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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – High Key versus Low Key?

In photography, both high key lighting and low key lighting make use of contrast, but in different ways.  The choice of lighting impacts the mood and emotion portrayed in the image.  This has been an area of great consideration for me.

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Figure 1: Sutherst 2017


Figure 2: Sutherst 2017

The images above were shot with high key lighting.  The images have a happy, upbeat and joyful feel to them and look very much like advertisements because of this.  They are bright and have a range of light tones and white is the dominant colour.  There are very few blacks or mid-tones in the images. The tone is even across the image and there is also a lack of shadows in the picture. The shadows cast by the subject have been minimised and suppressed by lighting setup used. The images look flatter as there is less contrast across the image and the lighting setup has thrown soft light across the subjects. The clothing colours worn by the models helps with the overall effect.

The soft lighting can appear to make the subjects look younger as the contrast is reduced and any lines in the skin appear smoother. This type of lighting is usually seen in fashion photography as it is minimal and unnecessary details are not highlighted but are ‘hidden’ by the soft lighting.  The resultant images are clean looking.

I particularly like using high key lighting for my work as my intent is about performance, fun and enjoyment.  I want my images to have a clean, bright feel.  These were both taken in a studio where I was able to control the lighting precisely (3 studio lights were used in each case).


Figure 3: Sutherst 2017


Figure 4: Sutherst 2017

The two images above are shot using low key lighting.  These are more dramatic and convey atmosphere and tension.  The tones in these images are darker and the dominant colour is black.  There is much more contrast in these images than the high key ones.  The wrinkles in the skin are more clearly seen and all details are highlighted by the contrast in the light.

These shots were taken in Venice at night. To shoot these images, I used a single light source of a flash fitted with a honeycomb grid.  This allowed me to light my subject and not the background.  The flash has given a hard light across the subjects and this emphasises the contrast and tonal range across them; true white through to black.  The shadows are also more pronounced.

Whilst they are a good reminder and record of the scenes in front of me, I feel they are less successful in terms of my intent.  The images have a darker mood and feel to them and that is not what I am currently working with.  My current practice has a fashion and performance feel to it, which is better suited to high key lighting.

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