Why Creating Wildlife Photographs in High Key and Black and White - Part 1

The high key technique in black and white makes possible to create creative and interesting photographs. It allows you to make art photos different from common documentary photographs. It is perfectly adapted to wildlife photography if some rules are respected. The high key makes possible to create dreamlike and ethereal artistic photographs.

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 Little Bit 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 light. "High key lighting" means "elevated level of light". This expression is not poetic and does not make dreaming. We find this interesting reflection because the high key is a creative and very evocative technique. It is solely artistic photography.

A Little bit of History

The high key technique makes possible to create photographs that are very clear and that contain almost no areas containing shadows.

This technique appeared with the beginning of television when the scenes with a lot of contrasts were not well 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.

In photography, this technique has been used to create photos that have no shadows. The rendering of the lights is homogeneous.

When you want to make a studio photograph with very little modeling, you use three light sources. By reducing the modeling, we reduce the shadows and therefore the contrasts. There is the main light called "key light", the secondary light called "fill light" and the background light that is called "back light". The expression "high key lighting" came from the fact that for scenes with little modeling, we favor 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 studio. Now it its used in wildlife photography.

It is mainly intended to create artistic or creative photographs. It is not used in documentary photography because the shadows are absent, and the details are faded. The animal documentary photo requires precise, detailed pictures.

Animal photography in high key is a stylistic choice.

Fine art or artistic photography is intended to convey messages or to transmit emotions or feelings. The details of the subjects are not very important. Details of framing and composition are important. The high key is perfectly suited to art photography.

Indeed, this technique allows to create a certain atmosphere in animal photos. They are ethereal or dreamlike. The photographs are more romantic, more vaporous. They allow to escape.

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

A Very Difficult Photographic Technique

Let us not close our eyes to the facts. For us, the production of photographic works in high key is certainly the most difficult to achieve.

As professional wildlife photographers, our art photographs are intended to be printed for art prints that we sell or for exhibitions. But we also use them for books.

The problem with the high key is that the judgment of the result can only be done on paper. On the screen, the rendering is always correct with ethereal or dreamlike scenes. But on paper it's a different story. Overexposed areas do not get ink and they cause a very curious and greyish rendering.

That's why when we develop high key photos, we do a lot of testing with our photo printer. This is where we can see if we still have details 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

All wildlife scenes are not adapted to the high-key technique. The high key in the field is to lighten the midtones and the shadows by overexposing them. Therefore, be ensure that these two tones are not dominant in the scene. If this is the case, you will not be able to get a high key image but rather a low-key image as we will see in another article.

The technique of the high key is not only a question of overexposure of the scene, but it is especially a choice of exposure and light. To create a good high key photograph, always look for the most appropriate light. In general, and this is what you must remember: a low contrast scene will give excellent high key photograph.

By overexposing the photo, you will get a flat scene in terms of contrast and less saturated. What is surprising in this technique is that we obtain the opposite effect of what we are looking for in wildlife photography. Usually, in this kind of pictures, we are looking for contrasted scenes with a lot of details on the animals whether it is on the fur or the plumage or the skins. 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 we have already 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 is also looking for the right light, especially the one that will suit this type of photo. It's a real challenge. Few photographers rub shoulders because the conditions are difficult to meet. Only those who are persevering and want to create photographs that are out of the ordinary will linger there. This is what makes all the charm and interest of this means of expression in wildlife photography.

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