There seems to be a lot of confusion as to exactly what high and low key portraits are and the differences between them. At least, there seems to be whenever I spend some time browsing on social media. A lot of people seem to think that high key means “overexposed” and that low key means “underexposed”. But things couldn’t be further from the truth.
In this video, fashion photographer and educator Lindsay Adler walks us through the process of creating both high and low key beauty portrait looks. She explains exactly what she’s going for with each look, why, and how she’s going to achieve it.
Contrary to the social media myth, both high and low key portraits are well-exposed images. The main difference between them is that one is predominantly light while the other is mostly dark. That does not mean that they’re over or underexposed as they usually still contain the complete tonal range from black to white. The highlights are still the same level of brightness, as are the shadows. There’s just more of a lean towards one way or the other.
Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of the low key look, especially outside of the studio. I like seeing a lot of shadow (with lots of detail in it!) a few highlights to define the shape and bring out specific features, with few midtones to create a more moody, dramatic and mysterious look. But sometimes, you need that bright and cheery high key look, too.
Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, they just provide a different mood and feeling to the image. Which will work for you and your shots really depends on what you want your image to project to the viewer.