Why: Creating Wildlife Photographs with the High Key Technique in Black and White - Part 1

The high key technique in black and white makes photographs shine in a uniquely creative perspective for the viewer. It allows photographers to make art photos that stand out from common documentary photos. If the rules are respected, the high key technique is perfectly adapted for wildlife photography, enabling the creation of dreamlike and ethereal artistic photos.

Photograph in high key and black and white of a pied kingfisher flying.
Photograph in high key and black and white of a pied kingfisher flying.

A Tidbit of Etymology

The term “high key“ is the contraction of the expression "high-key lighting". As always, the technical language uses shortcuts and acronyms. Photography that is primarily a technical discipline is no exception to the rule.

In a general and technical context, "high key" means "elevated level". The word "lighting" refers to the atmospheric light conditions. "High key lighting" means "elevated level of light". This expression is not meant to be poetic and does not necessarily cause dreaming. This fascinates us, because the reflection of the high key lighting technique often ends up being creative and evocative, paving the way to the creation of solely artistic photographs.

A Tidbit of History

The high key technique can cause photographs to become very clear with no shadows. This technique appeared with the beginning of television when the scenes involving intense contrasts were not masterfully reproduced by the television screens of the time. To create a scene that was easily visible on a screen, the ratio between the main light and the secondary lights was kept to a minimum. All the exposure of the scene was homogeneous for the viewer.

In photography, this technique has been used to create photos that have no shadows. The rendering of the lights in the composition of the photo is homogeneous. When we desire to make a studio photograph with very little modeling, we use three light sources. By reducing the modeling, we also limit the shadows and contrasts. We refer to the main light as "key light", the secondary light as "fill light", and the background light as "back light". The expression "high key lighting" results from its use in scenes with little modeling where we favored the "key light".

Photograph in high key and black and white of a jackal.
Photograph in high key and black and white of a jackal.

High Key in Wildlife Photography

The high key technique is not only reserved for the creation of portraits in the studio. It is also used in wildlife photography.

The high key technique is mainly intended to be used in artistic or creative photographs, and not in documentary photography where shadows are absent, and details are faded.

Requiring precision, animal photography in high key is a stylistic choice.

Fine art or artistic photography is intended to convey messages or to transmit emotions and feelings. The details of the subjects are less important, as the focus is placed upon the details of framing and composition. The high key is perfectly suited to art photography.

Indeed, this technique allows us to create an ethereal and dreamlike atmosphere in animal photos, enabling us to escape into daydreams.

Not all scenes are suitable for the high key. They must be selected and chosen with care.

An Exceptionally Challenging Photographic Technique

Let us not close our eyes to the facts of utilizing this technique. For us, the production of photos in high key is certainly the most difficult challenge in this part of our process.

As professional wildlife photographers, our art photographs are created as art prints for purchase or for exhibitions. They are also used in books.

The problem with the high key is that the results can only be judged according to its quality on paper. With only the screen, the rendering is always correct with ethereal or dreamlike scenes. But with paper, a different story can be told. Overexposed areas do not get ink and can cause a very curious and greyish rendering.

It is for this reason of quality that when we develop high key photos, we carry out many tests with our photo printer. It is possible then to see if details exist in the clearest areas.

Photograph in high key and black and white of a whiskered tern flying.
Photograph in high key and black and white of a whiskered tern flying.

The High Key Principle

Not all wildlife scenes are easily adapted to the high-key technique. The purpose of the high key in the field is to lighten the mid-tones and shadows by overexposing them. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these two tones are not dominant in the scene. If this is the case, it will be difficult to achieve a high key image, and instead, a low-key image (which we will see in another article) may be produced.

The technique of the high key is not only a question of overexposure within the scene, but it especially concerns the lighting conditions. To create a good high key photograph, one must always look for the most appropriate light. In general, and this is what must be remembered: a low contrast scene will produce excellent high key photographs.

Overexposing a photo cause a “flat scene”, in terms of contrast and little saturation, to be produced. What is surprising when using this technique is that we obtain the opposite effects of what we desire for wildlife photography. Usually, in these kinds of pictures, we are looking for contrasted scenes with precise details concerning the animals’ fur, plumage, or skin. But do not forget that the high key is a creative technique for making artistic photographs. If you want details and contrasts, you must approach documentary photography as it has already been discussed in other articles.

For us, the technique of the high key is extraordinary because it is not only a question of looking for a décor set with potential animals, but it also focuses on the correct lighting, especially the one that will suit a certain photo. It's a real challenge in this field. Few photographers dare to aspire to these conditions because the challenges are difficult to accomplish successfully and gracefully. Only those who dare to persevere with a deep wish to create extraordinary photographs will embark on this photographic process, making this expression in wildlife photography both charming and captivating.

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