7 Tips for Taking High-Key and Low-Key Photography on Safari

high-key black and white photography wildlife

High-key and low-key photography is a wonderful way to take your safari photos to the next level.

Imagine being able to dial up the wow factor of your images on a photo trip in just a few easy steps as you shoot. This style of photography will have you doing just that!

We love showcasing big game subjects using these photo styles for the extra dramatic impact they afford. And high and low-key photography is not as complicated as it looks.

Read more: 4 Creative Ways to Improve Your Wildlife Photography

1. What is high-key and low-key

If you’re not very familiar with the terms ‘low-key’ and ‘high-key’ they essentially refer to two bold styles of photography that use exposure manipulation creatively to emphasise, respectively, the darker or paler tones in a picture.

low-key photography

High-key shots rely on deliberately overexposing images to brighten or lighten them for artistic effect, while low-key shots are all about under-exposing subjects creatively for a dark, dramatic impact.

Both styles can result in pictures with elements, or complete backgrounds, that are either pure white or pure black, so they often appear as if shot in a studio with a seamless white or black backdrop. 

A low-key shot, with the darker tones accentuated, gives intensity, drama and mystery to a wildlife picture. 

A high-key image, at the other end of the scale, creates an airy, almost ethereal feel, with lots of elegant white space. 

A low-key image can make space in the frame feel quite constrained while a high-key shot makes the space seem more expansive.

Of course, it’s not ‘conventional’ to portray wildlife subjects in this way – in the past low-key and high-key pictures were generally the stuff of photographic studios, where it was easier to manipulate lighting to create them.

But it’s precisely because they’re that little bit different when used for wildlife subjects that makes them so arresting.

Done well, these sorts of shots can stop viewers in their tracks, demanding and holding attention in a way conventional safari shots might not.

Read more: 7 Advanced Techniques to Improve Your Wildlife Photos

2. Why shoot subjects in high-key and low-key on a safari?

We’re always looking for chances to use these styles because they allow us to frame iconic, much-photographed big game species in a fresh and forceful way.

But there are other, equally compelling reasons for giving these techniques a go when you’re next on safari.

low-key wildlife photography tips

For starters, both approaches are minimalistic. They rely on drastically reducing detail and context in a photograph, paring everything back to the bare bones.

This can help massively on a safari when the challenge is isolating the amazing subjects you encounter from the busy environments they inhabit.

By considerably damping down distracting detail, or eliminating it altogether, a high-key or low-key image neatly solves the problem of background clutter.

With nothing to draw the eye away, a viewer’s attention is focused more keenly on what you want them to see.

It’s not just the bonus of cleaner backgrounds that’s on offer here.

The striking simplicity inherent in both styles stacks things in your favour when designing or framing your shots too. We’re big advocates of keeping wildlife compositions clean and simple, and these two approaches impose this discipline on you.

Another bonus for safari photographers is that these techniques are often best deployed in what could be described as tricky or difficult conditions when it comes to lighting and exposure.

With high-key and low-key skills in your toolkit, you can still come away with great wildlife images in these situations.

lion low-key photography tips

But the best reason for experimenting with high-key and low-key, in our opinion, is that both styles allow for a more expressive, artistic approach to wildlife photography.

Both styles deliver bags of intense mood that you can harness and direct to say something meaningful or emotive about a subject.

A technically ‘on point’ record shot of a leopard or lion is great, but a shot of a leopard or lion that distils the essence of that amazing apex predator… well now we’re talking.

Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography – Getting Creative

3. What are the best situations to try a high-key approach?

Learning what lighting and weather conditions are right for either style is crucial to success. You can’t just rock up to a subject and go for a high-key or low-key take.

Be ready to consider high-key when you’re out on game drives on overcast days when the lighting is flat. Look out for ‘lightbox’ situations – opportunities where you can frame wildlife subjects cleanly against paler, brighter backgrounds – most commonly the sky.

Overexposing for high-key allows you to turn an otherwise boring grey sky into a beautiful white canvas against which your subjects will shine.

high key and low key photography

Perched birds against a grey sky, such as an eagle on the skeletal branches of a dead tree, make a good starting point if you haven’t tried high-key before.

Similarly, a close-up of a giraffe’s head, easily framed against the sky, might be another opportunity to explore its potential.

When the lighting is flat, high-key is a great option for showcasing big game in the wider landscape.

Look for situations where you can frame large mammals standing proud of the horizon or in habitats where backgrounds are pale and even-toned.

Think deserts, the dusty plains of East Africa, dry-season thornbush, or savannah; anywhere where the color palette is bleached out, and there’s little vegetation.

Some of the most evocative high-key shots feature Africa’s iconic species with breathtaking simplicity in landscapes like this.

Don’t limit your selection of backdrops purely to skies and open patches of land; a pale stretch of water works equally well for high-key photography, especially when shooting riverine species like hippos or waterbirds.

hippo photography

Mist is a gift for the treatment, so concentrate the search for potential high-key subjects at the start of your game drive on a misty morning, as the conditions disperse quickly as the day warms up.

High-key can be a great ‘go-to’ on bright days when the light is harsh too. Look for subjects you can shoot against the sun, then overexpose the scene so detail is brought up in the subject but reduced in the background.

High-key is also a neat solution sometimes for those tricky-to-expose situations on safari where you’ve got a great subject resting up in light shade, but with an annoying bright patch behind it.

Read more: High-key Wildlife – How to Create a White Background

4. What are the best situations for taking a low-key approach?

To capture low-key shots, you need to be aware of situations where you can photograph subjects, whether light or dark, against a darker or completely black background.

On safari, this can often be a patch of deep shadow in dense vegetation or even after the sun has gone down.

Situations where you can photograph well-lit subjects against dark shadows occur frequently on a safari and should trigger the ‘low-key’ alert in your head.

For example, it’s not uncommon to find big cats resting on the margins of woodland or patrolling a treeline to exploit the cover it provides.

By making these shots more dramatically dark, even with just a touch of exposure compensation on the minus side, you can immediately enhance your pictures in such scenarios.

You can take low-key shots at any time of day, but shadows will be deeper and more plentiful, and the contrasting light on your subject raking and rich, when the sun is closest to the horizon.

how to take low-key wildlife photographs

For this reason, aim to focus your search for potential low-key situations at the beginning and end of your game drives. This strong, directional lighting will help make low-key subjects shine, quite literally.

The darker you take exposures, the more the dark parts of your subject will be masked. With angled side-lighting, for example, only part of an animal’s face or body will be lit in the darkness.

It’s possible to create stunning, minimalist low-key images by placing subjects directly between yourself and the light source, and photographing them into the light so the subject is rim-lit.

This is best achieved at dawn and dusk when the angle of the light is low and with subjects that have a furry or hairy coat through which the light can permeate.

It can really intrigue and pique a viewer’s imagination to have just the slim outline of your subject traced as a highlight within the frame.

These days, low-key image-making on safari needn’t stop there. In some locations, it’s possible to take your low-key images even further to the dark side.

nighttime safari photography tips

Spotlighting big cats after dark, for example – front-lit and backlit – can result in magnificently moody pictures, providing it’s done judiciously and, above all, ethically.

That’s not all. The recent development of overnight hides on a handful of specialist reserves, lit to allow the photography of nocturnal species without flash, has quite literally been a game-changer in recent years.

Spell-binding low-key shots of amazing nocturnal species, the sort of nighttime shots we could only have dreamed of when we started out, are now not only perfectly possible but also not technically difficult to achieve.

Read more: How to Take Low Key Photos of Small Animals

5. Which species work best in high-key or low-key?

From baboons to buffaloes, and birds to big cats, you can apply a high or low-key approach to any safari subject if conditions are favorable.

Keep in mind that success rests on successfully matching the right subject with the right mood.

In effect, you’re using exposure manipulation like a volume control; dialling up the mood with low-key or toning it down if you go high-key to help you amplify the individual character traits of the subject you want to highlight.

The best subjects for low-key shots tend to be the bigger, more imposing game species, especially where you can get up close.

elephant safari photography

Emphasizing the dark tones with these subjects affords them even more power and presence.

The palpable thrill we experience seeing a massive bull elephant, secretive leopard, or majestic male lion at close quarters translates well in a low-key shot because these creatures look even more awe-inspiring against all that darkness.

High-key, being all about light tones and an airy feel, generally works best for pale or white subjects, young animals, and smaller species. Anything where you want to emphasize innate grace, fragility, vulnerability, or beauty.

A white stork, egret, or spoonbill, for example, all birds with pale or pastel plumage, would be perfect candidates for high-key, as the ethereal photo style will echo the subject’s natural elegance.

egret high-key photo

As we mentioned earlier, you can still photograph big game very successfully in high-key too, especially where they’re kept quite diminutive in the frame to stress the vastness of the wild African landscape.

If you want to try these high-key ‘animalscapes’ on safari it can help to use a telephoto lens, rather than a wide-angle, because the sky is generally lighter near the horizon.

Subjects that tend to be monochromatic to begin with are stand-out candidates for either technique – zebras being an obvious and classic case in point.

6. What’s the best way to expose for these shots in camera?

We believe that our creative and emotional response to a subject is at its strongest at the point of capture, so we like to lock in as much as possible for our high-key and low-key images as we shoot.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to exposing for either technique. Creatively controlling your exposure to favor the lighter or darker tones in any image is down to personal taste and the vision you have for each picture.

We shoot in aperture priority mode, and as a rough rule of thumb, when we’re doing our own high-key shots, we’re generally dialling in around two full stops of positive exposure compensation against what the meter suggests as a starting point, often more.

how to take low-key photography wildlife

With low-key shots, we can be underexposing by at least one full stop, and often significantly more, depending on how much detail we want to suppress. As many as three stops under isn’t unusual.

One of the plus points of low-key is that by dialling in negative exposure compensation to darken the scene, you’ll get more speed as a result; a real boost when photographing on safari in the margins of the light.

We’d recommend taking several shots with incremental degrees of exposure compensation for either approach when you’re starting out; assessing the effect as you go. You’ll soon get a feel for what works best, when.

Top tip: We find mirrorless cameras a real asset when exposing for high and low-key shots because we can instantly see the effect of our changes in the viewfinder.

Read more: What’s the Best Camera for Wildlife Photography?

7. Tips for post-processing these kinds of images

Our best tip for processing high and low-key shots is to get as much of the exposure manipulation done in the camera at the moment of capture. That way, all you’ll need when editing are a few tweaks to bring your image back up.

There are solid practical and aesthetic reasons to get your exposures locked in.

For example, if you photograph in misty conditions without exposure compensation on the plus side and then try to turn the dull greys to white in post, you’ll end up with more noise in your picture.

Similarly, if you don’t underexpose enough in the camera for your low-key shots and end up removing lots of background detail in post, it can end up looking clumsy, obvious, and contrived.

That said, most of our high-key or low-key shots do require some post-processing at the editing stage to bring them out. That’s why it’s important to shoot in RAW so that you have the maximum flexibility to flesh out your vision.

high-key black and white photography wildlife

Before you start any serious editing, try converting the image to black and white. Many high-key and low-key shots work even better in monochrome, so your first choice will be whether to stick with your original color version or convert it.

Next, with both styles, you may need to make a few further tweaks to lighten or darken the picture overall and realize your desired effect, using the exposure and other sliders.

Given that you’ll sometimes be aiming for a white or black background and, therefore, won’t require detail in the light or dark background areas, don’t worry too much if there’s clipping in some shots.

With our own shots, we might then open or darken the shadows in high-key and low-key shots, respectively. We may also use masking in Lightroom to treat background areas and subject content separately.

This is a real boon for processing high-key and low-key shots where you want to darken or lighten distinct parts of the image.

In high-key shots, for example, you might want to bring up more detail and contrast in the subject but take it down in the background. With a low-key shot, you may want to bring out the lighter parts of the subject more while subtly darkening shadow areas.

Read more: 6 Wildlife Photo Editing Tips for Beginners

In conclusion

These two photographic techniques are great companions to have on a safari if you’re looking to create stunning and unique wildlife photographs with high-octane impact.

Manipulating exposure to control the mood in your pictures is fun and extremely rewarding – your portfolio will be enriched, and your imagination liberated. 

Visit Ann and Steve's website

Steve and Ann Toon are award-winning professional photographers with more than 20 years’ experience photographing Africa’s wildlife and wild places. Their work is published extensively across the globe and they have authored a number of books on photography and wildlife. They also lead specialist photographic safaris to a range of leading destinations in southern and east Africa.

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