Step By Step: Taking Beautiful High Key Photos of Flowers
Flowers are a beautiful and popular subject, but taking photos of them outdoors is often a frustrating process. You have to wait until the flowers are in bloom before you can even start, and then you are at the mercy of the light and weather. But there's an easy way to take photos of flowers at any time of the year, no matter where you live – take them indoors, where you can control the light and the background. That's how I took this high key photo of a lily, and in this tutorial I'm going to show you how I did it.
All you need to get started is a light tent, like the one pictured above. The semi-transparent sides diffuse the light so that you can have a softly lit subject (window light is a good light source, or you can use flash).
Light tents are inexpensive to buy and you can use them for a wide range of still life subjects, not just flowers. I got mine from the EOS magazine shop – an ideal source if you live in the UK or Europe (check your local photo suppliers if you live elsewhere).
Other Bits and Pieces
The other things I used were coloured card for the background (several colours so you can change the background colour), a plastic cup with a weight inside it, and some masking tape.
I used a Canon EF 85mm f1.8 lens fitted with a Canon 500D close-up filter to take the photos. The close-up filter got me close enough to the flowers to fill the frame and the fast maximum aperture of the lens let me hand-hold the camera at relatively low ISOs at 1/160 second.
If you don't have a prime lens, or you want to take photos with more depth-of-field, then you can use apertures in the range of f5.6 to f11. You'll either be working at high ISOs (think 3200 plus) or you can use a tripod so that you can use slow shutter speeds.
Alternatively, to get a brighter light source you can take the light tent outside (best when there's no wind) or use a flash as the light source (position it outside the light tent pointing at one of the sides or from the top).
If you have extension tubes or a macro lens you can use them as an alternative to the close-up lens. But be aware that you will experience some light loss with these accessories which means slower shutter speeds and a darker viewfinder image (making it harder to focus).
I prefer close-up lenses for this type of work, because there is no light loss. The 500D close-up lens is a little expensive but it has two elements and the image quality is excellent – you can buy cheaper single element close-up lenses just about anywhere but don't expect them to match the image quality that you get from double element close-up lenses, extension tubes or macro lenses.
Flowers are quite easy to obtain, either from your own garden or from a florist. White flowers are good for high key photos, but you can use any flower that appeals to you for this technique.
Be careful if you are picking flowers in the wild that you are not inadvertently taking rare or endangered species.
The set up is very simple. I set the light tent up on a desk with light coming from two windows, one behind it and another to the right. I taped the flower to the plastic cup and then cut a slit in the cardboard so that I could place it behind the flower. Some more masking tape underneath held the cardboard in place.
This arrangement let take photos from several angles and still get a green background. The join in the cardboard is easy to edit out in Photoshop if it appears in the photo. I could also change the cardboard easily to make a background with a different colour.
What Is a High Key Photo?
This is a high key photo. The tones are bright, the colours are light or pastel rather than saturated, and there are very few shadows and little contrast. The lack of shadows means that there is very little modelling on the subject.
Here is the Lightroom histogram for the photo. The graph sits on the right hand side of the histogram, indicating that there are no dark areas or shadows in the image. This is normal for a high key image.
To create a high key photo, you need a very soft light that lights the subject and background equally. You can't make a high key photo if your background is darker than the subject. The light tent creates exactly the sort of light you need.
Use high key if you want to create a light, ethereal photo. Flowers are a good subject for the high key treatment. Portraits are another.
I used manual exposure as I could see that the white flower would make the camera underexpose the image. I used the camera's histogram to check the exposure, and tweaked the settings until I got a histogram which was as far to the right hand side of the graph as possible without going over it.
This technique is called exposing to the right, and works here because the brightness range of the subject was well within the dynamic range of the camera's sensor (note that exposing to the right only works if you shoot in RAW).
For most of the photos in the series I used a shutter speed of 1/160 second, an aperture of f1.8 (although I did play around with some wider apertures too) and set the ISO to give the correct exposure at these settings. The sun kept going behind the clouds – every time it did that the light levels dropped and I had to increase the ISO to compensate.
I used RAW so that I could fine tune the colour temperature, contrast and exposure at the post-processing stage. It also gave me leeway in case I overexposed the photo – RAW files retain highlight detail that would be lost if you used JPEG.
Manual focus is the easiest way to focus on close-up subjects. I set the focus on the lens to where I wanted it (normally at or near the minimum focusing distance), then moved my body towards the flower until it came into focus.
This technique had the additional benefit of letting me concentrate on the composition – if you use autofocus you have to make sure that the active autofocus point is pointing at the relevant part of the photo, which can throw your framing out.
Don't be afraid of high ISOs. This is a 100 per cent enlargement of a photo from the series taken at ISO 3200. It was taken on an EOS 5D Mark II, which has a good high ISO performance, but you can see that there is virtually no noise. Use the expose to the right technique when you take high key photos and you will see a big improvement in the noise levels at high ISOs, especially if you have an older camera.
Today's RAW processing software is also good enough to remove most chrominance noise (the unpleasant coloured specks you see in noisy photos) leaving an aesthetically pleasing, film grain-like effect. Both Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop are great at this, and so is Digital Photo Professional (Canon's own RAW conversion software supplied with its cameras).
These images didn't need much tweaking in Lightroom, as most of the work was done in the lighting setup and by getting the exposure settings correct.
A slightly cool colour seemed to suit the images so I set White balance to 4850. I liked the low contrast and decided to make it even lower, which I did by setting Blacks to zero and Fill light to 11, then adjusting the Exposure to suit. It's worth noting here that these adjustments were possible because I was shooting in RAW – they are unavailable if you use JPEG.
These settings became the starting point for each image. Lightroom lets you copy the settings you used for one photo and apply it to another (just go to Settings > Copy settings and then Settings > Paste settings when you start editing another photo). Once the basic settings had been applied it was easy to tweak each photo depending on what needed to be done.
I carried out all my editing with the Show Clipping function enabled in case I started to lose highlight detail, which is easy to do with such bright photos (go to View > Show Clipping to do this – any blown highlights will be displayed in red).
Here is a gallery of photos that I took during the session. I got a good series by varying the composition, using several different flowers, and changing the colour of the cardboard in the background.