Photographing High-Key Winter Wildlife and Landscape Images

Montana Cowgirl and Horses in a Snowstorm © Debbie McCulliss
Montana Cowgirl and Horses in a Snowstorm © Debbie McCulliss

By Debbie McCulliss

As a wildlife and nature photographer who loves winter photography, photographing high-key images is a favorite technique. A high-key photo is one in which the main subject is isolated against a pure (or almost pure) white background. Maybe it’s because of my background in nursing or maybe it’s simply because the color white intrigues me. Regardless of the reason, I believe high-key photos have a unique aesthetic that set them apart from other photography techniques.

High-key photography can be used to communicate artistry or a sense optimism, peacefulness, or tranquility. A high-key image has nothing extraneous or distracting, no details in the background. In their simplicity, high-key images can be dramatic, emotive, or ethereal. The photographer can create an image with intention, while the viewer can interpret the subject independent of its surroundings.

In today’s digital world, high-key photography is often seen in newborn, wedding, beauty and fashion, portrait, or product photography. An external flash or studio lighting is used, and a subject’s form and beauty are clearly visible. It was through experimentation that I discovered that I could create the same eye-catching effects in outdoor winter locations using natural light.

On my trip to Yellowstone this past February, I captured a few high-key wildlife and landscape images. The shooting conditions were ideal with a lot of snow around and behind my subjects and overcast or foggy weather on most days. Minimalism at its best.

Bison on the Road in Snow © Debbie McCulliss
Bison on the Road © Debbie McCulliss

Getting high-key outdoor wildlife shots in winter can be challenging due to weather, variable lighting, and an abundance of reflective snow. To photograph this bison (above), I safely positioned myself so that my subject was isolated and there was no background or foreground detail in my image. I experimented with the white balance settings, but preferred auto white balance, a setting with which I’m more familiar. I exposed manually, slowly, starting from the middle, one f-stop at a time, for more light on my background than on the bison.

In the histograms that follow each image, I have included the original RAW file, an edited NEF (RAW) file that was post-processed in Adobe Lightroom, or an edited TIF file if the image was postprocessed in Photoshop. Noise was reduced in Topaz DeNoise AI, or sharpened in Topaz Sharpen AI.

Typically, a histogram’s tonal range is represented by blacks on the left and whites, or highlights, on the right. There is a gradual transition from left to right of shadows to mid-tones to highlights that provides photographers a picture of the image’s tonal values. In high-key images, instead of a bell-curve histogram, bright tones are dominant. The dynamic range or tonal range (the curve of the histogram) is predominantly toward the right side of the histogram, in the area of highlights. The result oftentimes is a softer more subtle look in the image.

A high-key image is not an overexposed image. It is a properly exposed subject (the detail of the subject is retained), while keeping the background in the highlights (setting exposure levels to higher values) to illuminate the subject.

In general, there are more light tones and fewer mid-tones and shadows in high-key images. This lack, if not an absence, of shadow comes from letting more light into the camera. High-key photography is all about balancing the light ratio (an imbalance will result in too much shadow).

NEF (Original RAW file)  Histogram
NEF (Original RAW file)

In general, my initial post-processing workflow in Adobe Lightroom includes lens correction followed by minimal global adjustments on the basic panel. Sometimes I had increased my ISO because I was handholding my camera in unpredictable weather or wind conditions. Then, if there was more grain than I would like to see, I used Topaz DeNoise AI and, if the animal’s eyes weren’t quite tack-sharp, I utilized Topaz Sharpen AI. If I didn’t need Topaz Sharpen AI, then the last steps of my workflow included minimal sharpening in Adobe Lightroom.

Notice that the NEF (Original RAW file) histogram for the bison image is pushed towards the righthand side, but not touching the edge, while the highlights or deep shadows of the bison remain properly exposed. Despite the contrast of colors, the subject is properly exposed, and the background is properly exposed. Nothing is overexposed or blown out.

In editing the bison image, I made minimal global adjustments, decreasing the highlights slightly and increasing the shadows slightly. This can be seen if you look closely at the bottom curve on the edited TIF file below. 

Histogram of Edited TIF
Edited TIF
Coyote Out and About in a Snowstorm © Debbie McCulliss
Coyote Out and About © Debbie McCulliss
Histogram of NEF (Original RAW file)
NEF (Original RAW file)
Histogram of Edited TIF
Edited TIF

Once back in Adobe Lightroom, I chose to reduce my whites rather than dehaze, which lends to more contrast and saturation, to make the coyote more visible in the snow.

Histogram of Final Edited TIF
Final Edited TIF

I like to shoot with the end effect of my image in mind and aim to get straight out-of-camera images. It is particularly helpful to use in-camera techniques to make high-key results easier to achieve during post-processing. Also, when you shoot to the right, you ultimately have more data in your files, which gives better end results when printing. To avoid lens flare and falling snow on the lens glass, I recommend using a lens hood.

I shot all of these images in RAW and on manual with a telephoto lens using an aperture of 6.3 or 8, which minimized the depth of field and allowed for a softer background. It was most important to expose correctly for the snow to avoid under-exposing (rendering the snow gray) or clipping the highlights. If images are overexposed or clipped, there will be a loss of detail.

If a photo looked flat, perhaps because of harsh, snowy conditions, then including an animal or tree provided contrast or depth so that the whiteness of the snow didn’t look bland. The point is not to have a lot of contrast (defined as a measure of the difference in brightness and dark areas) or mid-and dark tones dominating the scene, but rather to capture a low-contrast scene.

Group of Pronghorn in a Snowstorm © Debbie McCulliss
Pronghorn in a Snowstorm © Debbie McCulliss

The image of the pronghorns was processed solely in Adobe Lightroom with minimal global adjustments. Initially, I increased dehaze slightly, but even slightly was too much. However, I realized that, if that adjustment is brought back to zero, I could, instead, increase clarity to help the pronghorn be more visible in the snow.    

Histogram of NEF (Post-Processed RAW file)
NEF (Post-Processed RAW file)

The raven image below has some heavy, dark shadows. But there is still a balance of shadow and light, similar to what is found in the bison image. Typically, high-key images lack contrast. The brightness is even across the scene. But this image emphasizes the darks. It provides emotion rather than an ethereal look; nonetheless, it’s an impactful high-key photograph. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the isolation of the subject—the raven’s eyes and snow on its body. 

Closeup of a Raven After a Fallen Snow © Debbie McCulliss
Raven After a Fallen Snow © Debbie McCulliss
Histogram of NEF (Original RAW file)
NEF (Original RAW file)

In Adobe Lightroom, I made minimal global adjustments

Edit Histogram

Since the ISO was 800, I used DeNoise A1 to decrease some of the noise found in the original file.

Edited TIF (after DeNoise A1)  Histogram
Edited TIF (after DeNoise A1)

Just as the negative space around the raven helped to achieve a high-key image, the same is true for the fox image below.

Photo of a Red Fox Hunting for Food in the Snow © Debbie McCulliss
Red Fox Hunting for Food
NEF (Original RAW file) Hostogram
NEF (Original RAW file)

Minimal adjustments were made in Adobe Lightroom.

Histogram Edited TIF (after Topaz DeNoise A1 and Sharpen)
Edited TIF (after Topaz DeNoise A1 and Sharpen)

Outdoor high-key landscape shots using only the available light can be every bit as challenging as high-key wildlife photography. Winter weather is oftentimes unpredictable. It is really important to plan ahead and be sure you are prepared to stay warm, have the equipment you need, and protect your camera and lens from the elements while photographing and to prevent condensation after going inside. Getting that great high-key image can take multiple hours, or even days, in the field, in the elements, with your end vision in mind, searching for that perfect scene.

Photo of two trees in snow. Yellowstone Trees © Debbie McCulliss
Yellowstone Trees © Debbie McCulliss

Besides the color white, trees of all kinds intrigue me. Yellowstone’s trees intrigue me because of their strength to survive in such unpredictable weather and harsh winds. Winter in Yellowstone is long, and the daylight hours are short. Prior to photographing this image, I saw beauty in the barrenness of these two trees. I marveled at how nature provided silence, and the snow provided calm.

At home, while quarantined during the pandemic, looking at these trees, I have a new perspective. It’s as if these different species of trees symbolize humans all over the world who are somewhat isolated, socially distancing, yet standing tall, surviving—on yet another snowy day.

NEF (Original RAW file) Histogram
NEF (Original RAW file)
NEF (Post Processed RAW file) Histogram
NEF (Post Processed RAW file)

Looking at the landscape image below, I want to mention that, when I didn’t get a pure white background, I found a bit of darkness (with the darkest tones in the background appearing medium gray in color) to be okay. In high-key images, you can still have detail in the whitest parts of the image. In post-processing this image in Adobe Lightroom, there were minimal changes made—a slight increase in dehaze, a slight decrease in highlights, and a slight increase in shadows. 

Photo of a snow-covered stump sticking up from a blanket of snow. Yellowstone Stump © Debbie McCulliss
Yellowstone Stump © Debbie McCulliss
NEF (Original Raw File) Histogram
NEF (Original Raw File)
NEF (Post Processed RAW file) Histogram
NEF (Post Processed RAW file)

Photographing high-key wildlife and landscape images in winter using only the available light is a technique I hope to master through continued practice. Studying my own images helps me identify areas for improvement. Looking at other photographer’s high-key images not only provides fresh perspectives, but also inspires me to continue to learn and challenge myself. Someday, in the not-too-distant future, I hope to have a gallery exhibition of white.

Debbie McCulliss travels the globe to bear witness to and record the strength, fragility, beauty, and rhythm of wildlife and nature. A Colorado-based winter wildlife and nature photographer and budding conservationist, McCulliss holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing, and non-fiction writing. She is also a certified applied poetry facilitator. 

McCulliss continues mastering her photographic skills and trying to capture “the shot.” Being in nature provides her the opportunity to observe and intimately connect with the world. While she treasures creating stories that teach and art that pleases the senses, she also believes her photographic expeditions speak to freedom of mind and imagination. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation, evokes action, or leaves a lasting impression.

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