Why Creating Wildlife Photographs in High Key and Black and White - Part 2

High key and black and white photograph of a lion cub in Kenya.
High key and black and white photograph of a lion cub in Kenya.

The Choice of a Scene for a High Key Photograph

Our experience has shown us that minimalist scenes are best suited to the high key technique.

For example, birds flying in the sky are perfect subjects. Mammals are also suitable if the environment is not too thick.

The essential rule is to choose a background that is not distracting for the eyes of an observer. This means that the background tones must be about the same. For example, avoid a background with very deep shadows. It is better to choose a background with very clear areas; so, post treatment it will easily create a high-key effect. But if this ideal solution is difficult to find, it is better to ensure that the tones are homogeneous.

Once the background has been chosen, it must be overexposed by 1 or 2 EV of light. Just use the light measurement of the housing to perform this calculation. But be careful not to burn it: you must use the histogram to perform this check. We will not enter technical details of light measurement as this is not the purpose of this article. If you use the priority mode at speed, overexpose by changing the aperture. If you use aperture priority mode, overexpose by changing the speed by compensation. In manual mode, you can change one or the other depending on the scene.

The LCD screen should not be used to control the light. Only the histogram is authentic. The screen only allows you to check the framing and composition of the scene. For a high key photograph, most of the histogram should be on the right without touching the right side. If so, you have burned the highlights.

Once the subject and the scene have been chosen, we must study the light. It must have an elevated level so as to erase all the details of the back and preserving those of the photographed subject. It's a real challenge.

Overexposing Does Not Mean Burning the Photo

The purpose of the high key technique is to create a photograph with lots of bright areas and very few shadows. When shooting, you must voluntarily overexpose the photo. A photo overexposed still has details in the highlight areas. A photo is said burned when details disappear in these areas. It is important for a photographer to keep this idea in mind.

The photograph should be clear, almost white with only a few highlights or darker highlights that are highlighted.

High key and black and white photograph of two white spoonbills in Dombes.
High key and black and white photograph of two white spoonbills in Dombes.

The Ideal Scenes for a High Key Photograph

Often for a photograph in high key, the first decor that comes to mind is a snowy one. Indeed, it is an excellent choice because an animal moving on the snow will give a scene with little contrast, with little shadows and clear tones. Just as we said before do not forget to overexpose a little bit the background and make a good measure of light on the animal. With a little bit of post treatment, the snow can still be overexposed to give an unreal and dreamlike effect.

The second privileged setting for this technique are the birds flying in the sky. With a measure of light to properly expose the plumages, the sky can become overexposed very easily. Skies are perfect backgrounds for high key scenes.

But scenes made of sand or savanna are also very good. During the overexposure, you will find details in the sets, but it is not embarrassing. The effect is even artistic. Just remember to have the minimum of contrast.

Post Processing is Essential

As we have described in this article, the development or post processing of a photograph is essential if an artistic approach is chosen. To obtain high key art photography with a lot of impact, development is mandatory.

First, we recommend shooting in RAW mode because it is possible to change the exposure easily. It is much more difficult and more uncertain in JPEG mode.

In addition, the RAW mode allows to adjust the white balance to the development. This is not possible in JPEG.

Most photo development software makes easy to create high key photos. Just increase the exposure without burning the highlights. The histogram in the development software should not touch the right side of the rectangle. You must keep details. A burned photo will not be printed properly because the printer will leave white marks because it cannot apply ink.

After overexposing lightly, just desaturate the colors of the photograph. Then, cool it a little the temperature of the colors.

High key and black and white photograph of mute swans in flight.
High key and black and white photograph of mute swans in flight.

Using Black and White: An Interesting Complement

Black and white is another creative technique in artistic photography. Using it with the high key technique is very interesting. Black and white significantly enhances the photographer's artistic style.

These two techniques produce ethereal and very dreamlike images that provoke the questioning of an observer.

We use this wedding very much in our photographs because it corresponds to the photographs that we like to create.

We insist on this last point because the high key is primarily a technique or a tool for a wildlife photographer. But this tool must serve the vision of the photographer. It's not a fad. It's not because some photographers use it that you must implement it. It must correspond to your state of mind, to your way of being. If this is not the case, you will not make good shots in high key because it will not be your sensitivity.

Try this technique in the field. Print some pictures. Let yourself be carried away by the magic of dreams. If you cannot escape by looking at your photos, forget the high key. It is not for you. You will be more tempted by the low key as we will see in a future article.


The high key black-and-white technique in wildlife photography makes possible to create artistic photographs that have a significant impact. It is suit for ethereal and dreamlike art photography. It is a complex technique that requires a lot of research and practice. It helps to affirm the photographic style of a photographer. For us, it is part of our panoply to create art photographs for our "around the mind" or "around the world" collections.

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