How Creating Wildlife Photos in High Key Black and White

Have you ever wanted to create high key photographs? You may have noticed that they are difficult to master because you must preserve details in the dark areas while illuminating the bright areas. It is a difficult challenge to attempt.

In this article, I offer some tips that I use in the creation of my nature photos in high key and black and white.

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.

Why: Choosing the Creative Technique of High Key in Black and White

The high key technique in black and white will allow you to create creative and interesting photographs.

  • It allows you to take art photos different from common illustrative shots.
  • It is perfectly suited to animal photography if certain rules are observed.
  • The high key allows you to create dreamlike and ethereal photographs

A Tidbit of Etymology

Before delving deeper into this article, I think it is important to clarify the meaning of this term.

“High key“ is the contraction of the expression "high-key lighting". Like always, the technical language of a field uses shortcuts and acronyms. Photography, which is primarily a technical discipline, is no exception to this rule.

From 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 encourage dreaming.

However, it fascinates me, because the reflection of the high key lighting technique often ends up being creative and evocative, paving the way to the creation of artistic photographs.

A Tidbit of History

The high key technique can cause photographs to become quite clear with no shadows.

This technique appeared with the dawn of television when some scenes used intense contrasts. This was not masterfully reproduced by all television screens at the time.

To create a scene that was easily reproduced on a screen, the ratio between the main light and the secondary lights was kept to a minimum. 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 you desire to make a studio photograph with little modeling, you use three light sources. By reducing the modeling, you 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 the "key light" is favored.

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 intended to be used in artistic or creative photographs. It is not suited for 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. High key is perfectly suited to art photography.

Indeed, this technique allows you to create an ethereal atmosphere in animal photos, enabling you to escape into contemplation.

However, one must be careful, as not all scenes are suitable for high key. We must select our photos with great care.

An Exceptionally Challenging Photographic Technique

Do not close your eyes to the truth about this incredible technique. For me, the production of photos in high key is certainly the most challenging way to create photos.

As professional wildlife photographer artist, my 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 the quality on paper.

With only the screen, the rendering appears correct for ethereal scenes.

But on paper, it is a different story. Overexposed areas do not get ink and can cause a very curious and greyish rendering.

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

The High Key Principle

Not all wildlife scenes are easily adapted to the high-key technique.

The purpose of using high key in the field is to lighten the mid-tones and shadows with overexposure. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these two tones are not dominant in the scene, so that both are not overexposed.

If this is the case, it will be difficult to achieve a high key image, and instead, a low-key image may be produced. I will discuss the low-key technique in another article.

The high-key technique is not only a question of overexposure within the scene, but it especially concerns the lighting conditions.

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To create a good high key photograph, you 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” to occur, which is an image with low-contrast and low- saturation.

What is surprising when using this technique with art photography is that you obtain the opposite effects of what you desire for wildlife photography.

Usually, in wildlife images, you are looking for contrasted scenes with precise details of the animals’ fur, plumage, or skin.

However, 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. To create a high key photograph, you must respect two conditions:

  • First, you should look for a décor set with potential animals.
  • Second, you should focus on the correct lighting, especially the one that suits a specific photo. It is a true challenge in this field. Few photographers dare to aspire to these conditions because it is difficult to accomplish successfully and gracefully. Only those who dare to persevere will embark on this photographic process. They are fueled by their deep wish to create extraordinary photographs. They will craft charming and captivating expressions of wildlife photography.

Some Examples of Animal Photos in High Key and Black and White

Choosing the Scene for a High Key Photograph


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