How to Create Atmospheric, High-key Images Outdoors

Start pushing your creativity with high-key images. Giles Babbidge is here to get you started


The great thing about modern cameras is that they are incredibly accurate. So much so that even someone completely new to photography is now able to get punchy, well-exposed and pleasing results straight out of the box.

That’s all well and good, but the beauty of this craft is that it allows unlimited experimentation and creativity as our confidence and proficiency grow. Once you have mastered the basics, it’s time to spread your wings, and creating high-key pictures is a great place to start.

In this quick guide, I’m going to be telling you what’s involved and how to produce striking results that make the most of this technique.


What is ‘high-key’?


How to Create Atmospheric, High-key Images Outdoors


The high-key method is all about exposure. In a nutshell, the aim is to produce a picture that’s very bright, a style often interpreted as upbeat.

This is achieved either by the use of bright lighting (multiple flash guns, etc.), as in studio portraits set against a white backdrop, or by deliberately overexposing a picture for creative effect. It makes the most of the colours and tones within a scene, and applies equally to portraits, landscapes, still life arrangements or any other subject area that takes your fancy.


What you will need


How to Create Atmospheric, High-key Images Outdoors


The important thing here is that you can take full control of the exposure, overriding what the camera suggests. Remember – the camera wants to give us ‘perfect’ results, but we want to be creative!

So first off, you’ll ideally be shooting in a RAW file format for ultimate flexibility – this will give you more options for getting the most out of those files when tweaking them later.

A DSLR is perfect, but as long as you can adjust aperture and shutter speed in some way, any type of camera is fine. An exposure compensation dial or slider can be found on most cameras, right the way down to lower-spec models, and is a great way to adjust your exposures simply and with the minimum of fuss.


How is it done?


As with all pictures, you could easily produce a high-key result by adjusting the brightness of your images in Photoshop or equivalent software, but the aim here is to get what we want in-camera.

For best results, soft and even lighting is desirable – so shooting on a relatively bright day is perfect. Not too bright though – direct sunlight is not ideal, as it is too contrasty and produces too many shadows.

My preference is to shoot in Aperture Priority mode: I set the lens aperture that I want (enabling me to control depth of field) and leave the camera to pick the corresponding shutter speed.

For hand-held pictures, the slowest shutter speed I use is approximately equivalent to the focal length in use. For example, with a 24mm this would be 1/25 sec, with a 50mm would be 1/60 sec, and so on. Anything below this and you run the risk of camera-shake spoiling the results.

We’re not looking to increase the overall exposure by just a bit, but rather we’re talking about dialling in around three to four stops of extra light.

Say the ‘correct’ indicated exposure was 1/250 sec at f/8. I would set the exposure compensation dial to +3 or +4, giving 1/30 sec or 1/25 sec respectively. The same results could also be reached by setting the camera to manual exposure mode and making the adjustments accordingly.


What to look out for


How to Create Atmospheric, High-key Images Outdoors


Ok, so that’s the technical bit out of the way, but what subjects work well? While it’s true that pretty much any subject will work, some will work better than others.

The order of the day here is to concentrate particularly on tones, colours and textures. So, if you like your wildlife photography, think about going in close on the details of a bird’s plumage. For minimalist landscapes, why not head out on a foggy morning and concentrate on capturing the dawn atmosphere?

For portraits, think about skin tones and how this technique will reduce punchy colours to more gentle pastel shades.


Final thoughts


How to Create Atmospheric, High-key Images Outdoors


Of course, you don’t always have to go to such extremes when pushing your exposures – it’s a matter of experimentation and finding which combinations work best for you. Subtlety is often the key. Here are a couple of other techniques to try adding for effect:

If you want to emphasise the gentle and soft qualities of your images, a great way to do this is to shoot at high ISO; the graininess of the results really lends itself well to the overall feel of an image and can create a real sense of timelessness.

Also, think about converting your pictures to black and white, as this can have a similar effect. Shoot the images in full colour, so that you have the option to work on them later, but think consciously about what a scene would look like if that colour was removed. Taking a more graphic approach –thinking about shapes, tones, etc. – can often be extremely rewarding.


About the Author

Giles Babbidge is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Hampshire. He travels all around the UK and works with a wide range of clients – you can find out more about his day-to-day activities over at his website.


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