High Key Portraits - Tips? Books?
I'm looking for advice and examples of high key portraits on film -- specifically tips for lighting, developing and printing.To give you an idea of the look I'm trying to achieve, I found this blogger who does some nice medium format work on XP2. Unfortunately, she is showing us scans and not prints...
I'd especially be interested in book recommendations. A lot of what I'm seeing here and elsewhere on the web is interesting, but mostly anecdotal and not backed up with examples or by people claiming to have a regular workflow.
High Key portraits involve light subject matter. You should not have to adapt exposure or development. The only change to lighting you might want to make is to independently light a white background and adjust the background lights to overexpose it two stops relative to the main subject exposure to make the background blank white, if that is indeed the tone you wish to have there.
Otherwise, everything technical should be just done normally. Normal exposure. Normal development. You want normal accent dark tones (e.g., like the iris of the eyes) in limited area to be present.
Think of it this way. If you want to photograph a chessboard that has 32 white squares and 32 black squares and you use a normal exposure and development, you will get normal reproduction of white and black squares (assuming you have calibrated your process to give you "normal"). The reflectance of the squares is going to average out to be a middle gray meter reading, and though not technically "middle key" as there are no actual middle gray tones present, for argument sake you'd get the same reading off a gray card which would be a middle key subject. For the discussion though, assume you use an incident meter at the subject position with identical light falling on the subject in the three examples. Following the incident meter reading (or a reflected gray card reading) you will get the proper tonality of white and black squares reproduced if you expose and develop normally.
Now, if you only had 1 black square and 63 whites squares in the same light and gave the same exposure and development as before (and the incident meter reading was the same although a reflected meter reading would be vastly different), you would again get proper tonal reproduction and would have a high key picture because of the predominance of light tones in the subject. The white squares would be white and the black square would be black. But the picture would be high key.
Similarly, if there was only 1 white square and 63 black squares and you gave the same normal exposure and development as in the first two instances, you'd get proper tonal reproduction and end up with a low key picture, again due to the subject matter.
Middle, low & high key portrait examples of the same person:
Last edited by smieglitz; 01-26-2015 at 12:27 AM. Click to view previous post history.
Even if you're viewing prints on a computer monitor, you're viewing scanned prints. It's probably more informative to view the scanned negs, as that's your raw data right there. Your prints are gonna be all over the place, depending on how they were processed, what type of paper and filtration was used, etc. What you see on any image, and what I see, depend on our monitors, and they're all a little different. Some are a lot different. So all we're looking for is a basic idea. I use a Sony Trinitron CRT monitor, my wife has one of those new fangled flat screen thingies. The same images look very different on them.
Those images you linked to should be easy to duplicate if you use decent lighting and similar film and subjects. Who knows what they look like in real life anyway? I'm not crazy about two of the portraits above (because there's no accounting for personal taste) but really like the middle image, even though that's not what you're after. I do a lot of portraits, and one thing that's for real is it's all about your subject. The other stuff is important, but secondary. Give me an old fuzzy grab shot of Sophia Loren over a professional studio shot of Phylis Diller any day. Don't take my comment personally smieglitz, I don't like 99% of my own work.
Want to have some fun? Take a sitter, put them in the same place in the same light, and shoot them w/ the same film and lens by moving around them as you shoot at different angles and slightly different distances. Use at least 2 rolls of film (3 or 4 is ideal), then process them exactly the same way. Every single image will be different, and some won't necessarily even look like the same person! Why? Reality is not fixed, it's ever changing moment by moment, and unless we stop the flow of time w/ a shutter, our eyes and brain are so accustomed to these subtle changes that we tune them out. Right now my CRT monitor is flickering like crazy but I don't see it unless I turn my head to the side. That's the wonderful thing about art. We find out very quickly that once we get us out of the way, and just observe what's in front of us, that none of what we see is really there. It's not at all what it looks like, it's just what it looks like to YOU at that particular instant in time. To ME, it looks somewhat different, and it will look different tomorrow, the next day, etc. This really, really, bothers some people that like things to stay the same way. They will often get very obstructive and disagreeable. Many people on the internet are like this, to one degree or another. It's how differences in perceptions lead to arguments. Our state of mind and memories can greatly alter our perception of visual realty as well.
Last edited by momus; 01-26-2015 at 04:51 AM. Click to view previous post history.
"Insert pithy philosophic statement of your choice here".
Interesting discussion. Thoughts on high key portraiture seem to range from "bring in a blonde dressed in white, overexpose the background, and do everything normally" to "one big light on camera axis, under/over expose, push/pull develop, print at grade 4 or 5." Last night (after I posted) I found an article online from a very old issue of Popular Photography. The photographer demonstrated his ability to make a high key print from any negative (within reason). His technique entailed a lot of dodging of the background, and pulling the print from the developer and continuing developing locally (in the eyes mainly) with cotton and developer.
Smieglitz, I like your third example. How did you light it?
Generous film exposure facilitates high key printing. Desired shadow detail should be above the toe of the film response curve.
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A couple thoughts, more than anything.
You don't have to be limited to a white cloth background. Light backgrounds, even outside, when overexposed work nicely. Sometimes, that means using a higher speed flash for good exposure on the subject to balance it all out.
Don't be afraid to overexpose your background, the trick is the balance.
I may not have expressed it well, but those thoughts have helped me when I've shot high key.
http://archive.org has some good photography books on there that should help you get what you want.
You can get a look such as those examples by shooting on the shadow side of a building, using open sky to light it. I've got a few examples of this look in my Rodeo gallery on my site. This is how Avedon shot his "In the American West" series, and most of his portraits outside of the studio.
Definitely bump up the exposure a 1/2 stop and give extra development. What you want to do is take the flat light and expand it into a greater range of tones. Have fun.
As the OP mentioned XP2, I would comment that it is an advantage for high key, as grain is more noticeable in the highlights and if you don't want grain XP2 doesn't have any.
“The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention”
I have got a similar effect using HP5+. I put a flash behind a white paper backdrop. Then I split grade printed, testing the grade 0 exposure till it showed the faintest of faint exposure on the background. Then test strip grade 5 till the blacks look right. I suspect there are other ways to do this without split grade printing. The key to success was in the lighting exposure, as one would expect.
I developed the HP5 at box speed, which helped too.
I bounced a photoflood into the ceiling. There was some ambient light coming from a small window about 10' away from the subject, but the main illumination was the bounced light from the ceiling.
Originally Posted by bvy