How to create a High-Key photo in Lightroom 2

A High-Key Portrait shot outdoors and processed in Lightroom.

Lately I’ve been browsing the WEB and have often come across some really nice high-key photos. In an effort to foster up some publicity for the Presetting Lightroom group on Flickr, I decided to produce this tutorial on how to achieve this “look” in Lightroom.

Now, I must admit, I was partially inspired by Matt Kloskowski’s new High Key Effect presets which he recently posted on his blog. If you’re just looking for some good presets, you can download a copy of Matt’s High Key presets by following the link here. If you’d like to see how you can create this effect for yourself then read on …

The biggest challenge in this particular shot, since it was a regular type of outdoors shot, was in minimizing the inherent shadows and dark areas in the photo. Had I set out to produce a high-key kind of shot, my efforts in Lightroom would have been much less challenging. On the flip side, you can use this technique to turn any old ordinary photos into stunning high-key shots.

I’m not releasing my own preset in this article, it’s just This is a tutorial on what sliders and what tools to use in Lightroom, to create this effect. I made some judgment calls along the way to produce this shot and in some cases if you’re looking for a more contrasty effect (seems to be very popular), I will point out the settings to change as we go.

Step by Step Guide to High Key

What follows is a step by step approach to build yourself a high key photo in Lightroom. Follow along if you like, print out the article, but most importantly, explore what Lightroom can do! Lightroom’s editing is non-destructive so you won’t harm your original photo and you can always back up to ANY previous step.

Small Original Photo

This is the original photo with some cropping applied.

Same photo with the basic settings applied
The basic Lightroom settings applied to the photo.

Click on the image to see the settings full size.

And now we can see what the shot looks like with the basic settings applied. You’ll notice that we’re starting to loose some of the background details and the lighter tones in the photo are beginning to wash out – but there’s still an abundant amount of dark areas. These we’ll get rid of as we go.

Same photo now with a new tone curve.
Now with modified Tone Curve settings.

Click on the image to see the settings full size.

Once we apply the tone curve settings (shown on the left) we basically wash out more of the highlights and begin to lighten up the shadow areas. You’ll note that I chose to leave the Point Curve at Medium Contrast. Here you could select “Linear” or “Strong Contrast” and slightly alter the overall effect.

With some white vignette effects applied.
Now with vignetting effects applied.

Click on the image to see the settings full size.

The next logical step is to see how much of the “high key” effect we can achieve with the addition of the vignetting tool. The settings shown here are pretty much the maximum you can pull out of the current vignettes in Lightroom. Some of you may be thinking, “that’s not bad – good effect”, and if you are happy with the look so far, by all means look no further. But there’s still things we can do to enhance the photo. For example, you’ll probably notice that there are still some distracting background elements in the shot. We’ll take care of those next …

No vignette effect and one graduated filter added.
Now with vignette removed and a graduation filter added.

Click on the image to see the full screen shot.

In this shot I’ve turned off the white vignette (switch is highlighted in yellow) so that we can better see the effects of adding a graduated filter. I’ve added one in this screen shot and aligned it with the contour of the face. By adjusting the “spread” of the graduated filter the filter can seamlessly be made to blend in with the face. The only adjustment I’ve added is to the brightness slider – to begin to wash out the background.

Now all the graduated filters added.
Photo with multiple graduation filters added.

Click on the image to see the full screen shot.

Now I’ve added a few more grad filters completing eliminating the background. Each grad filter has more or less brightness added, just enough to eliminate the background. A by-product of this approach to “vignetting” is that we have complete control over each area of the photograph. In the last grad filter, I’ve defocused attention on the hair by making multiple adjustments to this filter (as can be seen in the screen shot).

Tips: When adding grad filters to your photo and they appear to have the wrong orientation, you can flip them using the key. Also, when adjusting the “spread” of the filter, hold down the ALT key to anchor the pin.

Now with some adjustment brush enhancements added.
Photo with some enhancements using the adjustment brush added.

Click on the image to see the full screen shot.

One last thing, let’s not forget the Adjustment Brush! It too plays a valuable role in creating that outstanding masterpiece in Lightroom. Now just for fun, and this step is wholly optional, I’ve added some sparkle to this girl’s eyes and a bit of color to her lips.

The finished high-key photo.

And the final shot! Some will say the additional Lightroom vignette is not required. Of course that’s up to you – if you don’t like it, don’t use it!

I made two additional small adjustments in this final image using the “Spot Removal” tool. I found the folds in the skin and the girl’s sweater (still visible in the lower left of the previous shot) somewhat distracting, so I removed them. Also, there was a small reflection in each eye that made the eyes “look strange”. I also removed them using the spot removal tool. On the small images here you’ll be hard pressed to see a difference but it was there.

But don’t stop there, go ahead and experiment! Nothing you can do will break anything. For those that want a more “contrasty” look, play around with the Exposure and Black sliders and you’ll surely get that effect. If you like this type of article, tell me about it in the comments section below.

Downloads Here

I’ve just added the download of two new presets that are soon to be added to a new master collection. Save yourself some time and download these two (2) new presets that are demonstrated above. Additionally, for those of you that would like to download a copy of this article I’ve created a download link for that as well. Simply click on the large Adobe Acrobat symbol or on the name of the PDF file and you can save this article for future reference.


Download Presets – Focus Beauty High-Key Presets

Collection:  Focus High-Key Presets
Version:  1.0
Updated:  23. February 2009
Size:  1.89 KB
Downloaded:  4,077 times.

Download Article – Creating a High-Key Photo in Lightroom 2

PDF Article:  Creating a High-Key Photo (PDF)
Version:  1.0
Updated:  18. February 2009
Size:  1.47 MB
Downloaded:  4,115 times.

Flickr: Presetting Lightroom Group

Flickr Button

If you’ve read this far then you’re the kind of person who would enjoy a visit to the Presetting Group at Flickr. We want you to come out, share some presets (if you’ve made them) or learn how to make some of your own. There’s a lot of talented people in our group who’d be happy to welcome you.

Did I mention, we’re also hosting our first ever Photo contest. The theme is “dramatic moments in every day life“! While a complete list of prizes hasn’t yet been confirmed, you are invited to exhibit your best shots in the contest post, and who knows, perhaps you’ll win something along the way. If you’re not a member of Flickr, no problem, you can join for free and then submit your favorite photo in our contest. We ask that all participants kindly tag their photos with the following tags – “PresettingLR” and “Contest0209“. Upon the completion of the contest, the photos will be available for viewing in a Flash gallery. So come on out and join the fun!

Large Banner for Presetting Lightroom Presets compilation.
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