A high key image is one which consists almost entirely of bright tones. This works really well for subjects with white or near-white tones and gives a very bright, airy look. Not every image needs a full range of tones from solid black to brilliant white, and not every image needs the ‘perfect’ histogram. Histograms are there to tell you what’s happening, not what to do.
Here’s an example of an image that will really benefit. It’s a minimalist still life of a plant in a light-toned pot on a white painted shelf against a sunlit cream wall.
The trouble is, it doesn’t look much at the moment because the camera meter has reduced the brightness of these tones because it just sees a lot of light. It doesn’t know any better.
So I’ll open this up in Lightroom’s Develop module to see what can be done.
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1. So what’s the problem?
A glance at the histogram at the top of the tools panel on the right shows what’s going on. All the tones are clustered in the middle part of the histogram. With mid-toned subjects that’s exactly right, but these very bright tones should be clustered at the right end of the histogram, not in the middle.
I’ve got dozens of presets installed but nothing to fix this specifically, so I’ll do it myself… but we will come back to presets shortly.
2. Using the Tone Curve tool
The best tool for fixing this is the Tone Curve tool. I’m using Lightroom Classic, but curves work exactly the same in any other program. You could use this technique in DxO PhotoLab, Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW or Exposure X just as easily.
In Lightroom you have two adjustments – Parametric curves, as shown here, with the tonal range split into Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows. It’s selected on the top toolbar by the button that’s a gray disk with two s-shaped lines through it.
I don’t want that. Instead, I want the regular point curve adjustment, which is the white circle icon alongside.
3. Pushing up the tone curve
The fix is really simple. I just need to add a control point near the lower left corner of the curve and then drag it upwards. The trick is to bend the curve in a smooth arc – but if you drag the control point up too far, the top of the curve will flatten out against the top edge of the scale, and this means you’re starting to clip highlight detail.
4. Saving a new preset
Yes, it was that easy. It still took a few clicks and a bit of curve manipulation, though, so if I like this effect, I can save it as a preset for use on other images. To do this you click the ‘+’ button on the Preset header in the left sidebar and choose ‘Create Preset’.
5. Preset settings
When you create a new preset you need to make sure that you’re applying only those settings you want in the preset, not any others you might also have added while you were editing. For this preset, I need to check the box for ‘Tone Curve’ in the ‘New Develop Preset’ dialog, but make sure everything else is unchecked.
6. Applying your new preset
I’ve called my new preset High Key curve, and now I can get that same high key look with a single click. Here it is applied to another photo I took in the same room just a minute later.
This second shot illustrates a point about histograms and creative effects. This histogram shows that the very brightest tones are being clipped which, a purist would argue, is wrong. However, if I edited this to bring back every scrap of highlight detail, this picture’s atmosphere of lightness would be lost.
Like I said at the start, the histogram is there to tell you what’s going on, not what to do!
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