A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Low Key Photography

Guide to Low Key Photography

Low key photography basically refers to a style of photography in which dark tones are predominantly used to come up with a dark, dramatic-looking image. Unlike in high key photography where you over-light the subject to the point of reduced contrast, this style intensifies the contrast by intensely reducing the lighting.

Taking low-key images can be fun given that, while in normal photography you try as much as you can to avoid harsh shadows, here you ought to consider them in order to come up with a perfect dark image.

Indeed, there is a lot you can learn about the dramatic low-key images as a beginner. Apparently, the purpose of this post is to take you through the main areas that you ought to know about this style of photography.

Beginner’s Guide to Low Key Photography

To make this post easy for you to comprehend, it has been divided into 4 major parts namely:

1. How to Capture Low Key Images in the Studio
2. How to capture low key images out of the studio
3. Important Camera Settings to Consider for Low Key Photography
4. Tips on How to Get the Best out of Low Key Style
Let’s take a closer look at each of the above subheadings:

1. How to Capture Low Key Images in the Studio

For the best results, there are various ways of setting low-key shots in the studio. One of the top things you should consider when setting the studio for these photos is a black backdrop background. Though you can use any other backdrop for taking the shots, a black backdrop will go a long way in helping you achieve a classy solid black appearance associated with low-key shots.

To ensure that you get the most amazing dark images, avoid hitting the backdrop with light in such a way that unwanted textures and wrinkles appear on the photos.

Another important thing to consider when taking your low-key photos at the studio is the position of the subject. The most preferred setup is placing the subject a few centimeters away from the backdrop.

Once the subject is in the right place, it’s now time to place the lighting. How exactly do you do this? You might be wondering… Well, for fascinating results, place the light source (i.e. flashlight/softbox) on one side of the object so that it can light the parts of the object that you would like to be highlighted in the image. Placing the light in such a manner also ensures that dark shadows surround the light area in your shorts- creating a nice dramatic atmosphere.

If you would like to reduce the contrast between the highlighted subject and the rest of your shot, adding a few light sources on the background can do the trick. Simply use a reflector to direct some of the light on the backdrop downwards.

low key photography lighting-diagram
low key photography lighting-diagram

2. How to capture low key images out of the studio

A photo studio is not the only place for taking the finest low-key shots. This means that even if you don’t own a home studio, you can still enjoy taking photos in low key photography style. Here`s how you can do this:

a). Using a dark room
When using this trick, the main room that acts as your studio should be totally dark. Also, there should be an adjacent room to the main one, with a door standing in between them.

Position your object a few centimeters from the door. Set up a bright source of light in the next room, in front of the doorway. The door is useful as it helps block and controls the amount of light coming from the other room.

To take your shot, stand before the wall out of the path of light entering “your studio.”

low key photography out of studio
low key photography out of studio
image credit: tutsplus.com

b). Taking images at night
You can also wait for the night to crawl in and take advantage of the darkness element that comes with it. Of course, you will also need to identify a good source of light before taking your low-key images. Moonlight, parking lots, and streetlights can be good sources for you.

3. Important Camera Settings to Consider for Low Key Photography

There are no specific camera settings for a low-key photography session. In fact, this style of photography can have a wide range of settings, all of which will give you amazing results.
However, here are some of the primary settings you should consider in all your low key shots:

-The ISO should always be kept between 100 and 200- this keeps the image dark and free of noise.

-Keep the aperture between f/4 and f/6- this enables you to achieve the desired effects for your lighting setup.

low key portrait using one light source
low key portrait using one light source

4. Tips on How to Get the Best out of Low Key Style

  • Camera
    The choice of camera used for taking low lighting images matters. A digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) is always recommended as it allows you to adjust major characteristics of the camera such as shutter speed, ISO settings, and the aperture opening.
  • Aperture opening
    The opening controls the amount of light entering the camera. The smaller the aperture setting, the wider its opening is. For the best results, start with low aperture settings (wider opening) and adjust when the need arises.
  • Shutter Speed
    Keeping the shutter open for a longer time allows more light as well as motion to be captured. Motion entering the camera translates to streaking or blur. Therefore, a tripod or any other stabilizing device is necessary to eliminate unwanted streaks and blurs.

Shutter speed should be kept slow enough to allow enough light to enter the camera. But again, it should not be kept slow such that it captures movement.

  • ISO Settings
    ISO settings of your camera determine the level of sensitivity of your image sensor. The higher the settings, the faster the sensor`s reaction to light. This means that using a bigger setting in low-key shots allows the sensor to react quickly to the available light.

As mentioned earlier, always try to keep the ISO settings between 100 and 200 when taking low-key shots.

Note that higher ISO settings (above 400) always result in grainy images with some cameras.

Final Thoughts
That’s everything you need to know about low-key photography as a beginner. It’s a great photography style that allows you to create the most dramatic dark images and the fact that you can take low-key images without owning a studio makes it highly affordable for all dark images enthusiasts out there.

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