What is High Key and Low Key Photography?

low_key_flowerHigh Key and Low Key photography make use of lighting and contrast (or lack thereof) to create a specific mood. Originally high key photography emerged as a solution for screens that could not correctly display high contrast ratios. Today capturing high key photos, like low key photos, is a stylistic choice in photography.

When capturing a high key photo, there are a number of factors you need to consider, especially if you are absolutely trying to achieve that classic studio look. For starters, you will have to make sure you have the right equipment for the job, including lighting and a backdrop. You could take advantage of outdoor lighting, but let’s face it – there’s only so much you can control when it comes to the weather. Finally, you will also have to consider camera settings and lighting set up to capture those images. Like high key photos, low key photos are also the product of lighting manipulation and contrast. Though the resources required for capturing low key shots are less extensive – one light source compared to the four required for high key photos for example – it takes just as much skill and patience to achieve.

Deciding which style to choose for your photos all comes down to atmosphere as both are powerful tools for creating certain moods.


With high key photography, multiple powerful sources of lighting are strategically positioned to eliminate harsh shadows from images, giving them a very light and optimistic feel. Components of the image with rich colors stand out and areas with lighter color wash out, almost to a white. High key is an excellent choice for both color and black and white photos.


With low key photography, lighting is reduced in order to produce images characterized by striking contrasts, dark tones, and shadows. Usually, a single source of lighting is used to achieve this composition. As a result, low key images often have a rather dark dramatic quality to them. Like high key, low key is a great choice for both color and black and white photos.

So why not try your hand at creating these beautiful and intense images at home, and then share them in our photo gallery. We’ve also made a script pack for PaintShop Pro just in case you don’t have the lighting equipment on hand. Dramatic transformations are just a few clicks away with our High Key/Low Key scripts!

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  1. Brandon Lazovic says

    Nice post! I talk about this in my latest piece, but I love to shoot using natural light sources at night for my low key photos. The only catch is finding the right extraneous lights, or making sure the night sky isn’t cluttered with clouds so the moonlight illuminates enough of my subject without drastically raising my exposure:


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