High Key


I recently had a dream where I was walking around a gallery where the large black & white photographs on display were all in “high key”—white subjects on white backgrounds; some grey values but no deep blacks. It’s a technique I found very challenging over the years. My results were very spotty. Working with film was part of the problem because of its limited contrast range and physical constraints. Also, it was not easy to find white subject matter that had aesthetic appeal. And evenly lighting a high intensity white background is always a task. Upon awakening from the dream—and loving what I saw—I realized that I would have greater control of the process by using digital technology. The above image is one of the results. To more fully appreciate the image, I recommend zooming in to make it bigger on your screen.

Fueled by the memory of the images being exhibited in the dream, I  made some attempts at high key and the results were very pleasing. When I thought about using this image for contemplation, nothing about the flower or its geometry suggested a theme. Instead, I kept coming back to the process of how it was made, and I rejected that because this isn’t a blog about photographic technique. As often happens, in the shower this morning I realized that the technique contains some important parallels with respect to everyday living—most notably, moving toward the light.

“Light” in the context of living, generally refers to higher consciousness, increased awareness or spiritual enrichment, but the lessons of high key image making have more to do with the practical matter of constructing ways to move in this direction. First of all, to achieve a high key result—in an image and in everyday living—we need “white” or bright subject matter. Daily we confront—within and without—sights, sounds and thoughts that alternate between the dualities of light and dark, the “bright” and “shadow” aspects of human nature. The flow of positive and negative perceptions and judgments is so commonplace and persistent it doesn’t seem like we have a choice. But we do. With some resolve and discipline, we can choose to move more in the direction of selecting positive, empowering and uplifting perceptions, behaviors and experiences—the equivalent of white objects, the subject matter we want to focus on. As the song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail advises, we can “Always look on the bring side of life!” High key imagery affects a subtle shift toward heightened aesthetic appreciation by displaying a brighter-than-normal representation of the subject matter. But a general shift in perception toward more positive seeing—and being—actually lifts the spirit by feeding the soul. Making this a habit can create an “enlightened” view of the world.

To produce a high key effect in a photograph, it’s not enough to have a white focal point. The subject needs to be situated on or within a predominantly white background that is or can be rendered at least as bright, ideally more so, than the subject matter. We find these environments in the consciousness and behaviors of the people, images and places that lift us up. Of course it’s impossible to avoid “the dark side,” both within and without. We wouldn’t even want to if we could, because the physical universe presents us with dualities—up/down, pain/pleasure, hot/cold, attraction/repulsion. And that is good—it insures karmic fulfillment for the soul and provides learning experiences for evolution. However, by favoring environments that encourage and empower us, our own light grows in intensity. The challenge, of course, is finding the people, images and places that lift us up. Where are they to be found? Generally speaking, I recognize them by their effects—coming away feeling uplifted, encouraged or inspired, feeling better about myself and the world.

The final component needed for a high key photograph is control of the exposure. A white vase sitting on white paper will be rendered gray, unless the exposure is adjusted as well—away from “normal,” in the direction of overexposure. Photographically, this lightens the black and shadow areas. In life, frequent or prolonged exposure to the light of higher consciousness, increased awareness and spirituality is achieved through grace (discussed in a previous posting), reading, reflection and engagement with people whose light shines brightly. Through these and other uplifting experiences, the dark and gray values in life gradually become lifted into the higher tonal range—toward the light.

As noted at the outset, the production of a high key effect is  challenging. Criticism and critical thoughts occur, particularly when socializing or even just people-watching. Experiences that we enjoy and don’t want to give up, for instance certain television programs, pander to our dark side. In order to maintain a social life we accept invitations to be with people who bring us down. We make food and beverage choices based on convenience, taste or habit rather than health, buy things we don’t really need and confirm to social norms rather than risk our creativity or uniqueness being criticized. Although the darks and grays of life occur for good reason—learning—the simple act of taking note of them is illuminating. The more light we shed on the dark side of life, the more we move toward the light of truth, freedom and responsibility. Unlike producing a high key photograph that has a relatively brief shelf-life, the creation and maintenance of high key living—choosing light and affecting a “lightness in being”—endures.

Oh yes, the exhibition of high key photographs in my dream? It was my own.

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton

Title: White Spider Mum

File: DC 10092

For many years I passed by a little florist shop in our neighborhood, often thinking I ought to stop in and see what they might have to photograph. After realizing that white flowers would be appropriate subject matter for my venture into high key, I decided to stop by. And I’m glad I did. They sold me this white spider mum for two dollars and threw in a white rose saying it would be wilting soon. After a week however, both flowers are looking good.

The setup to test and produce my high key images took most of the day dozens of exposures with both flowers. Basically, I set up a white, seamless paper background and lit it with two, 1000W quartz lights. With the flower placed about four feet in front of the background, I made a series of exposures. On purpose, I didn’t light the face of the flowers at all. That allowed me to make long exposures which had the effect of burning out the background so it would be even and bright. The exposures that worked were between three and six seconds with an aperture of f22 to maximize depth of field.

In Lightroom, I boosted the saturation of the mum’s green center, and then used the “lights” slider to further brighten the image overall to attain the misty gray petals. While the image is not a faithful rendering of the flower, the high key effect feeds my soul.


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