High-Key Nature Photography

March 19, 2017  •  1 Comment

I enjoy producing 'high-key' wildlife portraits, including portraits on white. It's been a style I've been working on since 2011, and is the sister project to my On Black series.

I've written posts about 'low-key' nature photography before:

I was recently asked if I could add to those blog posts with a similar tutorial or introduction to high key nature photography. So here we go...



What is High-Key?


High-key is an aesthetic achieved by exposing to create a bright image, such that some elements of the image may even be pure white. Often there are no pure blacks in the image either, as the tonal range is pushed up towards the lighter end of the scale. 

high-key fine art nature photo of a red deer stagRed Deer - Head On - Centred - On WhitePortrait of a red deer stag, in high-key lighting style.
Placed centrally, staring down the camera lens.

British Wildlife Fine Art Photography, Woburn, Bedfordshire, UK.

high key portrait of a red deer headRed Deer - Angled Portrait On WhiteClose-up portrait of a red deer stag.
Framed to the right of shot. Presented in a style to reflect the traditional high-key portrait.

British Wildlife Fine Art Photography, Woburn, Bedfordshire, UK.
a red deer stag faces the viewer for a high key portraitRed Deer - Portrait On WhiteClose-up portrait of a red deer stag. Framed to the right of shot. Presented in a style to reflect the traditional high-key portrait.
British Wildlife Fine Art Photography, Woburn, Bedfordshire, UK.


Why High-Key?


Like low-key portraits, high-key photography is often used to simplify an image. It can create a more graphic look than conventional photography. It's  also another way of removing context from an image, which I like to do as it leaves room for the viewer to interpret the subject independently. It makes for a great look for wall art, which is the principle target for my photographs. In contrast to low-key images, high-key photography tends to produce more positive and eye-catching results, rather than the dark and moody low-key look. Puffin on WhitePuffin on WhiteAtlantic puffin, photographed high-key.
Black and white nature photography,
Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, UK.


High-key images don't have to be on white though. This is an example of a portrait where I wanted to retain the colour & tone of the sky. But I still wanted a bright image here, so with the high tonal range, and histogram peaking to the right-hand-side, this is still very much a photo in the traditional high-key style.

Puffin PortraitPuffin PortraitAn Atlantic Puffin, in front of a beautiful blue sky, on a summer day in Skomer Island.
High-key fine art wildlife photography, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK.



When to use High-Key


Sometimes I go out with an image in mind, and I try to look for the situation to be able to shoot that image. That was the case with the cow portrait below. I wanted a brightly back-lit subject, where the light would pour in to harshly light one side of the subject. It's a slightly dreamy look, which works very well for portraits of people and animals alike. This image is also split-toned to create the coffee/sepia colour palette. Close-up photo of a cow, from Cambridgeshire farmlandCOWCow portrait, photographed in traditional high-key portrait style.
I really like cows. I think they're very photogenic. I like the eye-contact here, and the graphic quality of the horn, which helps direct the the viewer to and from the eye.


Other times, I encounter a situation which I think would make an interesting graphic image by combining contrasting dark and bright elements. In Finland, I watched the ravens using these dead trees as perches, and I wanted to frame them against the sky - with no ground-level features/context in shot. I'd have liked a nice pink sunset sky to use here, but that wasn't going to happen. It was a grey day, so rather than shoot the scene as it appears to the eye, I decided to over-expose and make the sky almost white. This is a more interesting result for me. I could have pushed the sky to white, but I thought that would be a little to contrasty and simplistic for this image, so I left it a little short of pure white, so that the cloud is just about visible.

Raven & Dead TreesRaven & Dead TreesI like a graphically simple photo, and this is about as simple as it gets. A raven sits atop an old dead tree, watching time pass around them. I chose to use the high-key style here in order to maximise the simplicity of the image, and create a more stark contrast between the subject and it's surroundings.
Fine art wildlife photography, from the edge of the Finnish taiga forest.



How to shoot High-Key Nature Photography


Like my low-key images, I shoot my high-key nature images purely with natural light. This means that I don't always have the conditions required. But here are the situations when it's possible:

  • When the subject is in shade, in front of a background which is strongly sun-lit.
  • When the subject is against a bright/clear sky.
  • When there's snow around/behind the subject.

You'll notice that each of those are essentially different ways of achieving a subject which is darker than it's background.

To get the shot, just expose for the subject, and you'll see that the background is bright/white.

For the roaring deer shot below, the stag was under the shade of a tree, and I used spot-metering mode to expose for the subject. They rarely come out perfectly in-camera like you see here, so there's a certain amount of digital processing required in Lightroom (or similar) in order to create the finished image.

Red Deer RoarRed Deer RoarA roaring red deer, in high-key black and white.
Taken during the
2015 red deer rut.
Fine Art nature photography, Woburn, Bedfordshire.



How to process High-Key Nature Photography


I've written before about why processing is required for all photos, and that's especially true for high-key photos. There are often little bits and bobs in the background which didn't hit pure white in the RAW image, and they'll need tidying up. 

I should mention at this point, that I always shoot in RAW format. If you're not sure what that is, just look it up. If it's not your thing then that's fine, but if you're undecided I'd encourage you to give it a go. You will find you get more data in your image file this way, better image quality, and more scope for post-processing.

I've picked a giraffe photo here, to show the original RAW image, the final image, and discuss my processing choices.


Raw File (Straight out of camera)

Giraffe On White - SOOCGiraffe On White - SOOC"Giraffe On White" photo, straight out of camera, in RAW format.


Final Image

A giraffe photographed close-up in high-key style.Giraffe PortraitA giraffe, posing for a portrait, in bright lighting. A favourite style of mine.

Nature photography, captive subject.



Lightroom processing settingsLightroom processing settingsLightroom processing settings for my giraffe on white portrait. You can see from the histogram that most of the image is in the highlights range, but that shadows are present, and the transition between the two is relatively constant. If there were peaks in the shadows and highlights, with low levels between the two (aka 'bathtub' distribution) the image would be too high-contrast, and harsh. I like to keep a decent amount of grey mid-tones in my images, for a smooth transition between pure white and pure black.

So firstly, I converted to black and white. I had wondered if this might work in colour, but I preferred the black and white version.

I increased the Whites to +100 in order to push the background to a clean white canvas.

I then reduced the exposure until only the background was clipped white (use the triangular highlights button on the histogram to visualise this).

I then needed to reduce the overall contrast of the image, to soften the result, so I set the Highlights (-100) Shadows (+100) and then Contrast (-25). Overall Contrast is a powerful tool, so I tend to use the Highlights and Shadows sliders first, to reduce the need for overall Contrast.

Next I set the Blacks to -48. Basically, reducing them until the histogram shows that I'm getting a small amount of pure black in the darkest shadows.

I used the Clarity slider to give the image a little more punch in the mid-tone contrast. This creates a slightly more detailed, graphic look, rather than a purely natural aesthetic. It's worth mentioning here that for many high-key images, a reduction in the Clarity slider will be more appropriate. But this depends on the image in question.

Lastly, I used an Adjustment Brush to lighten the eyeball, so that the viewer gets that eye-contact, which was in shadow originally.



Before / After


I thought I'd include one more before/after shot, to show an example where the background wasn't originally clean in the RAW file. In this instance, I needed to brush in additional exposure to push the background to pure white. Note though, that this would not have been possible without shooting against a bright sky background. For this on-white look, you have to find a situation where the subject is considerably darker than the background, otherwise it's very hard to separate the two in post. You need to get as much right in-camera as possible. I also reduced the shadows here, as I wanted to retain the dark tones in the feathers of the body.



High-Key Griffon VultureHigh-Key Griffon VultureHigh-Key Griffon Vulture High-Key Vulture photoGriffon Vulture on WhiteGriffon Vulture, photographed in high-key style, on White.
This photo was shortlisted in the Bird Photographer of the Year 2017 competition, and features in the accompanying photo book.





The high-key photography style is a perennial favourite of portrait photographers, and it's something I like to use in my nature portraits. Whether On-White or not, it's an effective tool for creating original, eye-catching photos, which connect with the viewer.

I hope you found this tutorial useful. If so, give it a share on social media, or send it to a friend who'd enjoy it.

If you're not a photographer yourself you've done well to get this far without getting bored, but I hope you enjoyed the photos :-)


Post by George Wheelhouse, 2017.


Charlie Lynam(non-registered)
Hi George, thanks for this very informative and educational post and sharing your technique and knowledge.
It's been really helpful in guiding me through the maze of options that are available to try and achieve a High key effect and provided some excellent results when applied to my images.
Muchas Gracias!
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