How To Do Low Key Photography | 2018 Photo Challenge

Brandon LazovicSeptember 30, 2018

Hi there and welcome back for Week 26 of the 2018 Photography Challenge! This week’s challenge explores low key photography, or a style of photography that uses dark tones to produce dramatic-looking images.

Low Key Photography Definition

Like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the definition of low key photography is to intensify the contrast in the subject of an image through reduced lighting, whereas high key lighting aims to reduce the amount of contrast by casting a large amount of light on a subject.

The aim of most photographers is to avoid casting dark shadows on the faces of their subjects; using low-key lighting can add a dramatic flair to the subject and overall composition of the photo through dark shadows and a strong contrast.

low key photography black backdrop portrait lighting example

In a previous post I used the Rembrandt Technique with low key lighting to cast strong shadows on the face of my subject and create the distinctive triangle that’s associated with the technique. This was accomplished with studio lights but painters in the Renaissance and Baroque periods achieved this effect without artificial lighting.

These painters created what is known as the “chiaroscuro” technique, which produced three-dimensional depth in their portraits and evoked drama/realism in the paintings from this period. Chiaroscuro is derived from the Italian “chiaro,” or clear/light, and “scuro,” or obscure/dark.

Low Key Photography Lighting Setup

For shooting indoor portrait photography you’ll need to set up a black backdrop with a studio light placed of to the side of the subject at a 45-degree angle that’s above the eye level of your subject. The face of the subject should be turned away from the main light source.

How To Do Low Key Photography Without Flash

If you don’t have low key studio lighting, you can use the flash from a cell phone or an extraneous source such as a window, although one problem that occurs is the light source illuminating too much of your subject’s face. To correct this, simply cover up the bottom of the light source and adjust to get the perfect amount of lighting.

You can also a secondary source of light on the opposite side, in which case your supplement lighting should be at half the intensity as your main source.

Another thing to watch out for is making sure you’re capturing the light in at least one of your subject’s eyes to bring life to the photo and add that dramatic flair.

Outdoor Low Key Photography Ideas

Outdoors low key photography lighting example

Shooting outdoors in the evening is a free way to get the right amount of low key lighting without using studio equipment. The biggest challenge is finding the perfect spot for your composition; natural light from the moon and streetlights are great places to start when pinpointing locations that have a good light source at night. An urban setting can also be ideal if you’re shooting in a parking lot or an alleyway.

Camera Settings For Low Key Photography

As far as camera settings go, here’s what you’ll want to do:

  • Set your ISO as low as your camera body allows.
  • Adjust your shutter speed to go as fast as it will go to reduce the amount of light entering the lens.
  • Have your aperture as wide open as possible (the lower the number the better)

The trick is to minimize the amount of light that’s entering your camera without under-exposing the subject in the photo. Here are my settings for this week’s photo challenge:

  • F-Stop: f/4.5
  • Exposure Time: 1/160 seconds
  • ISO-800

The ISO was higher than I wanted, but the only source of lighting that I had was the fire so I had to adjust the ISO in order to decrease the exposure time and lower the F-Stop, but the main takeaway is to minimize the amount of noise produced in the photo.

Low Key Lighting Set Up

Outdoor Low Key Photography Lighting With Fire As Light Source

For this week’s prompt I was invited to a bonfire over the weekend, making for the perfect opportunity to shoot using low key lighting. The backyard was dark with the moon serving as a small source of light. I decided to get creative and use the fire as both my main subject as well as the one source of light, which turned out perfectly after constantly tweaking my settings.

After a few shots I decreased the exposure time, or increased the shutter speed, to catch some of the embers rising out of the bonfire as my friend stoked the bonfire pit with a stick, making for some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken as part of this challenge.

Something that I played with was shooting in both color and grayscale, a new feature that’s available on my Pentax K-3 II digital camera body. I personally prefer vibrant photos, but the grayscale ones that I shot turned out to be unique and appealing in contrast to the black background.

Outdoor Low Key Photography Lighting With Fire As Light Source 2

2018 Photography Challenge Edits

If you haven’t checked out my editing video already, below are the edits I made in Adobe Lightroom:

  • Highlights: +30
  • Shadows: -30
  • Whites: +30
  • Blacks: -30
  • Clarity: +100
  • Vibrance: +30
  • Saturation: +30
  • Red Saturation: +100
  • Orange Saturation: -64

If you’re wondering why I decreased the orange saturation, I felt as though it made the reds stand out more with the centers of the flame producing a more white/yellowish tone.

Low Key Photography Wrap Up

What did you think of this week’s photography challenge? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out last week’s photo challenge where I explored the Plymouth Cider Mill here in Michigan, or next week's Detroit photography challenge!

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