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A Beginners Guide to Low Key Photography

low key photography
Photo by: Pauli Järviluoto

In the previous article we discussed High Key Photography and how it is done in camera, now its time for us to discuss the opposite, Low Key Photography.

What is Low Key Photography?

low key photography tutorial
Photo by: Jeremy Kunz

Low key photography makes use of dark tones and colours, the main feature of a low key photograph is the shadows; the intention here is to increase the contrast in the image and to direct the viewers’ attention directly to the subject, low key is an exercise in illumination and elimination.

Unlike high key photography where we use generous quantity of light, low key requires much less, only the most important features/elements are illuminated and the rest are kept in the shadows. This helps convey atmosphere and mood to the viewers, when high key images feels airy, light and rich low key images feel dramatic and is full of mystery.

Why is it called Low Key Photography?

low key photography lighting setup
Photo by: Paul Burnett

In photography we refer to the mid tones as key tones, and we achieve low key effect by placing these key tones low on the exposure scale thus making them darker. The majority of the tones in a low key photograph will be below 128. So low photography means the image’s key tones are low.

Equipment Requirements for Low Key Photography

Unlike High key photography Low key photography could be done with very little equipment, all you need is your camera and a lens. Lighting can be purely natural light, a single flash or a strobe or just a reflector. As a photographer to create low key images all you need to do is make sure the light ratio between your subject and its surroundings is high. The subject (or the most important part of the subject) should receive at least a couple of stops more light than its surroundings.

Also make sure you generate maximum contrast in your shots by carefully choosing dark backgrounds, dark colour clothes, props etc.

Low Key Lighting

low key lighting photography
Photo by: Andy Leddy

You can easily achieve low key lighting using a single light source. That single light source can be the sun, a flash or a strobe, or any other light source.

During sunny days you can create low key lighting by simply placing your subject in the shade, in a door way that opens out (shooting from outside), near a window, near a door adjoining another room which is brightly lit etc. or you can simply use a flash, strobe or any other light to sidelight your subject keeping the other side relatively dark. The amount of contrast should be determined based on the subject/scene being shot and the effect you wish to achieve with your photos.

In low key photography the requirement is not of more light, but for devices like scrims, gobos, cutters and other light modifiers like barn doors, grid spots etc to control the light so as to keep certain areas illuminated while keeping certain others in the shadows.

Camera Settings for Low Key Photography

low key photography settings
Photo by: Sacha Fernandez

Creating low key photographs in a studio environment or in a dimly lit scene is quite easy, but when you are faced with the challenge of creating low key photographs in normal conditions these tips could come in handy.

Here your primary aim is to kill most of the ambient light present on the scene.

Keep your ISO Low

Keeping your ISO low will make creating low key images easy and will also ensure noise free images. 
If you are Shooting with available light or any continuous light source Use any combination of aperture and shutter speed to get the desired effect.

If you are using Flash or Strobe Set your Camera to its Sync Speed

Sync speed is the maximum shutter speed possible with flash without having to use high speed sync mode. Now all you have to do is to adjust aperture and flash power to get the desired effect.

Sculpting with Light

low key photography tips
Photo by: David Kracht

In creating low key images it is important to control the light, it should only fall on areas that it is supposed to, use light modifiers like gobos, cutters, scrims, barn doors etc to eliminate light spill over that would reduce contrast and produce undesired effects. It’s the shadows that make the image, make sure they fall exactly as you want them, low key photography requires a good understanding of light, shadow and tone. Manipulate your subject and modify your light until you get the precise light required for the shot.
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