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High Key

When Vancouver-based commercial photographer Victor Valero held a casting call for a shoot in Mexico, he encountered a model who inspired him to embark on a visual journey exploring the intensity of eyes. They have the ability to transform a photograph, as evidenced by these images that are a part of that ongoing series.

To start, Valero found two models who each possessed a very specific contrast between the color of their hair, skin and eyes. This would help him achieve his desired effect: a high-key portrait that would draw viewers’ attention to the eyes. “The eyes can completely change the purpose of an image,” Valero says, “and make a beautiful picture that speaks by itself. I’m looking for colorful or deep-black eyes, and colorful or black hair, as well. Almost any skin tone can work if the eyes and the hair have those characteristics. Ultimately, the difference between a good high-key image and a blown-out overexposure is the quality of the light and how you set up the gear.”


The key to achieving an ideal high-key lighting style that will “fuse” the model with the background is to create a back-to-front key light that wraps around the subject. To do that, Valero positions the model six feet from the background—a wooden panel painted white. To illuminate the background, he uses two Profoto strobe heads with Zoom parabolic reflectors behind the model and out of frame on each side.

Next, he positions two 42×72-inch Westcott Scrim Jim white reflectors about two feet in front of, and on each side of, the model. These fill cards do double duty: bouncing bright background light into the otherwise silhouetted subject and serving as flags to block the bright background from the lens. Shooting into an overexposed white wall is a sure recipe for flare, which will rob the image of contrast and sharpness.

Valero adds two more strobes as fill lights to prevent any unwanted too-dark areas from corrupting the high-key effect. The first is a softbox boomed over the model to fill the top of her head, though he says another white reflector positioned above would work just fine. The second strobe is a Profoto beauty dish positioned a few feet away and approximately 45 degrees from the model’s nose axis.

Ultimately, the difference between a good high-key image and a blown-out overexposure is the quality of the light and how you set up the gear.

The beauty dish might normally be considered a key because it’s focused on the model’s face, but really it’s the bounced background light that acts as the main light. “Another source, like a softbox,” Valero says, “would produce a very different effect. It would be harder to fuse the body with the light that the model is receiving from the back.”

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