Living the High-Key Life

In the art world there are much more elaborate and specific definitions for “high-key”, but for the purpose of wildlife photography I simply refer to it as having a white background.  It is an acquired taste for some, and for others a well made high-key image is highly appealing.  I happen to fall in the latter camp and always enjoy adding such images in my portfolio.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow, Canon 30D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1000s., f/6.3, ISO 800.

Overcast and/or foggy days lend themselves best for easily achieving high-key images.  Simply aim for a subject against the overcast sky, and expose way to the right, even clipping the white background when viewing the histogram.  Using “highlight alert” on my camera, most of my high-key images feature a huge “blinkie” surrounding the subject and perch.  This is fine as the subject is most usually darker than the pure white background and you will want to retain as much detail as possible on it.  Looking at your camera’s viewfinder exposure scale do not be surprised, or alarmed, if the needle hovers towards +3 or even a bit more!  The raw file will look pale and washed out, again this is normal as the file’s midtones and blacks, as well as saturation, will be tamed and improved in post.  Here is a screen capture of a raw file, including the “highlight clipping” turned on for better reference.  Note how far to the right the histogram is pushed, including the blacks:

Downy Woodpecker raw screen capture

The whites of the birch tree and the woodpecker’s belly seem pretty much on the money despite the gross “overexposure” of the file.  Simply moving the “Blacks” slider to the left, to taste, gives the file much needed punch and is almost ready to go with just a few other minor tweaks to finalize it.  This is an easy file to work with…some others will be a little more delicate to tweak, but most high-key images are rather simple by design and thus a snap to prep up.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker, male, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/5.6, ISO 800.

Many, if not most, of my high-key raw files will have a bit of a bluish cast to them.  It is simple to add warmth to the white balance (WB) during raw conversion, or add +2 or +3 points of reds in PS “Color Balance” during tif preparation…or of course, add a custom WB in-camera.  This is more of a workflow personal preference issue so I will let you decide how best to deal with that.

High-key images’ compositions tend to be very simple and basic by nature, with only a subject and perch being featured.  Perhaps a hint of colour in the waves or wavelets if the subject is in water.  If lucky you may have a reflection to add more shapes to the vast whites.  Despite their simplistic nature, these images (if well done) are actually quite visually graphic and captivating, and very artistic.

Red-necked PhalaropeRed-necked Phalarope, juvenile, Canon 7D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/6.3, ISO 800.

Overcast conditions for photographing high-key images usually feature constant light.  Put your camera in manual mode, adjust the exposure, and leave it be while working a subject unless and until you encounter another subject of much different tonality.  The same can be said of winter days while using snow as the backdrop.  Dial it in and leave it in.  Speaking of winter, one of my favorite high-key situations involves white-on-white.

Ring-billed GullRing-billed Gull, breeding adult, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/11, ISO 800.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl, Canon 7D + 100-400L @260mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1250s., f/6.3, ISO 800.

Hopefully next time you peer out the window and see overcast skies take it as an opportunity to create some fun images in high-key.  There is nothing such as bad light…only available light, and one must adapt and take those opportunities to get out-of-the-box…which high-key is to many of us that normally pride ourselves on beautiful lush colourful backgrounds!  Here’s a couple more images to hopefully whet your appetites for clouds, fog, and snow (well, being early spring maybe the snow can wait)  🙂

Blue Jay

Blue Jay, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/320s., f/5.6, ISO 800.

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting, winter plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/7.1, ISO 800.




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  1. Terry Lee May 11, 2016 at 12:45 am #

    I didn’t think about high key images prior to seeing these. The images really look like portraits or even paintings with the white background. The snow bunting, snowy owl and Red-necked Phalarope are my favorites. Thanks for sharing the technique in processing them.

    • Daniel Cadieux May 11, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

      You’re welcome! I am glad you found it informative.

  2. John Roewll May 11, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    Dan, very good post and interestingly timely. Just a couple of days ago, I made a similar post on another forum. I think we’re definitely on the same page with high key photos, you have some excellent examples here. Thanks for sharing.

    • Daniel Cadieux May 11, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

      Thanks John. Not only do these types of images look good…they are also fun to create and process! Glad you enjoy high-key too.

  3. Janet Heintz May 13, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    I love the high-key images, my favorite is the snow buntings.
    They are very artistic. Just beautiful.

    • Daniel Cadieux May 13, 2016 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Janet, thank you! I like that Snow Bunting image too – it really portrays the struggles of winter well.

  4. Jan Hopgood May 13, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

    I just love your photographic work Dan. I also appreciate the time taken to capture the beautiful creatures. Thanks for sharing your pictures and information. Thanks.

  5. David Cowling May 30, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    Hello Dan. I have been an admirer of your work since joining the Birds As Art Forum. I am now enjoying and learning from the the advice and beautiful images on your blog. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    • Daniel Cadieux May 30, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

      Hi David, thank you so much for visiting and for commenting. It is truly appreciated! Glad you like it too 🙂

  6. Nikhil Rao June 2, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    Amazing.. The snowy owl is very very cool.

  7. panificadora July 6, 2017 at 9:27 am #

    Good information. Lucky me I recently found your website by chance
    (stumbleupon). I have book-marked it for later!

  8. Austin Vinar August 28, 2017 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for all the great blog posts Dan. I am finding a lot of inspiration reading your posts. I use the 7D with the 55-250mm STM for most of my work. I find that I can relate to a lot of the situations you describe. And our locally common birds are very similar to the ones you mentioned. (Northern MN) Thanks again!! Keep it up!

    • Daniel Cadieux August 29, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

      Hey Austin, thanks for dropping by! Thank you also for the compliments, they are much appreciated.

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  1. By Black Backgrounds on August 2, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    […] certainly add interest and appeal to any bird photograph.  High-key, which I wrote about here, when well done can offer some added artistic value.  Another type of background, which is not […]

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