Low Key Photography – Under Exposure Guide

Low key photography is an exciting photo technique in which the dark parts of the picture predominate in the photographs. The dark mood is deliberately staged and cannot be equated with underexposure. The light source is used very carefully and specifically and emphasizes the contours of the motif. Due to the reduced lighting conditions, the black and white mode is ideal. With these tips you will get great low key pictures!

 

 

Where is low key photography used?

Low key photography is very popular wherever drama, expression and forms are concerned. Therefore, both portraits and nude photography are very suitable areas of application. But even in still life, which is often used in product photography, low-key is seen more and more frequently. A prerequisite for good low-key portrait shots is a good basic knowledge of portrait photography, which you can acquire here .

 

As a German translation of Low Key one often reads that low stands for the lack of light, which is only half the truth. LowKey originally came from the film industry , more precisely from the days of silent film, when the villain was illuminated from below (low) with the main light (key light) in order to give it a dramatic expression. Later it became low key in photography, which is in contrast to high key photography .

Lowkey in nude photography

In nude photography, the low key effect brings a certain aesthetic into the picture. Women in particular often choose this style for nude photos, as skin imperfections and problem areas can be cleverly hidden. The skin appears velvety and soft. In addition, this type of nude pictures appears mysterious and therefore more stimulating for the viewer’s imagination.

 

Here’s how: Low Key Example Setup

In this low key setup , the model is illuminated by a side light source, the flash. When positioning the model, be sure to follow our tips on the golden ratio in order to achieve an optimal image effect. The light source ( grazing light ) must be much stronger than the ambient light. A classic lighting setup  for low key photography consists of a black or dark background in a completely darkened room with a flash head (possibly unleashed flashes ) that illuminates the subject from the side. If you want soft lighting for the subject, you can use a diffuser or a softbox.

 

The problem with focusing in the low key area

With low-key photography, it is difficult to focus on the subject due to the sparse light – especially if it is still moving. In practice, therefore, it is best to focus the subject manually in normal lighting conditions and maintain this focus (deactivate autofocus). If you then use your light setting, your subject is in focus, even if you dim it. Of course, you should use a tripod for the camera.

 

Even animals like dogs can be photographed wonderfully with a low key effect. For wildlife photography but special rules apply. Especially in the dark and mystical moods, these often become nervous and difficult to control.

Low-key instructions: camera settings, aperture and exposure

The camera settings for a good low key photo are made quickly. Operate your camera in manual M mode , otherwise the camera will automatically correct the dark lighting conditions and you will get a completely different result than the intended low key effect. You can set the ISO value to 100 or 200. So a low value to avoid noise on the pictures. Since black tones are used a lot, this is particularly important in low key photography.

It is advisable to work with the camera’s spot metering and only aim at the bright areas when measuring the exposure.

As always, you use the aperture – either a closed aperture to get a continuous focus or an open aperture to focus only on part of the subject – while the rest sinks into blur. The exposure time can be very different, generally around 1 / 125-200s.

Low key camera settings summarized:

  • Camera mode M
  • ISO: 100-200
  • Aperture: f11 (as desired)
  • Exposure time : 1 / 125-200s
  • Auto focus off – manual focus
  • Image stabilizer off when shooting with a tripod

Checking the low key histogram

The low key histogram begins with a strong deflection in the dark area on the left and then drops almost to zero on the right to the bright area. The dark black areas should not be in the subject itself, but rather outside, e.g. as a background. Read here how to correctly read and understand the histogram .

 

Minimal post-processing of a low key portrait

The finished low key RAW photo can still be post-processed in contrast or tonal value correction. Any noise can also be remedied later. Often, the conversion to a black and white picture works wonders for the image statement.

 

Tips for quick success with the low key effect

  • The most impressive thing about low key is dark motifs, for example tanned skin or colored models
  • Choose a dark to black, matte background
  • Completely darken the surroundings and point one (or two) light source (s) at the subject. The direction doesn’t matter and depends on the effect you want to create. A light source from below looks mystical and scary, for example
  • Above all, remember to use striking shadows in body shapes or facial features and to emphasize contrasts
  • Learn all aspects of black and white photography in our guide . This will help you acquire important basics in terms of shadows, emotions and visual effects.

Conclusion low-key photography

With low key photography, anyone who observes the basic principles described can take impressive photos. LowKey, however, requires a lot of prudence from the photographer in advance in order to estimate how the motif can best be staged from the light. Practice creates masters! I wish you success!

 

Low key photography is an exciting photo technique in which the dark parts of the picture predominate in the photographs. The dark mood is deliberately staged and cannot be equated with underexposure. The light source is used very carefully and specifically and emphasizes the contours of the motif. Due to the reduced lighting conditions, the black and white mode is ideal. With these tips you will get great low key pictures!

 

Where is low key photography used?

Low key photography is very popular wherever drama, expression and forms are concerned. Therefore, both portraits and nude photography are very suitable areas of application. But even in still life, which is often used in product photography, low-key is seen more and more frequently. A prerequisite for good low-key portrait shots is a good basic knowledge of portrait photography, which you can acquire here .

 

As a German translation of Low Key one often reads that low stands for the lack of light, which is only half the truth. LowKey originally came from the film industry , more precisely from the days of silent film, when the villain was illuminated from below (low) with the main light (key light) in order to give it a dramatic expression. Later it became low key in photography, which is in contrast to high key photography .

 

Lowkey in nude photography

In nude photography, the low key effect brings a certain aesthetic into the picture. Women in particular often choose this style for nude photos, as skin imperfections and problem areas can be cleverly hidden. The skin appears velvety and soft. In addition, this type of nude pictures appears mysterious and therefore more stimulating for the viewer’s imagination.


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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Give h2 title here

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

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