Learn About Key (High Key + Low Key)

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Learn About Key - High Key + Low KeyToday we’re going to learn about key. Specifically, high key and low key, as they relate to photography (since this is part of my ABCs of Photography series). And yes, I couldn’t resist the play on words with a few of these photos, so I included some high key and low key photos of keys. It’s fallout from having grown up with a family that enjoyed puns.

Anyways, back to key. High key and low key are lighting ratios in photography (don’t worry, we’re not going to get technical here), and they have two very different looks. Dictionary.com defines the two terms as follows…

High Key:

(of a photograph) having chiefly light tones, usually with little tonal contrast (distinguished from low-key).

Low Key:

1. of reduced intensity; restrained; understated. 

2. (of a photograph) having chiefly dark tones, usually with little tonal contrast (distinguished from high-key).

To simplify things to the max, high key images are very light, whereas low key images are very dark. A slightly more technical definition would go into the specific ranges of tonal values (remember our learning about grayscale activity?) and how the high key image is made up of mostly light tones, whereas the low key image is made up of mostly dark tones.

We won’t get more technical than that, but know that there are actually specific ratios, or proportions, that are supposed to be used when setting up lights.  But we’re keeping things simple.

So, let’s look at some high key and low key images.  I actually made a printable of these pictures too, so you can have something to print out and discuss with your kids.  The printable also has a few game ideas that you could use as an extension activity!  So, read on for now, and remember to get the printable when you get to the end of the post.

Learn About High Key

High key images are bright, white, and comprised of mostly light tones.  There will likely be some darker areas in the image, but the majority of the picture will be whites and lighter grays.  High key images can be black and white or color — it’s not so much about the hues in the image (remember when we learned about hue?), so much as how light or dark the colors are (remember we simplified this to black and white when we learned about grayscale).

Take a peek at the images below (used with permission from Pixabay.com).  I selected images that were obviously high key, very white, very not contrasty, not much in the way of dark tones.  Some of these have correlating low key images in the next section, you might find it interesting to compare the two! Click on any image to enlarge.

Learn About Low Key

Low key images, on the other hand, are mostly dark tones.  They may have some lighter accents or highlights, but overall things will be not very bright.  Again, images can be black and white or color, it’s not the hue so much as the darkness of the image.  AsI mentioned earlier, I gathered these images with the intent to compare and contrast them.  So we’ll do that in a minute.  Click on any image to enlarge.

High Key vs. Low Key

I won’t go through every image pair, but we might as well do one set, right?  So here are two images of laptop keyboards.  Keyboards are all pretty similar, right?  Nothing special about most… except sometimes you have your choice of color.  This first one is a white keyboard.  Which gives us which kind of image?

That’s right.  High key.

See how the image is mostly light tones – light grays and whites?  There isn’t much in the way of dark, save for the lettering on the keys.

Now for the next image.  It’s another laptop, but this time with black keys.  Which do you suppose this image is?

Yup, low key.

The tones in this photo are mostly dark.  If you look closely, you’ll notice that the lettering on the keys isn’t even white – they are grayish toned.  So there aren’t really any bright white tones in this image, even though we “know” that the lettering on these keys is “white.”

Okay, I’ll leave the rest of the compare and contrast activity to you.  You can use the images here on the post, or download the free printable that has all twelve of these images compiled onto two pages.  I’ve even included three game ideas (hint, they’re really easy, …remember my DIY photo memory game?).

Learn About Key Printable

Now the part you’ve (hopefully) been waiting for, right?  Here’s the printable.  It’s actually three pages long – one introduction page with the game ideas, and two pages of photos.  There are twelve images in total, and I did make sure to include equal numbers of high key and low key photos.

bphotoart-high-key-low-key-printable

Download Learn About Key Printable (PDF)

Do you have any other fun ideas that we could use as extension activities for learning about high key and low key?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.  Also, make sure to check back next week for the next post, where I’ll share an activity for the letter L. You might also enjoy revisiting our last activity where we learned about jaggies.


The ABCs of Photography - An Educational Series for KidsJoin Betsy as she works through the alphabet in this educational series for kids… The ABCs of Photography!  We’ll cover topics from A to Z, with activity ideas for both younger and older kids

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One Response

  1. Laura
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    Love the pictures of the keys – so much fun to compare and contrast for kids! Fun sets of pictures too!

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