Breaking the Rules with High Key Black and White Portraits

August 15, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Sometimes rules are made to be broken. Right? I do it all of the time, but I do it with intent. Shooting portraits is like any other form of photography. It has its rules that you follow to get nice images. One of those rules is to be sure to show separation of the subject from the background, otherwise they seem to blend into it. What I’m going to show you today breaks that rule on purpose.

What follows is something I learned several years ago from watching a video with two great photographers, Larry Peters and Brian Killian. It’s not what they were teaching, but something I stumbled on as I was trying to follow their instructions. It has to do with shooting High Key photography in black and white.

This technique is very easy to do and you can edit it either in Lightroom or Photoshop. I prefer Photoshop, but I am going to show you the Lightroom way since I know the vast majority of you use that as your editing tool.

The first and most important step is to shoot with this intent in mind. You want a white background and the subject should be wearing white. The effect will not be the same, but you could also cut someone out, put them on a white background, and have them not wearing white. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

A key to getting this right is to shoot 1 to 1 1/2 stops over exposed. Sounds crazy but that’s part of the formula. Then, when you bring it into Lightroom take the Highlights slider and move it all the way to the left to -100. See my starting point below after adjusting the Highlights.

 

2 Stops Over Exposed in Camera and Highlights at -100
 

It’s here that you can do a few touchups, but steer away from any tonal changes. I like to sharpen the eyes, slightly sharpen the hair, and add some Dynamic Contrast from OnOne. The last one is not necessary, but it does increase some mid tone contrast and does it better than Clarity.

The next step is to launch into Nik Filters and open Color Efex Pro 4. If you don't have these filters you can still get them free.  That version is not supported any more, but it still works for me most of the time.  Open the Infrared Film filter and select Method 1. Select the value of 30% for all three sliders in the filter and then click on the Save button to return to Lightroom. See below.

Screenshot Nik Infrared Filter
 

Now obviously there is some extra work to be done here.  But, that’s all there is to it!  Of course you can adjust at your hearts content. You may like the sliders better at a different location. It’s all subjective, but this should be a good starting point.

And here is the final product after a little touch up to get rid of the dark band at the bottom and at the corners.

Final High Key with Nik Infrared Filter
 

You can easily see there is no separation from the background, especially where the white clothes meet the white background.  But I think it works. What do you think?

This should take only about 5 minutes and with very little work.

Enjoy!

 

 


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