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How to Create High-Key Macro Photos With Axial Lighting

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Shooting with high-key lighting creates a photograph with a pleasant, happy mood. It creates a brightly lit subject against a light background that makes your subject look upbeat. However, shooting with high-key lighting requires a few techniques and in this tutorial I’ll show you how to modify your light to create a bright, open picture.

Abundant white and light grey tones characterize high-key lighting. To create the light tones, the subject must be lit more from the front than from the sides or back. The lighting scenario I show here has all the light coming from the front. The light looks as though it is coming from the camera and is referred to as axial lighting.  In this tutorial I will show you how to position a piece of glass to reflect light onto your subject and then take a photo through it. This set-up allows you to light from the front and shoot from the front at the same time.

I use a bellows lens designed for macro photography in this tutorial but any macro lens setup will work equally well. If you would like some help getting set up to shoot close-up images, I recommend reading through this article on macro photo equipment.

First, set up a light background. You can use white mat board, paper, or foam core laid flat on a table. Place your subject on top of the white surface. Then, using your tripod, position your camera above your subject so that it is looking down at it. Keep the back of the camera parallel with the work surface to avoid optical distortions.

1. Set Up the Light

A bright, well-lit photograph starts with a careful lighting setup. For this set up, you will use a single light positioned so that it shines across the subject from the side. Adjust the light stand so that the light is nearly at the same height as the table.  

Setting up the camera and light for a high-key macro image

Look for the light to come straight across the work surface. We will add a flag between the light and the table top after the next step to eliminate the side lighting.

2. Set Up the Glass Reflector

Next, we need to position a piece of glass that will act as a reflector to bounce light down onto the coin. The glass has to be above the subject and below the camera and at a 45 degree angle to reflect the light down onto the subject. I have placed a light stand next to the table and clamped a spring clamp to it support the upper edge of the glass. I found that a box or block placed on the table also worked well to support the glass at the 45 degree angle.

The glass I use here is from a picture frame and is fragile. You can find heavier, more durable glass at home improvement stores or specialty glass shops. There are countless applications for a sheet of glass in a photo studio so it’s a nice item to have on hand. Make certain the the glass is free of dust or fingerprints, especially in the area that you will shoot through. Taping the edges of the glass will protect the glass (and you) from damage during handling.

Setting up the glass reflector and flag for a high-key macro image

With the glass in position, turn on the light. Now we need to place a piece of card to act as a flag to block out the light from the side so that all the light comes from the glass. This flag will help us get that axial light effect. Adjust the flag upward until it looks like the subject is in shadow.  

How do you know that the glass is reflecting the light on to the work surface? Place a coffee mug under the glass and check to see that the bottom of the mug is illuminated. If it is, it means the glass reflects the light into the mug. If not, adjust the angle of the reflector until you see light at the bottom of the mug.

Check the lighting setup by illuminating the bottom of a mug

You have just created your shoot-through reflector.

3. Exposure

To set exposure for the camera, I use the manual mode (M) and a reading from my light meter. I use an incident light meter to help me measure exposure readings. It records how much light is falling on the subject, unlike the meter in a camera which records the light reflected from the subject. A camera’s built-in meter can tricked by all of the white in the background and reflections in the coin and cause you to under-expose your photo.

If you don’t have an incident light meter at your disposal, you can use a gray card and record exposure readings using your camera.

Once everything is in place, you are ready to take your photos.

4. Adjusting the Image in Adobe Photoshop

Now we have to make a couple of basic adjustments in Adobe Photoshop to enhance the light areas that should be prominent in a high-key photo. First we will make an adjustment to the Levels. Find the Adjustment panel and click on the Levels button. This tool will adjust the tones in the image so that the final image looks bright and open. The levels adjustment shows a histogram that has three sliders under it.

We will begin by adjusting the slider for the light areas of the image. It is found on the right side. Take that slider and slide it to the left until it meets the histogram graph. This will brighten the highlight areas of the image.

Next, take the slider found on the left side and slide it to the right until it meets the histogram graph. This will darken the dark tones in the image.

Make the initial levels adjustment in Adobe Photoshop

The third slider lies under the center of the histogram and adjusts the overall brightness of the image. If your image looks too light or dark, try adjusting the center slider slightly left or right until the image looks good overall.

With a high-key image such as this, I like to go back for another round of adjusting. The first round gets me close and the second round gets me exactly where I want to be with a bright, upbeat image that has a few dark tones which provide the essential details about the subject.

Make the final levels adjustment in Adobe Photoshop

That's is it! You just created a high-key, macro photo by using a piece of glass as a shoot-through reflector to create axial lighting. Here is a look at my final images.

The final high-key macro image

Related Tutorials

What about a more dramatic, low-key version?

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