Tips and tutorials

High Key Photography in Natural light – A Step by Step Guide

Take pictures with white background

In one of my posts, I have explained the technique of low key photography in natural light. In this post, I am going to give you a step by step guide for high key photography in natural light. In layman’s term, it is taking photographs with a white background. High key photography is basically eliminating shadows by letting more light into the camera. So the majority of the tones in the photograph are in the highlight region. This gives the photograph a positive mood and a sense of calmness. You might have noticed high key photography especially in kids’ photographs, model shoots, and product photography. The high key effect highlights the subject well which is why it is widely used in commercial shoots. However, studio lighting setup is usually used for such kind of shots since we can control the artificial light. But that’s not the case with natural light. We cannot control the natural light. High key photography technique in natural light is simple. In this post, I am going to help you to learn this technique.

fishermen high key photography in natural light

Read: How to take low key photos in natural light

The ‘High key’ in high key photography

Before going into the technique, let me explain what does high key mean. It will help you to understand this technique better. Usually, the key tones in any image are the midtones. So, the high key means we are mapping the key tones or midtones to a higher level. I.e. we are brightening the key tones — as simple as that. So, normally, the highlight tones become whiter and the shadow tones are mapped to brighter tones, too.

groups of birds on a tree

This high key photography technique is basically the opposite of the low key photography in natural light. So, all you need to do is to do the opposite of what I mentioned in my post on low key photography. Anyway, below is the step by step guide for high key photography in natural light.

High key photography in natural light technique

Step 1: Find a non-distracting background. That means the background tones should be continuous. For example, the background should not have deep shadow regions. If you can find a background which has more bright tones, then you can easily make a high key photo. However, sometimes, you may not find a background which has only bright tones. There will be some neutral tones or dark tones in the background since we are dealing with natural light. But, do not worry. You can fix them later during post-processing.

Step 2: Overexpose the background. Once you find a suitable background, you need to overexpose it by 1 or 2 stops. But make sure there won’t be any blown-out highlights when you overexpose the scene.

Steps to overexpose the background

Step i: Switch to matrix metering mode and point your camera to the background. You can either use aperture priority or manual mode.

Step ii: If you are using aperture priority mode, after setting the aperture, change the EV value to +1 or +2  (in canon cameras) or -1 or -2 (in Nikon cameras) to overexpose the background.

If you are using manual mode, set your desired aperture; ISO; and shutter speed so that the EV marker blinks at +1 or +2 depending on how much you want to overexpose.

Understand Aperture priority mode:

How to Use Aperture Priority Mode in Your Digital Camera

NOTE: When you overexpose, if the shutter speed is very slow,  you should use a sturdy tripod to prevent blurry shots.

Read: 14 tips to prevent blurry photos

So the idea is to make the bias the exposure to +1EV or higher. There is no standard aperture, shutter speed, or ISO setting in high key photography technique. All you need to do is to evaluate the exposure in such a way that there should be more light getting into the camera.

Step 3: Check the histogram and make sure you got the shot. Don’t let the LCD of your camera fool you. You may not see a proper result when you review the shots in your camera. So, how do you know you got the shot you wanted? Thanks to the histogram. After taking the shot, switch to the histogram view mode to review the shot (Refer your camera’s manual for this). The histogram of a high key photograph shift to the right. This will help you to take high key photograph in the camera itself.

Dell bluetooth headphones


Things you should keep in mind before taking a high key photograph

  • There should not be any blown-out highlights or deep shadows. If it is unavoidable, it can’t be made into a high key photograph.
  • Not every scene can be turned into a high key photograph. You cannot make any scene into a high key photograph by overexposing it. So, you should choose a scene that can be converted into a high key image. How? High key is basically brightening the midtones and shadows. So you should make sure the midtones and dark tones are not dominating the scene. If it does, then overexposing the scene will not make it a high key image. So, high key photography is not just overexposing the shot; it is about the exposure and the lighting. A low contrast scene can be turned into a high key photograph with this technique.
  • Overexpose the shot to +1, +2, and +3 EV.  In this way, you don’t have to rely on any image editing software to fix it. That is, even if you find that you get a high key image when you overexpose it to 1 stop higher than the standard exposure, take shots with +2, +3 EV as well.
  • The final image will be flat, and less saturated. High key images are less saturated and are flat or low contrast. So, don’t panic. This is because in high key photograph, most of the tones are brighter than the midtones (higher than 128 value in the histogram).
  • If you see that the tones are inconsistent, you can fix them later in post-production.

two grey pigeons on a branch high key photography

Final Thoughts 

Some people may not find this a high key photography technique. But this is what you can do in natural light since you can’t control the lighting. This technique is not about just overexposing a scene to make a high key photograph. It’s about finding the light and then overexposing it. Otherwise, I would have told you to take a shot and I hope by this tutorial you know what a high key image is and how to evaluate the natural light for making high key images.

If you want to learn high key photography in studio lighting, check out this tutorial. It will give you some insights on high key lighting in the studio: High key Portrait Photography Tutorial 

If you are interested in learning more about high key lighting, check out this high key lighting Wikipedia page

If you have any queries, please drop them as comments.


Join Us!
Follow by Email
Visit Us
Show More

Vidhu Soman

Hi, I am Vidhu Soman, Editor of Shutterstoppers. I have been doing photography since 2010, and I co-founded shutterstoppers community in 2012. I love photography, writing, travelling, and reading. If you wish to contact me, send a mail using our contact form.

Related Articles


  1. even though shadows add drama to pictures but high key photography is no less of glamour. the balance in the light to keep the shadows at bay but still not making it too bright to kill the beauty of the object is something that asks a lot of practice. after this article, i found this great blog that helped me grasp the concept better: i invite all of you to give it a try!

  2. You remark in your very good High Key article that in Step ii Nikon
    set to -1 or -2 but +1 or +2 in Canon is this because ISO is 200 on Nikon and 100 on Canon?
    Thank you for your attention

  3. Thank you for the helpful information. What would be the steps in post process to lighten the background further. I have image of bird in water. I want the water much lighter. I’d use a layer mask to bring back the bird details. Thank you

  4. Great article…. one of my best takes so far….. I was very lucky to have all natural conditions…

  5. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of great information which can be helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog, looking forward for more content..Great job, keep it up

    1. Hi, Janine.

      I didn’t get your question. Did you mean, how to shoot without overexposing the subject?

      If so, then make sure your subject is not brighter than the background. I guess I should have mentioned this in the post. This method works if the background has either the same brightness as the subject or brighter than the subject. Usually, for backlight subjects, the camera metering exposes for the background which makes the subject dark or silhouette.

      If your subject is brighter than the background (no background lighting), it would over-expose the subject.

  6. Nice article explaining how to shoot high key photos! Both techniques can generate some great results, but I personally prefer low key lighting. I talk about this in my latest article regarding low key lighting, but I prefer the black background associated with low key photography, compared to reducing the amount of contrast when using high key lighting:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
Follow by Email
Visit Us