Creative Field Techniques - Creating High Key Shots

This image is a composite of several photographs shot one morning on the water. While paddling the canoe, I came across dozens of wading birds feeding in the shallow water. Because of the low water levels, I was only able to position myself in front of the birds with the sun facing me. As a result, the birds were backlit, turning them into shadowy silhouettes. As I attempted some shots, I got an idea to create black silhouettes of birds against white surroundings. Each bird’s form inspired me to take several shots with the intention of combining pieces of them into one image to emphasize the various bird forms. Below is one of the images I took that day that went into the final image you see above.

The first essential ingredient for a shot like this one is strong sunlight in front of you (with the subject between you and the sun). The sun can be angled somewhat and should be relatively high in the sky, but not directly above you because you want to see long reflections on the water. In the morning, 1-3 hours past sunrise works nicely.

The second essential ingredient is to set the camera to overexpose the scene. I find exposing between +1 to +2 stops above neutral exposure to work well. If you overexpose too much, the darker subjects will become less dark and detail will be lost. Basically, you are left with water that looks blue or gray. But that’s OK, you’ll easily fix that with some basic editing, which brings us to the third essential ingredient.

With some simple editing tricks, the goal is to turn the water and sky into bright white negative space and turn the birds into black silhouettes. I use Camera Raw and Photoshop, but the same can apply in Lightroom. I begin this process in Camera Raw. Here is the image before edits. Note the histogram at the top right corner. Most of the pixels are pushed far to the right, the correct result from overexposure.

In Camera Raw, I open the ‘Basics’ panel and simply adjust the Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks, as you see here. Specifically, I slide the highlights and whites all the way to the right, and the shadows and blacks all the way to the left.

Next, I bring the image into Photoshop to complete the editing. With a Curves adjustment layer, I click and drag the top anchor point of the straight diagonal line on the curves chart to the left. This brightens the brightest areas as you see here.

I then create a second Curves adjustment layer and use it to darken the silhouettes by moving the bottom anchor point of the diagonal line to the right as you see here.

Next, I add a black and white adjustment layer to remove the hues left over from the color photograph, leaving only black and white.

Last, I go through the image and “clean it up” by removing any distraction, like a blade of grass or some other out-of-place object sticking out of the water as you see here. I use the healing brush and/or clone tool to remove these distractions.

In addition, I removed the land mass behind the birds. Here is a before and after.

I do all the above for several images and from there, I can take certain birds from one image and copy them into another image to create a composite. I can also move them around to create a composition. I leave that portion of my editing for another blog and video. But for now, appreciate the amazing difference these simple edits can make to an image. And one last consideration or perhaps the fourth essential ingredient for a high key silhouette image and that is attention to composition. I wrote about this important consideration in a previous blog, so please check that out.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about editing in Photoshop, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Feel free to contact me at