How to create a high-key photo

You might not realise it, but high-key photos are everywhere

Ever wonder how photographers get the amazing results you see in professional portraits and glamour shots? Well, to be blunt, they cheat. No one ever said that photography had to accurately reflect reality; photographers commonly tweak lighting, color, saturation, and other factors to get the look they're after. Recently, we laid the groundwork for these sorts of effects by learning how to use layers in Adobe Photoshop Elements. This week, lets build on that technique with some "high key" effects.

What Is High Key?

You might not realise it, but high-key photos are everywhere. You can find a wide assortment of them on, for example, and you'll immediately recognize the effect: Overexposed, nearly bleached photos with a dramatic, if somewhat monochromatic, resonance. High-key photography has the added benefit of smoothing out skin tones and eliminating blemishes, so your portraits appear to have perfect skin.

You can get a high-key effect by using specific lighting and exposure settings, or you can create it afterwards in your favorite photo editor. High-key photos taken in the studio typically require carefully arranged lighting, so we'll use an image editor instead.

Our photo editing trickery will rely on a "key" feature: the Curves tool. Though the latest version of Adobe Photoshop Elements finally includes Curves, it works a bit differently than the Curves tool in most other programs, which makes it challenging to get the effect we're looking for. As a result, I'm going to show you how to do this effect in another favorite program of mine, Corel Paint Shop Pro. You can also do this in any version of Photoshop or many other photo editors, including the free GIMP.

Setting Up Layers

We'll start with a photo like this image of my son. His bright blue eyes are kind of lost in this snapshot, so we'll use layers to isolate the eyes from the "bleaching" effect that we'll perform on the rest of the photo.

Start by opening the program in a photo editor like Paint Shop Pro (remember, you need a Curves tool for this to work) and copy the image into a new layer by choosing Layer, Duplicate from the menu.

Blow It Out

Now it's time for the main effect. Make sure that you select the bottom layer in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen, and then choose Adjust, Brightness and Contrast, Curves from the menu. In the Curves dialog box, click the diagonal curve in the middle and drag it to the left to increase the brightness across the whole image. Click OK.

Because this effect is being applied to the bottom layer, you won't see it in the photo in the workspace, but you should be able to see that the thumbnail in the bottom layer of the Layers Palette has changed.

Preserve the Eyes

Now for the trickiest part of the job: We want to erase everything but the blue of the eyes from the top layer. To do that, click the top layer in the Layers Palette, and then click the Eraser Tool in the toolbar on the left side of the screen (the Eraser is, not surprisingly, shaped like a pencil eraser).

Start erasing. As you go, you'll see the brighter bottom layer start to peek through. You can erase in broad, quick strokes through most of the image, but you'll want to zoom in and erase more carefully in the vicinity of the eyes. You'll also want to vary the size of the eraser as you go, using a bigger brush across most of the canvas, but narrowing the diameter as you do the detail work around the eyes. You can set the Eraser Tool's size from the Tool Options Palette at the top of the screen.

Desaturate the Photo

We're almost done. For the final step, click on the bottom layer and choose Adjust, Hue and Saturation, Hue/Saturation/Lightness. Drag the Saturation slider down to -100. That will drain all the color from your photo, except for the eyes, which you protected in a separate layer. You should end up with something like this.

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