Photography Terms Explained: High Key

Welcome to another ‘Photography Terms Explained‘ post. This week I’ll be explaining just what is meant by the phrase ‘High Key’.

High Key means, basically, a photo that is predominantly bright/light – generally with hardly any shadows, and not very contrasty at all (although that’s subjective: a photo can still have quite a bit of contrast and still be classed as high key). Think of a white flower petal lying on a white sheet – that’s high key. But what’s a much better way of explaining just what High Key means? With some photo examples, of course!

An example of High Key photography

'High Key' by GonchoA

high key photography

'High key for #ds' by Rosmary

'#000000 & #FFFFFF' by Moogs


'Zebra - high key' by PedjaP

Have you experimented with taking any high key shots? Let us know in a comment below, orĀ  – even better – why not ‘like’ our page on Facebook, and post one of you shots on our wall? We’d love to see your stuff!


  1. Is High-key achieved with only over-exposure?

  2. You can over-expose to get the high key look, yes, but say you were photographing a white dove against snow – you wouldn’t actually be over-exposing to get the high-key look, it would actually be the correct exposure that would result in the bright, white-dominant – and thus ‘high key’ image. So it kind of depends on how you look at it! :)

  3. Paul Nicholson /

    Strictly speaking, I believe High Key photography by definition involves an especially bright light coming from in front of the primary subject. It is a term borrowed from film and TV production.

    So not just ‘white’, but brightly lit, usually from the front to minimize contrast.

  4. Hi Paul. Thanks for you feedback, but I really think the term is open to people’s own definition of it, really. Lots of photographers class ‘high key’ differently, I don’t think there can be a definite ‘this is high key’, ‘this isn’t high key’ argument – part of the beauty of photography is the subjectiveness of it all, afterall. You definitely don’t need a bright light coming from in front of the primary subject for an image to be high key, either.

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