Umbrella as opposed to the Beauty Dish. You can also see the difference in the softness of the light from such a big light source. The texture of my skin and the scars on my face appear lighter than when using the Beauty Dish which makes this a better setup with someone with rough skin or wrinkles.

Shot with an Umbrella.
Shot with an Umbrella.

Being an Oregonian I’m usually pretty pale so I typically shoot with a 1/4 CTO gel on my face to add some much needed color. Here it adds just a little bit of orange to my mug and I have to add 1/3 a stop of power to the flash to compensate for the light absorbed by the gel.

Umbrella and a 1/4 CTO gel.
Umbrella and a 1/4 CTO gel.

So there it is, my first stab at a High Key image. Sorry I don’t have a better and more interesting subject for these, but this is just practice for me to see what works for High Key and what doesn’t, and to get my starting point settings for the next time I want to shoot this type of setup with an actual model. As always, you have to start somewhere, practice makes perfect, yada, yada, yada. Give it a shot and see what you come up with, and I’d love it if you posted them to my Facebook page.

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