Photography 101: Low key photography

Low key has always been my favourite technique, although it’s possible I just habitually underexpose photos because I don’t know what I’m doing. Huh.

This is the sixth in my ‘Photography 101’ series, aimed at helping people feel more confident with their camera. Ideally you’ll have read all of the others before now. For best results, follow the ‘Homework assignments’ and try the exercises. You’ll get to know your camera a lot quicker if you do. Yesterday we started breaking the rules (always the fun part) so let’s carry on!

Today we learn the second of our ‘breaking the rules’ techniques. Low key has always been my favourite technique and my IRL Instagram is full of images that are about 90% black. If you’ve done the high hey exercises then you’ll find this exercise comfortingly familiar. I always say that photography is down to light and angles – it’s nothing to do with stunning models and high end cameras. Where it differs from high key is down to the type and quality of light. I will now attempt to demonstrate with the use of diagrams which will show once and for all time why I stick to taking images rather than making images.

With high key photography, you’re trying to take an image that’s flooded with light coming directly on to the camera. With low key photography, you’re trying to capture highlights and dark shadows. To capture shadows, you need angles – you can’t capture shadows head on.

Return of the Tater

Cameras at the ready! We’re at F2 and ISO 200 with our fingers on the shutter dial/button/slider. F2 is extra helpful here, even more so than in the last exercise – can you work out why?

1/180th of a second. Almost complete darkness except for a few catchlights which are coming from a second light over my shoulder.

1/80th of a second. The nearest edge is lit, which see nice definition on the angles of his face nearest the camera, but there’s too much dark towards the back of the frame. However, if this is the look that you’re going for, you might find this is the effect that you want.

1/50th of a second. I’d probably stop here. There’s good detail on his face without revealing everything. But in the words of The Streets, let’s push things forwards.

1 second. Too much light – this isn’t even high key photography, because we’ve lost all detail in the shadows. This is just a wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling disaster.

So, to recap – as normal, we set the aperture and ISO number. Then, we start dark and use the shutter speed to adjust backwards to the right exposure until we (repeat after me) “get it right in camera”. Good.

Did you work out why F2 is extra useful here? Obviously for one it lets in plenty of light. But you can achieve the same effect at any aperture by adjusting the shutter speed. The wider aperture is useful because it blurs out the curtain, even though it’s only a few inches away. If there was detail in the curtain, that would be distracting. F2 helps get rid of those distractions by blurring them out, which if you’re taking selfies will allow your thirst responders to focus fully on your fleshy bits.

My preferred method is to control natural light, but the effect is achievable with artificial light. It’s a little more advanced, but have a look at this short video from Lindsay Adler. It uses the same technique of using angles to create shadows, which is what adds interest. She explains it brilliantly, which is why she does that and I do, well, whatever it is I get paid to do.

I would have to say that Lindsay Adler is one of my favourite photographers and particularly adept at this style of photography, what we in the trade call “excellent photography”, and her use of both light and colour is exceptional. Do please check her out on Insta: @lindsayadler_photo

Homework assignment

As if I need to spell it out for you. Find a flat wall with a diffused vertical planar light source (they may be called ‘windows’ in your house) at roughly 45 degrees to it. Then, recreate the shot above. Start with similar settings (Something around F2, ISO 200, 1/1600) and work backwards until you’re happy.

Quick snaps

  • The technique is the same as high key – start dark and adjust your shutter speed until you are happy.
  • The difference from high key is in the angles and shadows. Start with the light source at 45 degrees to the subject, and the camera at 45 degrees on the other side so that you get light bouncing at a right angle. Adjust your position if you don’t get the shadows you want.

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