Low key photography is when you take a photo of a subject, and everything (or almost everything) except the subject in black. This can be achieved fairly easily and in brightly lit situations; it’s just all about having the right settings on your camera. It’s a cool technique which is useful for focusing the viewers attention onto a certain part of the photo, which is usually the subject. Here’s how it’s done.
How It’s Done
First of all, you’re going to want to have the ambient light as low as possible, just to make it easier for yourself, but this isn’t absolutely essential as most of the work is done by the camera. Here’s a photo of a model with my camera set to program mode to give you an idea of what the camera thinks is the correct exposure for this situation. It’s done a fairly good job, but massively overexposes parts of the face to try and compensate for the background light. This photo was shot at 1/60 of a second, at f/4 and ISO 250 with the flash turned up one third.
Now here’s the same photo again, only this time I’ve put the camera into manual so that I can change the settings to ones I know will work. Firstly, in this photo, I am using an off camera flash, but this is not necessary to achieve low key photography, I just use it because I prefer how it looks. Secondly, and this is very important, I have the flash set to high speed sync so that I can shoot at speeds higher than 1/250 of a second. I won’t go into detail about what this does just now, but a quick look in the manual should easily tell you how to do this. You must have an off camera flash. I kept the ISO and flash compensation constant for this photo, but to cut out the ambient light, I turned up my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second and narrowed my aperture to f/8. This allows 1/64 less light in than before.
I was able to still see the light from my flash because it was very bright and very direct. The dish hides the light in my photo, but in photos like the one below, I made sure that the flash was just out of frame. This boost in flash exposure allows the subject to be seen while I remove all the ambient light from the photo. A good way to test when you’ve removed all the light is to keep taking photos without the flash until no light appears in the frame, and then add the flash in.
If you want to make sure that the photo remains low key throughout, then you need to keep your subject away from any background which may interfere with the shots. You’ll notice in my first photo that the model was standing away from any walls so that no excess light from the flash was picked up by the camera. Adding some limited background detail can look quite cool if you’re experimenting, but it’s not technically low key photography.
I like to use low key photography now and then, but when I do, I tend to experiment with other light like in the photo above. The beauty of it is that you can do it anywhere, like in a hallway, which is where some of my photos were shot. I used a similar technique as I described previously for this photo below, but I decided it would be a good idea to include some faint lights from the pier behind to make it more interesting. Again, not technically low key, but that’s not important – when you know the technique, you can apply it to many different situations.
Gig photography is a prime example of where you’ll see a lot of low key photography, not only because you’re using a flash, but because the lighting designer has decided it looked best with very little light. Here’s a photo that I shot a few months ago, and I’ve left it in colour for you so that you can see exactly the sort of light I was working with. At a glance it looks black and white, and that’s because they’re only using a white light on black and white clothing. The beauty of shooting gigs is that the lighting is always controlled so it’s one less thing to worry about.
Lastly, here’s a photo submission from one of my readers Alexander Perez who shot the photo at a gig with a very simple camera by the looks of things. It just goes to show that you don’t need expensive gear and external flash units to take a photo like this.