Why and How 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 Scene for a High Key Photograph

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

For example, birds flying in the sky are perfect subjects. Mammals are also suitable if the background environment is simple and lightweight.

An essential rule to remember when planning to use the high key technique, is to choose a background that is not distracting for the eyes of an observer. This means that the background tones must be monochromatic. For example, one would wish to avoid a background with very deep shadows. It would be better to choose a background with very clear areas. Thus, the post treatment 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 at least somewhat homogeneous.

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

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 to erase all the details of the background and preserve those of the subject. It's a real challenge.

Overexposing Does Not Entitle Burning the Photo

The purpose of the high key technique is to create a photograph with many bright areas and very few shadows. When shooting, one must voluntarily overexpose the photo. An overexposed photo still retains details in the highlighted areas. A photo is 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 emphasized.

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.

Ideal Scenes for a High Key Photograph

For a photograph in high key, the first ideal scene that comes to mind is often a snowy image. Indeed, this is an excellent choice because an animal moving on the snow will create a scene with little contrast, few shadows, and clear tones. One must not forget to overexpose a little of the background and increase a good measure of light on the animal. With a bit of post treatment, the snow can be overexposed to create an unreal, dreamlike effect.

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

Nevertheless, scenes of sand or savanna are also a good choice. During the overexposure, one can find details in the sets that perhaps may have gone unnoticed before. However, this should not be viewed as embarrassing, rather, this effect is even artistic. However, one must simply remember to have the minimum of contrast present.

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 tremendous impact for the viewer, post processing development is mandatory.

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

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

Most photo development software makes the process easier for the photographer to create high key photos. One must simply increase the exposure without burning the highlights. The histogram in the development software should not touch the right side of the rectangle. The details of the photograph must be retained. A burned photo will not be printed properly because the printer will leave white marks where it cannot apply ink.

After lightly overexposing the image, we desaturate the colors of the photograph, and then cool the temperature of the colors slightly.

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 dreamlike images that provoke the questioning of an observer.

We use this combination of high key in black and white often in our photographs because it corresponds to the aesthetic for our photographs that we aspire to create. It is only used in specific situations.

We insist on this last point because the high key is primarily a technique and a tool for a wildlife photographer. This tool must serve the vision of the photographer, but not limit or control it. It is not a fad that will vanish quickly. One photographer does not have to use it just because some other photographer does. The high key technique in black and white must correspond to the photographer’s state of mind, to his or her way of being. If this is not the case, the photographer will find it difficult to create excellent shots in high key because it will not be appropriate or used in the proper way.

Try this technique in the field. Print some pictures. Allow yourself to be carried away by the magic of dreams. If you cannot escape by looking at your own photos, forget the high key technique. 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 it possible to create artistic photographs that have a significant impact on the viewer. It is suitable for ethereal and dreamlike art photography. It is a complex technique that requires vast research and practice. Once it is accomplished, however, it greatly affirms the photographic style of a photographer. For us, it is part of our exhibition to create art photographs for our "around the mind" or "around the world" collections.

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Article published on Friday, May 04, 2018 . Written by
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