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, 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:
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, 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 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 Gull, breeding adult, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/11, ISO 800.
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, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/320s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
Snow Bunting, winter plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/7.1, ISO 800.