Featured Articles, Techniques

High-Key and Low-Key Images in a Natural Environment

by Steven Blandin | September 28, 2019

© Steven Blandin

Most people will agree to say that wildlife photography does not happen in a controlled environment. Yet, there are ways to position yourself so that you may greatly influence your background’s brightness. Overcast weather will give more opportunities for high-key images, or bright backgrounds. While very sunny conditions might create situations were very dark backgrounds are possible. Quite counter-intuitive, isn’t it?

Vampire Wings © Steven Blandin

The Reddish Egret fishing image above is the illustration of a mid-tone subject properly exposed against an overcast sky reflecting on the still water. Because of the darker ambient light, the overexposure needed to properly light up the bird will lead to a much brighter backdrop. Suddenly, while in reality you are in a low light environment, your image can render a high-key feel. For this to work, you will want to carefully position yourself so to have a clean light color background behind your subject: still water or plain sky will do wonders! Shooting with a long lens will intensify the impression of a vanishing view field as well.

Spoonbill Squawking © Steven Blandin

Another way to create a very bright background, is to photograph a bird in the shade while having a sunny sky. The Roseate Spoonbill above was under the shade of nearby mangrove trees, while the sand behind was fully lit up by the soaring sun. Again, the creation of the brightness comes from the overexposure that you intentionally impose to your camera. By the way, the very same technique can be applied while doing an outdoor family portrait shoot: place everybody in the shade with a bright distant backdrop for stunning effects!

Hunters in White © Steven Blandin

Lately, I have paid very special attention to situations where I might have a white toned subject against a bright background. Those white on white images are trickier to create as the exposure needs to be just right, so not to blow up the highlights on the bird. I find the results to be mind-blowing in a very subtle way. While this does not occur often, the image of the hunting pair of Snowy Egrets above is the manifestation of this endeavor.

Pink Symphony © Steven Blandin

What about creating low key photographs? A bright day with the background in the shade is one of the answers. The effect will be all the more pronounced if you are working on a light toned subject such a white colored bird. The duo of Spoonbills photograph above is a tad bit subtler in its creation. The situation was a slightly overcast sky helping to gently backlit the birds and creating shade from the mangrove trees behind.

In the end, it is the contrast between the light on your subject and the light on the background that helps create dramatic high-key or low-key images in a natural environment. With experience, you may recognize those situations and attempt doing a different type of photography. Your creative mind will soon come up with interesting new setups to try out!

About the Author

Steven Blandin is an award-winning photographer leading bird photography workshops in Florida and Alaska. He was born in the French Caribbean and now lives in Florida with his family. Though he started his career in corporate finance, his wife made him discover the beauty of wildlife photography through an epic African safari in Botswana. Since then, his appetite for nature photography has grown exponentially! Now an accomplished bird photographer, Steven strives to share his passion through the photographic education of other nature enthusiasts. To see more of Steven’s work or to learn more about his bird photography tours, visit www.stevenbirdphotography.com. Follow his blog for more tips and top-notch photography or his work on Instagram @stevenbirdphotography.

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