The color of the object illuminated partakes of the color of that which illuminates it.
Leonardo da Vinci
1 – Photographing in a snowstorm – A snowstorm in the northern New Mexico mountains
It took me several minutes to realize I was caught in a serious snowstorm. Going from the low desert to the mountaintop in a few miles does that to you. I took the situation seriously when the truck got sideways, then slid backward in four-wheel drive.
I should have realized that I needed to turn back and head down the mountain. Instead, I parked my truck on the road, took my camera and headed out in the direction of a clump of trees that captured my attention.
Everything in my viewfinder was white except for the trees. White sky over white land with trees playing hide and seek, visible for a few seconds before disappearing again behind blowing snow.
The snow-colored everything white. The trees were the only element that had substance and color, the only thing not white. It was cold, photographing was challenging and the snow made walking treacherous. The drive ahead was uncertain – should I drive on or turn back and get down the mountain? Would the storm get worse ahead or would it clear? Was it worse behind me or ahead of me? Questions filled my mind but the landscape prevented me from giving them my full attention. I was fascinated by the scene that unfolded in front of me, a rare event for someone who lives in a land where snow is a TV event. Trees appeared then disappeared behind waves of blowing snow, creating a minimalist aesthetic in two colors, snow, and trees, white and beige
2 – White is beautiful
White is a color. There is nothing wrong having a pure white area in an image. What stands in the way of doing so is the commonly held belief that there should be detail in every area of the image: shadows, highlights and everywhere in between. This is a belief, not a requirement. Your work can have any look you want and can have details or not wherever you want.
An overexposed image is a purposefully light image. By overexposing the image in the field or during raw conversion the white point is set so high that we have either just a hint of detail or no detail at all in the highlights, the brightest areas of the image. In addition, we can also create a High-key image. In a high-key image, the black point is moved away from pure black so that the darkest tone of the image is closer to medium grey than to pure black.
3 – My Process
Overexposing is not always enough to get the image to look the way I want. To get the image I have in mind I usually overexpose in the field and then set the white and black points precisely in the studio.
Sometimes I don’t know that having an overexposed image is the strongest way of seeing a specific scene. In that case, my point of departure is a capture that was exposed normally, meaning with details in both highlights and shadows. In that instance, I set the black and white points where I want them in the studio. This is no problem with digital captures because you always have the freedom to set the exposure after having captured the image.
4 – High-key images
A High-key image is an image that does not have a true black point. There is a black point in the image of course but it is not a true black, meaning it is not 0, 0, 0. Some consider an image to be high-key if there are no values below 128 (on a 256 point RGB scale, black is 0 and white is 256). I personally find that this definition limits my creativity by reducing the number of possible high-key photographs. For this reason, I prefer to think of a high-key image as having no values below 50 in curves. I consider an image to be high-key if the white point is at 50, 50, 50 or above.
A high-key image can be created in the camera by intentionally overexposing the image or in the studio by adjusting the white point so that it is at 50, 50, 50 or above.
An overexposed image can be a high-key image although it does not have to be. An image can be overexposed without being high-key because it can still contain high tones or whites.
When you create a true high-key image the brightest areas are often printed with no detail. They are paper white, meaning no ink will be laid in these areas by the printer. Only the texture and the shade of the paper you are using will be visible.
5 – High-key images in Lightroom
In Lightroom high-key adjustments are made with both the adjustment sliders and the curves dialog box. Lightroom makes creating a high-key image intuitive because it gives us many ways of adjusting the white and black points in the files. In Lightroom high-key adjustment are made in the Lightroom Develop Module using the exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows and black and white sliders.
This is the Lightroom Tone Curve for this image. The black point is located on the bottom left of the dialog box. As you can see there is no data there. The data starts to the right of the black point, about ¼ along the width of the curve dialog box. The black point number is not indicated but it is about 60 on a 255 points scale. An absolute black point is 0. This means there is no pure black in this image.
This curve is typical of a High-key image and it is comparable to the histograms featured next in the examples on the following pages.
6 – High-key images in Photoshop
In Photoshop high-key adjustments are made by setting the black point with the curves dialog box, either as an adjustment or an adjustment layer. I prefer using the adjustment layer because I can go back to it later on if I want to make adjustments.
1 – Black and white High-key photograph
2 – Color High-key photograph
7 – High-key examples
Here are further examples of a variety of different High-key images. I included the adjustment curve for each image to show where the black point is set. I did this because some of these may not look like High-key images at first sight.
8 – Skill enhancement exercises
Here are the skill enhancement exercises for this essay:
1 – Create a series of black and white High-key images.
2 – Create a series of color High-key images.
9 – What’s next?
This series is a suivre and you do not want to miss the next episode because it will feature new techniques that will help you turn your photographs into art.
10 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
I create artistic photographs and I teach students how to create artistic photographs. To this end, I teach field workshops and classroom seminars with Natalie and I offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, personal style, printing, business and marketing.
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website here. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I am also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography andHow Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website here. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this here.