Creating High-Key Headshots with One Light

A nice headshot displays professionalism and is representative of your personal and business brand. In fact, next to the Home Page, the About page is the most important page on a small business website. This is why, for certain types of small business owners, it’s critical to have a clean, well-lit, high quality picture of themselves. I’ve been wanting to learn how to do high-key portraits, so I took the opportunity to help out a friend, Shanna Rice, who is starting a new massage practice in Downtown Kitchener.

What is High Key vs Low Key Photography?

High-Key and Low-Key refer to the amount of light and contrast in the scene. High-Key photos are brightly lit with very little shadow, giving them a happy and positive feel; Low-Key photos are dark with only certain elements caught by light, making them dramatic.

high key photo example

High-Key Photo Example of My Son Ethan

low key photo example

Low-Key Photo Example of a Percussionist at Fluxible 2015

Creating High-Key Headshots

shot set upThe set-up that worked the best for us was in front of a glass sliding door with a bounce flash off the ceiling. For the shot, I used my Nikon 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens on my Nikon D700 with my Nikon SB800 external flash attached and pointing up and to the right.

For my ISO settings, I went with a mid-range ISO in order to flood the scene with ambient light and overexpose everything outside the window; however, I had to keep the ISO low enough to retain quality. A lower ISO would retain more outdoor detail, which was the opposite of what I needed; a higher ISO would start to negatively the detail on Shanna). I set my ISO to 1600.

For my shutter speed settings, I followed the ‘Reciprocal Rule‘ with my 85mm lens. The Reciprocal Rule states that if you’re hand holding your camera, your shutter speed should be no less than the reciprocal of your effective focal length to avoid camera shake and blurriness (i.e. you should shoot no less than 1/50th using your 50mm, no less than 1/400th using your 400mm, etc.). I set my shutter speed to 1/80th.

My aperture was set to f/2.0 to allow for my ISO to be where I needed it and my shutter speed to be fast enough. Admittedly, I lost some detail at the back of her left shoulder and some hair strands. To do it again, I would have lowered my aperture to f/4 and raised my ISO.

Post Editing with Adobe Lightroom

The headshots needed very little in the way of editing. Shanna’s smile glowed and the only thing I needed to adjust was to over-expose the window even more. You can see in the original below that the red brick house came through slightly. I used the Adjustment Brush at +4ev to make the background 100% white. I also added some Luminance to reduce ISO noise and smooth Shanna’s skin. Finally, I had to use the Replacement Brush to get rid of some of my dog’s hair on Shanna’s shirt.

high key headshot no flash

No Flash

high key headshot 5 flash unedited

Flash – Unedited

high key headshot lightroom adjustment brush

Lightroom Adjustment Brush +4ev

Overall, I’m very happy with the way that Shanna’s headshots turned out. Here are the others that we took:

high key headshot final edit 4 high key headshot final edit 3
high key headshot final edit 6 high key headshot final edit 5
high key headshot final edit 2 high key headshot final edit 1