High Key
With Photoshop

High key images - you've probably seen them and maybe even wondered "how the heck do they do that"?

I was wondering the same thing but didn't know what they were called so I had no idea what search term to use.  I figured that they were created with Photoshop but how to achieve that great look was a puzzle.

Once I knew what these compelling and dramatic images were called then there was no problem finding out how to create them from my own images.

This tutorial is dodge intensive - you're going to do a lot of dodging.  The easiest method, of course, is to use a  Wacom tablet, especially when the brush dynamic is set to opacity.

High Key
Background and Sample

There are many, many different methods to create high key images so I had to sift and sort through them all to find the technique I felt produced the best results.

This is the technique that is presented here and it will only work with the full versions of Photoshop.  Photoshop Elements users will find a method that will work for you in the Elements section of this site.

Unfortunately, I have no idea where I found it so I have no idea who to credit for this technique.

This is the image I chose for this technique. Most high key images are applied to portraits and this one is no different. I found the original photograph at Stock Exchange.

This is the kind of image you will be able to easily create after you complete this tutorial.

The end result of the high key technique is really a personal preference. What looks great to me may not be to your liking.

One thing is absolutely true - these images are always dramatic and you'll receive positive comments about your creation.

High Key Steps

  The first thing you need to know is that this is a brush intensive technique that is best done with a Wacom tablet (Intuos or Cintiq).  It can be completed with a mouse but it will be much more difficult than it is with a pen and tablet.

This is a 5 step technique and if you work through each one then you will have a dramatic high key image at the end! 

  Here are the steps ...

  1. Open your image in Photoshop, Duplicate the background layer and convert the background copy to black and white.

  2. Remove as much black as you can while still keeping the important features (eyes, nose, lips).

  3. Keep the eyes nice and sharp.

  4. Dodge, dodge and dodge.

  5. Final adjustments.

Let's get started with this image ...

Step One
Duplicate and Convert

The first step is to creating a high key image is to duplicate the background layer and then convert the new layer to Back and White.  There are any number of ways to do the conversion but I chose Channel Mixer for this image. A gradient Map would probably work nicely as well.

What I did was go to the Channels Palette and looked at each channel in turn (the Red, the Green and the Blue).  I was looking for the channel that had the lightest skin tones and for this image it was the Red Channel.  Yours could be a different channel.

Go back to the layers palette and create a new Channel Mixer adjustment layer, click Monochrome and put 100% in the channel you have chosen and 0 in the other two channels.  For this image Red = 100%, Green = 0% and Blue = 0%. 

This is how the image looks after conversion and it's a nice Black and White.

The skin tones are nice and light now so that takes away some of the work later.

The only problem is that we have three layers and we only want two.  That is easily corrected by selecting the Channel Mixer layer and then Layers > Merge Down - and this is what we have now. 

Now we can work on the black and white image directly in the next step ...

Step Two
Lighten Skin Tones

In this step the skin tones will be further lightened with care taken not to eliminate the important parts - like the lips and nose and eyes and eyebrows.  

Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves to bring up the Curves Dialogue box (you can also use a Curves Adjustment Layer).

This is the adjustment I made on this image and the resulting change in the image. 

This has lightened the image even more with just some shadow detail around the eyes, below the lips and nose and on the cheek.

If you feel really brave then you can do some other things like Brightness/Contrast or Shadows/Highlights.  This is your image, after all!

The next step will keep the eyes nice and sharp ... 

Step Three
Sharpen The Eyes

You really don't need to do this step but it adds a bit to the overall end product.

Here are the steps ... 

  1. Open the History Palette (yes - the History palette).

  2. At the bottom of the palette is a little camera (outlined in red) - click on it and you will see a Snapshot of the present state of the image appear at the top of the palette.

  3. Go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask and set the Amount way high - like 500.  Move the Radius slider all the way to the left and then use the up arrow on your keyboard to increase the radius value.  You will know when to stop because the picture will suddenly pop.

  4. Click OK and then take another Snapshot with the little camera.

  5. The next thing is to take the information from the Unsharp Mask Image and move it to the Curves Image.  

    This is done by clicking the little box to the left of the Unsharp Mask Snapshot (Photoshop puts a little History Brush there) and then highlighting the  other Snapshot (After Curves in this case).

  6. Select the History Brush and carefully brush over the eyes (and any other place you want to Sharpen).

What you will end up with are two really, really sharp eyes with the rest of the image being normal. 

Step 4
Dodge, Dodge, Dodge

This is where you get to use the Dodge Tool - a lot.  The Dodge Tool and the Burn Tool live together with the Sponge Tool - keyboard shortcut  O. 

 The Dodge Tool has three ranges:

  • Highlights
  • Midtones
  • Shadows

and you can also set the exposure anywhere from 1% to 100%.

This step is much easier to complete with a pen and tablet because you can set the brush to change opacity with pressure.  This gives you both Exposure and Opacity changes at one time.

Start by inspecting the background to decide on the Range to use and set your Exposure to about 30%.

You really don't want to remove the background too quickly - it is best to work at it slowly and consistently.

Start at the edge and work around the image slowly into the center, moving closer and closer to the edge of the image as you go.  

You can see from the screen shots that the background is slowly and surely becoming lighter and lighter.  

If you watch the Histogram as you go you will see it moving further to the left as you go. Remember, there is no right or wrong with this technique.  You stop when you are satisfied with the look of your image. 

High Key Original and Histogram
High Key After Curves and Histogram

Original Black and White Histogram

Image and Histogram After Curves

High Key Partially Complete Image and Histogram
High Key Nearly Complete and Histogram

Partially Complete Image and Histogram

Nearing Completion Image and Histogram

Working The Face

A few suggestions and comments about working the face ...

  • You can leave the eyes dark or lighten them to taste.

  • Dodge the eyelids and any lines under the eyes.

  • Make sure any shadows at the edge of the face are dodged.

  • Lower the Exposure when Dodging the face so you don't remove any important shadows.

  • At the bottom of the History Palette to the left of the little camera (Create new snapshot) is another icon - (Create new document from current state).  This is an amazing feature in Photoshop - use it liberally!

  • Use a Wacom Tablet.

The only thing to do now is some fine tuning of the image if you wish ... 

Step Five
Fine Tuning

There are a lot of different things you can do to fine tune the final image.  Cycle through the Filter Gallery and the Filters and try out the different effects.  

Some of the more interesting ones are ... 

Adding Effects
Fine Tuning the High Key Image 

  • Poster Edges in the Artistic Panel (thumbnail)
  • Craquelure in the Texture Panel
  • Grain in the Texture Panel
  • Add Noise
  • Lighting Effects in Render

You can also experiment by changing the Layer Blending Modes, especially Screen to add in a bit of the original color. 

Up to this point the high key technique has been brush intensive and it produces great results.   There is another way to achieve the same results using Advanced Blending and it is really quite neat as well.

You will find it right here ...

High Key Video

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