Low Key Photography Tips

What is Low Key Photography?

Low Key photography is one of the most challenging forms of photography, for any range of shooters. We often see people getting mixed up between Low Key and High Key.

Therefore, to set things straight, and cast away any shadows of doubt, we have decided to focus our attention on initially describing the low key meaning and how it differs from high photography too.

Low key is the art lowering the exposure to create more shadows while creatively concealing and revealing details. The one thing we particularly like about low key photography is the ability it holds to add drama and hard-hitting emotion within a shot.

Read More: Shooting with no Shadows

Low Light Photography Settings

Before you start out on your shoot, you will need:

  • Camera
  • Tripod (or steady surface)
  • One light source (natural or artificial)
  • Black background or dark setting


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Taking Photos in Low Light

Individual camera settings will depend on you as a photographer, this is under your control. We recommend for shooting in low light that you start with a wide aperture (i.e. F/2.8) to take capture the most amount of light and then adjust from there accordingly. For low light photos, depending on what source of light you are working with, it is best to use faster shutter speedsespecially if using triggers.

Low Key Photography

Although Low and High Key photography is covered within the iPhotography course in Module 9 (Black and White), don’t feel that this technique is restricted to only black and white photography; sometimes a pop of colour really brings your photographs to life.

Read More: Colour Splash Photography

Low Key Photography

To get the best out of your low key photography, you need to bear in mind illumination and elimination.

Because very little will be visible when taking photos in low light, it is important to carefully consider where you want the light to fall; this also means you have to control where the light doesn’t fall.

Low Key Photography

3 Low Key Photography Tips

Low key photography requires a dark background. Here are a few tips to help achieve this:

  1. Firstly, use a black backdrop, this is the easiest way to have a successful dark background.
  2. Secondly, keep your subject forward, the less light that hits the background, the darker it will be. If you are using an isolated source of light you want to make sure that it is hitting your subject in the right way.
  3. Thirdly, keep your ISO as low as possible, this will keep the image noise-free, and for this particular exercise. You don’t want to be taking in too much light.

Finally, start by practicing using a static object, such as a teddy bear or piece of fruit.

Read More: How to Get Amazing Shots in the Dark

Low Key Photography

If any of your backgrounds shine through, don’t worry, this can be adjusted in post-production (Photoshop) using a brush tool and by darkening the levels.

Check out these examples below:
In the first image, you can see the image before post-production with some background elements still shining through. In the second image, you can see the same image after the burn and brush tool have been used in post-production/Photoshop editing.

Low Key Photography

Low Light Pictures – Best Tips for Portraits

In order to obtain high contrast in your low key images, side lighting your subject will work much more effectively than illuminating front on. There is no ‘correct’ side to shoot from, this is down to you as the photographer to choose which side of your subject you want to keep dark, or which side you decide works more effectively.

Low Key Photography

How to Shoot Low Light Portraits

Certainly, within portraiture photography, you may discover your subject has a strong personal opinion or preference regarding which side or angle they would prefer you to shoot from. Never make an assumption, but listen to your subject’s insecurities and take them on board.

If they have a distinctive marking, scar, birthmark, or blemish that they wish to disguise, low key photography works extremely effectively. And let’s not forget, almost all of us have a preferred ‘good’ side or angle that we would rather be photographed from.

Low Key Photography

What’s the Best ISO for Low Light?

We’d recommend keeping your ISO for low light around 100-200. This will help minimise any digital noise in the shadows of your portrait. Open your aperture to the widest point to increase exposure. Keep your shutter speed around 1/60th – 1/200th depending upon the readout of your histogram.

When it comes to lighting consider being dramatic. To do split lighting place one light to the side. you will have to experiment with angles and reposition your light, depending on how it falls. If one side of your subject is completely dark, then you’ve achieved the ‘split’ look.

However, most low key photographers opt for the Rembrandt lighting, named after the Dutch painter. This is where a triangle of light falls on the broad side of the subject’s face.

This style of lighting will also create a catch light in the eye of the darker side of the face, making the image look more effective.

Low Key Photography

Altering the position of your subject, as well as the light, can add some interesting shapes to your low light pictures. Your subject doesn’t have to be facing the camera face on. Try shooting a side-view can create a more abstract image, especially if you can manipulate the light.

Low Key Photography

Low Light Indoor Photography Tips

As a photographer, you are often told to avoid harsh shadows, particularly in portraiture. Low key photography is a perfect chance to break these rules and create your own boundaries or contradictions – even if you’re shooting indoors.

Low Key Photography

However, remember your main goal is to highlight a specific area within the image – you don’t want to lose the purpose of the shot.

This can be done by manipulating and positioning your subject and light so that your shadows fall in the right place. This will ensure you obtain that dramatic, dark and hard-hitting imagery that you are seeking. Place your subject near a bright window on a sunny day and close down the aperture (to around F/8) to get a big gap in the peaks of your histogram.

Low Key Photography

Low Light Photography without Flash

Low key photography is extremely effective at adding emphasis on texture, depth and contrast. You don’t need to add in a flash to get that strong detail from a hard light source. Remember that shooting in bright sunshine will give you hard light. Hard light shows more texture on the surface of a subject.

Consider nature shots, animal photography, and portraiture photos. It can be used to emphasise textures such as hair or movement in the skin. Use it to draw attention to specific key details – like the lines and creases within aged skin or detail within rough-textured fabrics or objects.

Low Key Photography

Consider manipulating low key photography when shooting abstract body shapes. It really helps to define and highlight shape and form. It is a wonderful way to artistically celebrate the curves and lines of the body in boudoir photography.

Low Key Photography

Fine Art Photography in Low Key

This technique is popular in boudoir photography, as it beautifully enhances the body’s natural arch, shape, and form. Your subject will feel much more at ease, knowing the emphasis is on angles and curves – particularly if they wish to remain anonymous and aren’t keen on the audience knowing who the person is in the shot.

Read More: Fine Art Photography

Low Key Photography

Highlighting body form can also be a useful skill if you are interested in shooting commercial fitness and health shots. Low light photos teaches us manipulation of light to draw attention to a specific part of the subject.

By keeping large amounts of shadows, you can add depth to the figure, making muscles look larger and more defined.

Low Key Photography

Using low key lighting when photographing objects can create some beautifully abstract shots. By illuminating certain areas, you could either distort the subject or, draw attention to a specific element.

For example, this shot below has been designed to make the golf ball look larger than we would expect, and the light highlighting the grooves makes it seem more abstract and unusual.

Low Key Photography

The light in this image of the violin perfectly complements its key features whilst adding an element of class.

As you can low key photography can be used within many other categories other than portraiture.

Low Key Photography

How to Take Low Light Photos of Pets

For all those wildlife photographers out there, don’t worry, we’ve something for you too. Natural light can be manipulated to work in your favour if you’re patient enough. The key with animal low key photography is to make sure that your subject is softly lit in front of a dark, shadowed background.

Low Key Photography

Low Key animal photography can be achieved in post-editing, so long as your depth of field is shallow enough to throw the background out of focus. You can then edit the contrast and shadows to create a dramatic shot. And of course, you can practice these techniques at home with your pets first, before coming face to face with a tiger.

Low key photography is the perfect beginning to understanding light and is certainly a skill you can implement through all aspects of your photographs.

Remember this simple low and high key definition:
Low Key = Dark (low amounts of light)
High Key = Bright (high amounts of light)

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We hope this piece on Low Key photography at iPhotography has left you with plenty of room for thought. Now it’s your turn to learn and enter the dark side!

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