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Handling Natural Light: A High Key Portrait with Patterned Shadows

Learning how to read the light is an essential photography skill! In this series of articles on “Handling Natural Light”, we look at how photographers analysed the ambient light to achieve images with beautiful lighting. In this article, Yuya Sugimoto shares how he made the shadow patterns cast onto his model by a fence stand out in a high key image. (Reported by: Yuya Sugimoto, Digital Camera Magazine)

Portrait of lady with shadows of fence on her body

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF135mm f/2L USM/ FL: 135mm/ Manual exposure (f/2, 1/500 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: 3,900K


The story behind the shot

I was out on a walk with my camera one evening when I found a spot where the sun shone through a fence from the side. The light was not too harsh—beautifully diffused, and I decided to shoot a portrait at the same spot with my wife as the model. 

Concept: “Interesting shadows”
To match this theme, I deliberately obscured the model’s facial expressions so that the image would be more abstract.

Lens work: Bokeh to simplify the shot
Using the maximum aperture on a medium telephoto lens threw the elements other than the light and shadows out of focus, which made the main subject stand out.

Composition: Making the shadows look more dynamic
As there wasn’t a lot of colour in the scene, I decided to use the patterns made by the shadow of the fence to create interest. I worked with the model to find a standing position where the shadow patterns were large and loose at her head, but became more tightly-packed further down. This helped to add dynamism to the shadow patterns, which would otherwise have a regular rhythm that could easily look boring.

Even the tiniest movement can cause the shadows to change. Observe the shadows carefully when you decide on your shooting position.


Analysing the light and exposure

Marked diagram showing direction of light

Light direction: Evening side lighting, falling at a diagonal angle from next to the model’s head
(A) White shirt. Blown highlights that I felt were acceptable.
(B) The model’s hair. Need to make sure this isn’t too dark.
(C) The model’s skin. Need to keep the texture smooth, so I decided to adjust the exposure by editing the RAW file.

Reading the histogram: Need to increase exposure while avoiding image noise

Histogram showing increasing pixels towards right side

If I exposed the image to reduce the blown highlights in the model’s shoulder and chest in (A), the overall image would become too dark. I decided to make the exposure relatively bright, leaving the highlights in (A) as they were while ensuring that the dark parts in the model’s hair and cheeks, representing by (B), did not have visible image noise.


How (A), (B) and (C) were handled

For (A): Why the blown highlights were acceptable

Step 1: Assessing the shot

 As with every shot, shooting with intent can help you work more effectively: know what you need to do during the shoot, and consider how you will post-process the shot.

When a scene involves such huge contrasts that neither the highlights nor the shadows fit within the camera’s dynamic range, you will have to choose between the clipped shadows and blown highlights. This decision should be based on the final image that you envision.

The shot below was taken at f/2 in Aperture-priority AE mode, and closely approximates the actual brightness of the scene. Achieving a high key image would require manually adjusting my exposure settings (see Step 2), and to determine which settings to use, I took note of the following three key areas:

Same portrait shot with “correct” camera-determined exposure

1) Hair: Must not have crushed shadows. Lost detail here means lost texture.
2) White blouse: The slight blown highlights are acceptable
3) Skin colour: Blown highlights are not acceptable.

Blown highlights in a high key portrait will usually not be too obvious unless they occupy a large space or are in very attention-grabbing areas. Hence, retaining the textures in the shadow areas in the model’s hair was my priority over reducing the slightly blown highlights in the white shirt.

Step 2: Use Manual mode to achieve the desired exposure

I wanted to use the maximum aperture (f/2) to make the background bokeh as creamy as possible. This was very important for creating a soft, airy atmosphere.

Thus, using Manual exposure mode, I controlled the shutter speed to achieve the brighter exposure that I wanted.


For (B): Recover shadow details during post-processing

For best results, the contrast has to be perfectly balanced—not so high that the dark areas stand out too starkly, but also not so low that the entire shot becomes washed out.

I fine-tuned the overall contrast in post-processing so that it matched the beautiful, diffused lighting in the actual scene by:
- Decreasing contrast
- Lifting the shadows

These adjustments will also make the image look brighter. I reached my ideal brightness when I could see each individual strand of hair.

Close up of head and hair (too dark)

Close-up of head and hair (brighter)

In my image editing program, I achieved ideal results at:
- Contrast: -50
- Shadows: +76


For (C): Always pay attention to blown highlights in the skin

In portraiture, it is important to ensure that your subject’s skin tone looks as good as possible. This applies to during the shoot and in post-processing. Blown highlights in the skin can make the subject look washed out or worse, blend into the background, especially in a high-key shot full of highlight areas.

During the shoot

If the scene doesn’t contain much colour, like this one, check that the following parts have no blown highlights:
- Parts that should be in a warm tone: Elbows, cheeks, etc.
- Parts that have strong light shining on them

Otherwise, you lose the critical colour information that they contain.

Understanding Dynamic Range: How to Avoid Unnecessary Blown Highlights

During post-processing

When you lift shadows, pay attention to the skin tone. Make sure that it still looks natural and that your subject doesn’t end up blending in with her surroundings.

Overexposed skin

Overexposed portrait

The subject looks washed out here because of the blown highlights in her elbows.


Want to improve your portrait photography skills? Check out the following tips and tutorials:
5 Portrait Photography Techniques to Take You from Day to Night
Techniques for Posing and Directing Portrait Subjects
3 Tips to Elevate Your Wedding Storytelling (and Why the EOS R Helps)
What’s the Best Shutter Speed for a Hair Toss Portrait?
It's All in the Eyes: A Quick Way to Create Mesmerizing Portraits

Or how about spicing up your portraits with the following fun techniques?
2 Instant Techniques to Liven Up Your Outdoor Portraits
[Flash Technique] Creating a Pop Art-inspired Night Portrait
How to Capture Raindrops to Create Surreal-looking Portraits
How to Create Dreamy, Colourful Portraits with Foreground Bokeh
How to Shoot Creative Night Portraits with the EOS R


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Yuya Sugimoto

Yuya Sugimoto

A passionate portrait, commercial and event photographer, Yuya Sugimoto is particularly skilful in his placement of subjects in spaces. His personal project is “yome-graphy” (wife photography), where his wife is the subject of his photographs. He constantly shares the fun and importance of photographing your loved ones in his television and radio appearances and contributions to photography magazines.