Master creating beautiful high key images.

High Key photography is a style typically found in commercial and portrait photos. This method creates an image with a bright white background and little to no shadows present. The final images are creative and project a luminous, airy quality. When capturing flowers in a high-key manner, they almost become translucent. Creating these images does not take a huge studio and light set up.  With a couple simple tools and steps you can create studio like images with beautiful brightness and translucency. Capturing these images does require proper exposure, a balance between the light on the subject and the background. One tool that I have found to create these with success is using a light tracing pad. Using small desktop light pads that artists and students typically use for tracing allows you to capture images with a bright white background and achieve a high-key look from your home. 

Materials Needed: 

To get started, you will need a light tracing pad. I started with a low-cost option, $16.00 on Amazon for my first experiment. If you enjoy creating images with this tool, I recommend a larger light pad; size A2 is a nice upgrade and gives you more space to arrange the flowers and often a brighter light. 

You will need a tripod and some extra fill light depending on the look you want to achieve. Place your light pad on a table, or floor space is a great option. This position allows you to stand with your tripod extended. You will want your camera mounted on the tripod parallel to the ground. I encourage you to set up your camera with a shutter release or set the shutter to a two-second timer to reduce any camera shake. If you cannot covert your tripod to shoot straight down you can try to hand shoot these images. Increasing the ISO setting to 400+ will help with any camera shake. 

The lens choice is completely up to you. I like to shoot these with my macro 105MM, a 35MM, as well as my telephoto 24-80. You can use what works best for your set up and composition. I would not shoot with anything larger than a 100MM as you will get lens distortions. 

Lighting is an important consideration. I like to set up my light pad in front of a window or doorway and shoot on a bright sunny day. But, sometimes, that is not an available option. You can also capture these images with extra added light from a lamp, studio lighting, or use a Speedlight. If you want an actual high key image, you will want to add some light in the front of the light pad or over the light pad; I call this your fill light. Just be sure the fill light is not causing shadows. Move the light around to remove shadows if they show up. If you want a more translucent flower image, try shooting with just the light pad turned on so that you get that “see-thru” effect.  

The fun but challenging part of this project is deciding what to shoot. The key is to find the right flowers or other subjects. Look for options that allow light to come through the flowers; this will bring out more brightness and create that beautiful translucent effect. I recommend bright colored flowers when getting started;  purple, blue, red, magenta, yellow. I like capturing spring flowers, tulips, and irises. Summer, sunflowers, coneflowers, daisies work great. You can also capture dried flowers, fall leaves, botanicals, seeds, or even fruit slices. 

Arranging the flowers is a learning process. Here are a couple of techniques that I like to use. 

1. Start with a single flower to give you practice with your set up and exposing correctly. 

2. Place 4-6  flowers on the light pad like they are growing in the garden, so place the flower stem at the bottom of the light pad as if the flowers are growing up. This arrangement is clean, simple and creates an excellent composition. 

3. Once you have shot 4-6 flowers, I like to do a bouquet method. I hold all the flowers I want to use in one hand a create a bouquet. Then I gently lay the bouquet down on the light pad and softly spread out the flowers. This arrangement makes the look of a freshly created bouquet.  

4. Another method is to create patterns with the subject; circles or other shapes work excellent to display the flowers and petals. 

5.  Filling the light pad with petals, fruit slices, seeds, is a nice option when you are finished with the flowers. I place them randomly around the light pad. 

Camera settings vary based on what you want the outcome to be. I usually prefer for the more extensive arrangements to shoot from F11-F16, offering a larger DOF. You can shoot under F8 if you want a dreamy, ethereal look.  It is best to use the lowest ISO that the camera will allow, unless you are handholding the camera. 

Getting a correct exposure will ensure a beautiful image. Remember that if you expose the image correctly, the background will look grey. Therefore we have to trick the camera and adjust or overexpose the image. I suggest you take three shots, adjusting your exposure compensation each time. Start one stop overexposed, then move to 2 and then to 3 stops. Another way to shoot these is to push your exposure as much as possible until your highlights are almost blown out. If you turn on your camera’s highlight indicator, this will help you see once the highlights begin to blow out. Take a shot at that top level, then move the exposure down a stop, and then down two stops. Either method will give you three images with exposures that you can work with post-processing. 

Editing these images is simple. If you only use lightroom or a similar application, take the best photo and use it to begin your editing. Increase or brighten the whites if needed, alter your white balance, adjust your colors to enhance the subject. If you use Photoshop, I recommend opening your three images as layers in that program. Select all three layers and go to the edit menu, where you can select auto blend layers. Photoshop does a great job of blending your images into one. From that point, you can make additional edits or take the photo back into Lightroom for final tweaks. There are many advanced techniques for editing these types of images. I also encourage you to add a texture, oil paint technique, or use other applications to enhance the photos. As a final touch, I like to use dodge or burn using the paintbrush on the flowers,  selectively adding some pops of brightness, or deepening the image’s dark colors. If you are an experienced Photoshop user try a LAB color inversion for even more creativity. 

Once you get the hang of your setup and get your exposure set, you can use this technique year-round. The options are endless. Capture images from your flower garden this spring, summer’s fruit, seashells, and sunflowers, gather seed pods and leaves in the fall and then capture the beauty of winter branches, pinecones, and fruit.


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