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Low key photography: the easy way

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If you are trying to improve your photography, one method of working with light and shadow is low key photography. Widely used in studio work, it’s actually a very easy technique to accomplish.

I’ve always been a photography lover, but recently I’ve been trying to learn new techniques to improve my photography and specially my portraits. One technique that is widely used for studio work is low key photography, where one side of the subject is illuminated and contrasts sharply with the shadows everywhere else. I really like this style for its moodiness and always thought I would need a lot of fancy lighting to actually achieve it, but as it turns out, it is a lot simpler than it looks. All you need is a light source, a black background and manual settings on your camera.

How To Plan for Low Key Photography

Create The Vision

Because a natural element of low key photography is mood, I wanted to have strong emotions in my subjects. I chose to do a self-portrait of my son and I. My goal was to capture an intimate moment between us to mark his first birthday and the end of our breastfeeding journey. That bonding that we developed and that we had to break quite abruptly.

When I took this picture, we were still grasping with how to move forward- I was learning how to comfort him in other ways and he was learning that my body was not longer his source of food. It was a very emotional time in our journey and I wanted to remember that. (I am tearing up as I am writing this and looking at the picture, which hopefully means I captured it right.)

Nail Down Technical Details

Ok, so I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted, but getting there took some trial and error. After tinkering with my manual settings and taking many test shots, I found some settings I liked.

For this image, I used a basement window during the day in which the light was being filtered by a basement window cover (so not overly bright), and a black fabric background. I used my 35mm lens and these settings for this shot 35mm, F/2, 1/125s, 800 ISO, 10 sec camera timer.

I placed myself and my son in front of the window and turned him towards the camera while I faced the window, so that his face would not be completely in the shadow.

Teak The Low Key Photograph in Post Processing

Here is the straight out of the camera shot (SOOC) of my favorite image.

As you can see it’s quite dark- that is because I was shooting with a new camera and didn’t realize that the image displayed in the LCD panel was actually brighter than the actual image. So I had to adjust the picture in post-processing. Since I was going for a dark photograph to begin with, it was fortunate that I didn’t loose much detail by bringing the exposure a little bit up.

Here is how it looks like after editing.

Low Key photography: mom and baby

The changes are subtle, mainly bringing up the exposure just a bit, warming the picture up, cropping and correcting the background. One thing that can happen when you are bringing up the exposure is that the background can look something other than black. There are a few ways to fix this.

1) Paint the background black with a brush.

2) Drag the black point to the darkest corner.

3) Use an adjustment brush to deal with exposure on the subject or background only.

If you don’t have a post processing program like Lightroom or Photoshop, fret not! There are some awesome free products out there like Canva and Snapseed (mobile app) that will let you do this fairly easily.

Continue to Learn and Improve Your Low Key Photography

For my first attempt at low key photography, I think it turned out okay. However, I believe something can always be made better (my darn perfectionist streak).

Here are a few things I would do differently next time:

1) Use a remote timer so that my focus was sharper.

2) Use an aperture of 2.8 or higher so that more of me would be in focus- even though I like that my son was more in focus for this one.

3) Use a higher shutter speed and higher ISO. My son is very wiggly most of the time and a lot of the pictures were trashed because of motion blur. A higher ISO would compensate for the higher shutter speed and larger aperture. And now that I know that my new camera’s LCD is brighter than the actual RAW image, I would go a little brighter and bring the shadows back if needed in post.

If you have any suggestions on how to make this picture better, I’d love the feedback. I am still learning and welcome any help.

Overall, low key photography was not as complex as I had anticipated. In fact, I’d say it was one of the easier techniques that I tackled lately. No fancy lighting or reflectors, just a little trial and error.

Have you tried low-key photography? If not, give it a try and if you do, please tag me on Instagram so I can see it.


Let me know how this post has helped you or what you would like to see in the future!

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