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If you've always wanted to shoot high fashion but you don't have access to a studio and strobes, consider yourself lucky. That's right: lucky. Because the best studio is the outdoors, and the best light is sunlight—especially when you use it to create gorgeous high-key, high-fashion portraits. Here's how to harness the sun to add glamour to your people pictures.
Start with a day that isn't dark and dreary. A little bit of overcast sky is okay—in fact, it can help—but a dark, dreary sky just doesn't create the right mood for bright, high-key images. If it's a slightly cloudy sky, you're in luck: the diffused soft light from high above has taken the edge off of the direct sunlight for you, so you can skip ahead to the next step. But if you're faced with a location in bright sun, you've got to make it soft and diffused. You can accomplish this in one of two ways: one, choose an area of open shade (out of direct sunlight but with bright sunlight nearby to fill in the dark shadows under a tree or other shade-making structure) or make your own shade. A large silk (think white bed sheet, but more expensive) is ideal if you have assistants who are ready to lend a hand and hold it. You've probably seen a large silk flying above a shoot if you've ever watched the behind-the-scenes videos from many popular movies. Eliminating harsh, direct sunlight is the first step in almost every type of image-making.
With the edges removed from the sunlight, the next step is to turn your attention to the subject. For high-key images, you're likely to be more pleased with the finished result if most or all of the tones in the frame are also high-key. That means white or light-colored clothing, light backgrounds, and generally nothing too oppressively dark and foreboding infiltrating your frame. Because the goal of high-key lighting on a person is to eliminate distracting and unattractive details, anything particularly busy is also a no-go. So suggest that your subjects minimize bold jewelry and accessories, and stay away from busy patterns in clothing and background options.
Now you're cooking. You've got great soft light and a simplified subject in a simplified setting. The crucial piece of the puzzle is what comes next: the exposure. It's important to overexpose a high-key image in order to blow out unwanted details—such as skin blemishes and pores—without eliminating the details that are crucial to make the photograph work. I find this balance is easier to perfect if I'm starting with RAW image capture; if I make a small mistake I can fix it in post in a snap as if I'd nailed the perfect exposure in camera. And because you're treading such a fine line with high-key images (an exposure that's too "normal" will look plain, while an image too overexposed will look contrasty, amateurish and generally unpleasing) the added control of RAW is ideal. There's no rule of thumb for just how overexposed a high-key image should be, except to say that it should be bright enough to eliminate some detail but not so bright as to eliminate too much of it. Your histogram comes in handy here, and using an ETTR (expose to the right) philosophy is a good start. Keep an eye on the peaks of the histogram and make sure they live toward the right edge of the frame, without shoving them too far to the right (the sign that you've surely eliminated too much detail).
The final step in the high-key puzzle is to perfect the image in post. That RAW processing power I mentioned above will come in really handy here. First, fine-tune the exposure in your favorite RAW processor, then go the extra mile. High-key looks absolutely great in black & white (probably because it further simplifies the image) and it definitely lends a bit of high-fashion cred to the picture. But don't be afraid to keep the images in color. As long as the hues are fairly similar, you're bound to like high-key color results too. Either way, you'll want to wrangle in the contrast range by bringing up the black point to ensure rich, dark tones at the bottom end of the spectrum, and crisp bright whites only in selective areas of highlight. What you really want to ensure is that the image isn't too contrasty (which was largely handled when you shot with a nice, soft light) and that the subtle differences in tones are evident and the image retains detail in all but the extremes of light and dark. Keep in mind that simplicity wins with high-key images, so wield whatever tools you can to keep the image as clean and polished as possible. Next thing you know you'll surely have big-time fashion photographers beating down your door wanting to know your secret. The best part is how democratic this technique is: if you've got sun, you, too, can shoot high-key fashion.