What are Keys?

Low Key/High Key

keys photography

What are high key and low key images?   First, let me explain the difference.


A high key image tends to be an image where everything in the image ranges from mid tones to white………high-key


In low key image, everything in the image ranges from mid tone to black…..

low key photo



Midtones only….  (I love the look of only mid tones or a monotone type of image like this because it conveys more emotion in my opinion as you are forced to see expression over anything else.)


When you are composing an image, it is important to make decisions as to what key you are going to want to shoot the image in.  Obviously, using different keys will change a mood… but something you need to be careful of –

What happens when you MIX keys?

Let’s compare the two images below…..

000_1033 000_1033a

Typically, no matter the image, your eyes will travel from light to dark when you are viewing an image.   Pay special attention to what is light in your image as that is where the eye will be drawn to naturally.

This image of a boy and his dog is from my early years (can you believe he now has four brothers and sisters?  I have been thrilled to photograph all FIVE of them as newborns!).  I shot this image and loved it but something really hurt my eyes – it left me uncomfortable to look at.  What is it?  It is…..The shirt.  The shirt ruined the image.

My eye zeros right in on the shirt which is of course, the lightest part of the image.  My eye should go right to the boy’s face if I want my composition to be correct – the viewer should immediately be drawn to the adorable expression, but they aren’t…. my eyes bounce around the image, trying to take it in, but go straight for the shirt and the shirt makes it feel harsh.   I mixed keys. Nooooo!!!!!

A black or grey shirt would have brought focus to the boy’s face, and the clothing would have been secondary.  A portrait is supposed to be about the faces, and I ruined it with the shirt.  I will admit, I do a lot of mixed key images in portraits, but it’s usually because I’m not going to restyle a whole session for an hour-long portrait session – but I will usually make better decisions as to what background I will use based on the clients’ clothes.  However, if I were going to shoot especially for a competition print, there would be absolutely no mixing keys.

Just for a visual, I roughly darkened the t-shirt… your eye is more likely to go to his face now.  Can you feel that difference – the second image is easier on your eyes and will make your eyes go to the child’s face/expression instead of the shirt.

Mixed key doesn’t have to be a bad thing in some instances, just make sure that whatever is the only really dark area of the image or the only light area of the image is the focus that you want all eyes to be on.


To learn more genuine and classic techniques to create award-winning images, check out these Books and E-books….

How to Get Great Images in Camera

Studio Lighting Naturally | Newborns