Low key photography is one of the most challenging forms of photography, for any range of shooters. Every now and again I see photographers getting mixed up between high and low key photography.
Therefore, to set things straight, and cast away any shadows of doubt, I have decided to create a full tutorial to focus attention on how to shoot low key photography.
The one thing I particularly like about low key photography is the ability it holds to add drama and hard-hitting emotion within a shot.
• Tripod (or steady surface) – optional
• One light source (natural or artificial)
• Black background or dark setting
Individual camera settings will depend on you as a photographer, this is under your control. We recommend that you start with a small F/number to take in the most light and then adjust from there accordingly.
For low key shots, depending on what source of light you are working with, it is best to use faster shutter speeds – especially if using triggers.
Although high and low 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.
To get the best out of your low key photograph, you need to bear in mind illumination and elimination.
Because very little will be visible in the image, 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.
Remember, low key photography requires a dark background. Here are a few tips to help achieve this:
• Use a black backdrop, this is the easiest way to have a successful dark background.
• 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.
• 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.
• Start by practising using a static object, such as a teddy bear or piece of fruit.
If any of your background does shine through, don’t worry, this can be adjusted in post-production using a brush tool and by darkening the levels.
Check out this example below:
• On the left you can see the image before post production with some background elements still shining through.
• On the right you can see the same image after the burn and brush tool have been used in post-production/Photoshop editing.
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.
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.
When lighting from 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, this is called split lighting.
However, most low key photographers opt for the Rembrandt style of lighting. Named after the Dutch painter, where a triangle of light falls on the ‘dark’ side of the subject. 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.
Altering the position of your subject, as well as the light, can add some interesting shapes to your photography. Your subject doesn’t have to be facing the camera face on, shooting side-view can create a more abstract image, especially if you can manipulate the light.
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.
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.
Low key photography is extremely effective at adding emphasis on texture, depth and contrast; consider nature shots, animal photography and portraiture shots. 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.
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.
This technique is popular in boudoir or nude 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.
Highlighting body form can also be a useful skill if you are interested in shooting commercial fitness and health shots. Low key photography 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.
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.
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 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.
Low Key = Dark (low amounts of light)
High Key = Bright (high amounts of light)
I hope this guide to low key photography has left you with plenty of room for thought. Now it’s your turn to learn and enter the dark side!
I look forward to seeing your results within the iPhotography member feedback gallery. If you are a member of our iPhotography Course, you’ll see on module 9 there is a chance to flex your low key camera skills.
Use the submission filter under the module to send us a low key assignment photograph for your course tutor give review.