Shooting Low Key Photography

Low-Key photography

If you’re looking for something new to photograph and you’ve never shot any low-key images before, grab your camera, sit down and read this.

I set this photo-assignment to the members of the HSP online photography Academy earlier this year and it produced some great results.


Shadows are your best friend

This style of photography is all about celebrating the shadows, the dark and the moody.  We don’t always want our images to be super bright.

Low-Key is about deliberately under-exposing to create impact in the darkness.  And whilst you underexpose, you also need to take care of the highlights so that they don’t lose their kick.  Underexpose too much without being aware of any highlights in the shot, and the photo can look dull, lifeless and lacking in contrast.

Whether you’re photographing people or things… hunt out the shadows first.

Let the shadows draw you to the shot.  Anything that is naturally dark, like a camera for instance (usually black in colour – athough not always) is a great place to start.   Darken the image so that shadows in the background, merge with the dark elements of the subject.

See the camera photo below (Fuji X-T3) where the black lens barrel merges with the black background.

Look around you, what do you see that is dark or black?

Below I photographed a steam train.  The guard’s uniform is black against the black of the train.  They are only separated from each other by the gentle highlight hitting the edge of the guard’s trousers.  Those highlights can be essential in separating elements within a shot.

The girl below was illuminated in a dark room by a single tungsten bulb.  I exposed for the light hitting her face and everything else went dark.

If you’re shooting with a mirrorless camera you should be able to see in the viewfinder if the image is too bright or too dark.

With a DSLR, your could use the rear screen, but you must have ‘exposure simulation’ enabled so that the image you’re looking at on the screen is a true representation of what the final photo is going to look like.

Manual or Aperture Priority?

Controlling your exposure to darken the picture down is easy in manual.  If you’re comfortable shooting in manual, this will be a breeze for you. You simply under-expose.

If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, use your camera’s Exposure Compensation control to underexposure.

Try reducing the light by one-stop first.  If that’s not enough, gradually adjust the under-exposure by increments until you reach the desired result…

It feels counter-intuitive to lots of people.  You’re photographing an already dark subject and here you are deliberately making it darker.  That’s because the camera looks at your dark subject and thinks to itself…

“Hmmm… that’s a dark subject.  I’d better brighten it up a little”

End result is that your dark subject is not as dark as you hoped it would be.  Be bold.  I’ve often found the best results are obtained by darkening much lower than I initially thought.

Shooting a black subject against a black background is often a challenge to people at first.

This is something we do in our one-year Photography Masterclass.  Most people find it a challenge at first. Successfully photographing black on black is a good indication you have mastered the Low-Key technique.


Exposure compensation?

Not everyone who owns a camera knows about Exposure Compensation, or indeed where to find it on their camera.

The Fuji X-T3 (above) has the dial easily located on the top right of the camera.  You can see the +/- markings around the dial.  Other cameras, such as Canon, have a control wheel on the back of the camera that you control with your thumb.  This is my favourite, and I find the ergonomics of this design particularly comfortable to work with.

Other cameras require to hold down an Exposure Compensation button while you rotate a control wheel at the same time.  It works fine, but it is a bit cumbersome.

It’s worth noting that fine tuning is possible on most cameras with third-stop intervals in-between.

So go for it…

What in your house or in your place of work, your garden, your car or anywhere in between is a source of shadow?

This is your chance to seek out and embrace the dark-side!

If you shoot any low-key photos, why not post them on the Hampshire School of Photography Facebook page, I’d love to see them.


Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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