Creating a High Key Landscape Using Lightroom in 6 Simple Steps

By Jason Row / March 18, 2015

High key landscapes are often dramatic and emotive images. They typically work best in black and white but can sometimes work well in color using desaturated colors. A high key landscape is always going to work best if it has been shot with that effect in mind. However, with a suitable image, it is possible to get a high key effect using Adobe Lightroom. Before we start, we should take a brief look at exactly what a high key image is.

The aim of a high key image is to have the majority of the tones towards the highlight end of the histogram. High key is not about over exposing an image, it is more about carefully exposing the shot to keep the shadows lighter but preventing the highlight areas from clipping. Any mid tones should be exposed so that they are much lighter than normal. The overall effect is a light, ethereal looking image that retains some definition in the details.

1. Select a Suitable Image

First of all, you need to select your image carefully. If you have not specifically shot an image for high key then look for a shot where the exposure is veering towards the right, over exposed side of the histogram but without the highlights actually clipping. If you have shot a RAW file, you may well be able to recover any clipped highlights but predominantly we are looking for a shot that retains all the exposure information but veers towards being over exposed.

Original
The original veers towards the right of the histogram

2. Convert the Image to Black and White

With our image selected, the first thing we need to do is convert it to black and white. Go to the Lightroom Develop module and from the Basic section select the Black and White tab.

Converted
Converted to Black and White

3. Increase the Exposure

Now we will increase our exposure using the exposure slider. Move the slider to the right, making sure that the highlights remain within the right end of the graph. You can check for clipping by clicking the small triangle on the top right of the histogram. As you slide the exposure slider to the right, any clipped highlights will show in red on the actual image.

As we have increased the exposure, the image will look quite washed out. We can recover some of the details now by boosting the contrast. Move the Contrast slider to the right, taking care not to clip the highlight regions again.

Added Contrast
Both exposure and contrast have been increased here

4. Bring Back Some Definition to the Shadows

The side effect of increasing the exposure is that we have now got quite light looking shadows. The next step is to return some density to those shadows. To do this, we will slide the Blacks slider to the left. We are looking to return some definition to the shadows without any part of them going totally black. You don’t need to push the Black slider all the way to the left of the histogram, the secret is keeping plenty of detail in the shadow areas.

Returning Shadows
Now return some definition to the shadows

5. Reduce Clarity for That Ethereal Look

Next we are going to use the Clarity slider. Often we use this to add definition and punch to an image by sliding it to the right. However, in order to give our landscape that ethereal high key look, we are going to move this slider to the left. As you will see the image becomes less defined, giving a type of softness to the edges. Don’t go too far with this slider as it will just become a blurred mess. I find -20 to -40 will usually suffice.

Because the Clarity slider effects midtone contrast, check that your histogram is still within the limits and make small corrections to the Blacks and Highlights to get the image exactly as you would like.

Reduced Clarity
Reducing clarity gives a more dream-like look

6. Finally, Add Some Sharpening

The last part is to add a small amount of sharpening to the image, being careful not to effect the softness we added using the Clarity tool.

Image- 03
A subtle vignette has been added to enhance the final look

And that's it. As we mentioned at the top, for the best results use an image that has been shot with high key in mind, however, you can use any image that has a reasonable amount of contrast and where the exposure is already veering to the over exposed side. This technique can also work well with urban landscapes and architectural images.


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About the author

Jason Row

Jason has been writing for Light Stalking for over six years now and has 35 years of experience as a professional photographer. He now concentrates on producing travel stock photography and video from around the world. You can find his portfolio here. His work has been featured in numerous publications, both online and in print, as well as for major companies such as Virgin, Etihad, Tripadvisor and Booking.com. Jason has also produced a number of video tutorials for Light Stalking and Photzy. Born in London he now lives in the beautiful city of Odessa, Ukraine.

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