How I Lit This - High Key Background Portraits

June 24, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


High Key Background Portraits

Ellie J Photography Newborn, Child and Family Photographer Warwickshire

You probably already know this, but the word 'photography' literally means 'drawing with light', coming from the Greek photos (meaning light) and graphe (meaning drawing).  It stands to reason that, as photographers, we must therefore learn how to see and shape light to our advantage to achieve the results we want for our clients and for ourselves. No matter how fancy your camera is and how well you know which button does what, if you don't understand the effect light has on a scene and how to use that light, you will never be able to guarantee the images you want.

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Would you believe me if I told you these two images were shot against the exact same background? In both instances I used a mid-grey paper roll, the only difference between the two being how I positioned my client and setup and used my studio lights.  I've saved a small fortune over the years in background paper thanks to my lovely dad teaching me how to use lighting to create different backdrop effects in the studio.

Today I am going to talk about my high key background lighting setup.  Not to be confused with pure 'high key' photography, in this blog I am talking about the version of high key lighting that I have used over the years which renders my background white, while keeping colour and contrast in my subject.

The term 'high key' refers to an image where the emphasis is placed on lots of white/light tones.  A full on high key portrait will usually have the subject wearing all white, have a light and airy feel to it and will have very little to no dark shadows.  I have always preferred to keep plenty of contrast and 'pop' in my images whilst having a clean white/bright background and I talk below about how I light my subjects to achieve this.

For a session where I want a variety of different background tones (such as the maternity images above) I will use a grey paper background and light to taste.  For sessions where I know only a white background is required, I will use a white paper roll.

Plenty of darker tones in this image!

Traditionally, high key imagery has been used to convey images that are happy and upbeat, which makes sense when you think of all the bright, white backgrounds used in child and family photography over recent years.  High key lighting remains popular for product photography, where companies are of course keen to place emphasis on their product whilst promoting a 'good feeling' through the image to their potential customers.

When bright white backgrounds were at their most popular, the majority of my portrait sessions followed the same three or four light setup.  I must admit that, as a lover of low key imagery, my creative side began to yearn for something a little different after a while.

Like a lot of photography trends, pure white backgrounds eventually became less popular and I am now rarely asked for them (although I have noticed a slight resurgence in popularity for newborn photography recently).  I do still use high key backgrounds for certain shots such as product photography and the promotional material I shoot for the Sons of Pitches.  If you've not heard of this amazing British A-Cappella group you can meet them here.


I shot these little beauties as part of a product photography session.  A high key set up is often used in product photography to isolate the product, remove distractions and promote an upbeat feel for potential customers.

During lock down and while I've been desperately missing work, my lovely personal supermodel (youngest daughter, who is very tolerant!) and I have been re-visiting lighting setups in the studio, including my high key background set up.  I must admit that I did thoroughly enjoy our day in the studio.

Set up.

Set up can be a bit fiddly to start with.  The aim is to produce images with a high key background that are not affected by light spillage which runs the risk of flare.  I am very fortunate to have a long enough studio to ensure that my subject/s are far enough forward (at least three feet) from the backdrop to avoid them being over lit from behind. 

I use three or four lights.  Two of these are on backdrop stands and fitted with a reflector dish and a set of barn door which are crucial in enabling me to control the light.  My key light is a soft box which I will either have at a 45 degree angle or feathered.  For fill, I will either use a silver reflector (for a single subject) or a fourth light with a large umbrella on the opposite side to my key light or directly behind me.

I shoot using Bowens 500w strobes which give me a lot of power in the studio.  Some might argue that 500w is too much power especially as a lot of my work is with newborns however, I would rather have too much light and use diffusion and feathering techniques as needed, than not enough.

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We wrapped my daughter in a very elegant bed sheet for a more high key feel to this image.  I also feathered the key light so she was lit with a softer, more even light and added a slightly creamier finish to the background in post.

Light Settings.

Ideally, I like the background lights to jointly light my backdrop to 1.5 to 2 stops over my key.  If that isn't possible, then I will bring up the background in post process.

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I always photograph the Sons of Pitches' promotional material against white.  With my key light set at F11 (paranoid about crisp images for these guys!) I didn't want my back lights blasting out at F22 and giving us all sunburn, so I used just a one stop difference and brightened in post.

Post Process.

I'm not going to lie, it is very difficult to perfectly light a high key image so that absolutely no post processing is necessary.  Even if the background is perfectly white, you will often find grey spots on the floor around your subject.  The good news is, these are very easy to brighten up in post process.  The only thing to bear in mind is that to avoid a 'suspended in mid-air' look, you need to be careful to ensure that some shadows are still visible in the finished image.

I hope you've found this blog of interest.  Please don't hesitate to get in touch with any questions!


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