How to do a high-key portrait

Greetings photo buffs! I have had a little hiatus from my blog, but now I’m back with a little tutorial, namely ‘How to do a high-key portrait’.

This technique should be in every serious photographers bag of tricks, if it aint already, so here is the lay-down:

1) Use a good camera/ lens combination for portraiture. I used the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 85mm 1.8 at F/2.2.

2) Use soft, diffuse light. I shot these photos with natural light in-doors by a west-facing window in the middle of an overcast day in early April. Generally, you want very soft light for this effect, so use plenty large umbrellas/softboxes/diffusers, or north light, or an overcast day, or even shade. You do not want direct light or sun. Also, you want the background to be very bright – these were shot in front of a south-facing window.

3) Use low ISO. While you want to overexpose a tad (‘expose to the right’), use as low an ISO speed you can get away with for ultimate image quality. I shot at ISO 200. I’m applying the actual high-key effect later in Camera RAW, to avoid clipping the highlights in-camera. Your mileage may vary, though, so if you prefer, aim for the overexposed look directly, by dialing in ~ +2 stops of exposure compensation.

4) Use a large aperture. You want to get good seperation from face to background for that 3D effect, but you also want to nail sharpness on eyes. On a shot like this with the 85mm 1.8, f/2.2 was a good compromise.

5) Get at least one eye in focus. Rule of thumb. Eyes will draw the attention first, so make sure you focus on an eye. With portrait lenses and shallow Depth Of Field, often you won’t be able to hold both eyes in focus, particularly if the subject’s face is at an angle, and close to the camera. As long as one eye is in sharp focus, you’re OK. You should only break the sharp-eyes rule for artistic expression. (The first picture in this article actually breaks this rule, but I feel it gets away with it. Sofie was swaying a bit back and forth, so critical focus ended up on her eyebrow, while her eyes falls a bit out of focus, showing just how little DOF there is to work with).

6) Once shot, select your best frames and process expertly. Post processing is what makes a good picture a very good picture. I spared nothing in Camera Raw on these ones. First, I pushed the shots about 2 stops to overexpose them, but kept highlights in check. Then I turned down Saturation by a large amount, and increased the Vibrance by about the same. Those steps will give you this high-key, neutral, soft look. I did some skin spotting with the heal tool in Camera RAW. Finally, I added effects, such as Vignette, Split-toning and Film Grain to give the shots a ‘film-like’ appearance. I added a bit of skin diffusion (duplicate layer, large gaussian blur, Overlay blend mode, low opacity) and monochromatic contrast in Photoshop at the end.

And thats about all there is to it! The rest is up to you. Happy shooting ­čÖé

Random photograph #1

Once in a while I’ll be presenting a photograph and accompanying anecdote here on my blog, for your enjoyment (and hopefully I’ll be getting some critique and questions as well). Most often these will be my own photos – out of copyright concerns.

Mathias Vejerslev. Click to embiggen.

Cruising Copenhagen Harbour in a small wooden boat with a couple of friends. Photo taken after sunset, leaning back over the railing of a rocky boat. Shot as a JPG, this image required quite a bit of photoshop color balancing to come to life. 50mm 1.4 @ 1/125 f/2.8, ISO 800. Photo: Mathias Vejerslev. Click to embiggen.