Low-Key Photography: How To Shoot Shadow Photography With Inexpensive Gear

This shadowy image looks harder to photograph than it is.

What is low key photography?

If you say to a young person, “let’s do a low-key shoot,” you’ll get a funny look. Low-key photography takes on the look of an underexposed photo or night photography. Sometimes it’s called Rembrandt Lighting, but that style is generally thought of as a portrait only style. Low key is a technique and style with a high lighting ratio that allows the photographer to play with lighting and shadows more creatively.

“You Don’t Take A Picture, You Make It”

Before we dig in, let’s talk about this quote. The quote is sometimes attributed to Ansel Adams, but it’s definitely the way I approach photography. As I’m composing the shot, I’m thinking about the end result. I’m thinking about the additions I’m going to add in Photoshop. Photography is inherently an abstract art. Your eye is different than others’ eyes. Your lens will inherently abstract the actual subject, if not slightly. Your camera technology will abstract the image. Even if you’re shooting with film, there’s a huge abstraction. In my book, there’s no issue with further abstraction through post-processing (that is, editing on a computer). It’s a chance to use our imagination and make the image that we can otherwise only imagine.

How To Take Low Key Photos

By now you should are thinking about the characteristics you want to capture. But now it’s time to start setting up your lights. A great light source is fundamental. In flash photography, we are usually trying to suppress shadows while obtaining a balanced exposure. However, in low-key lighting, we’re trying to wrap shadows with our lighting setup.

The Gear

Here’s the exact speedlight I own. It’s generic enough to work with any camera. (Click here to see it on Amazon.) If you don’t own something like this, it’s a very good investment.

Available at Amazon

Positioning Your Light

Here is our original photo again for reference:

Lighting for dramatic effect on a black background

Flash Placement

In the photo above, the speedlight was directly in front of my model. You can see the hottest spot hits her right in the stomach. Also, some of the backdrop shows as well. But I wasn’t concerned. It can all be easily fixed in Photoshop (or your image editor of choice).

What If You Don’t Have A Speedlight?

The best thing about a speedlight is the strong burst of light it provides. Without going into the technical details, a speedlight can be dialed up to be a stronger blast than ambient light (that is, the default light that is in your studio, either by windows, lamps, skylights, etc.). This allows you to be able to shoot in full light, instead of trying to focus on your subjects in the dark.

Low Key Photography In Daylight

If you don’t have a speedlight and don’t want to invest in continuous lights, the strongest light source available is absolutely free. It’s the sun.

Post Production Work

A note about post-production. Some photographers don’t do much in post. Every photographer has a different view on how much post-production should be done. You can certainly get great images without any post-production. For example, this low-key shot was taken right from the camera. But 8 times out of 10, I lean heavily on an image editor to give me that subtle control that can make a good photo great.

Here’s a larger view.

Conclusion

I hope you found this article useful. The rest is up to you — it’s pure experimentation. It really is not a very difficult style to technically master but takes a little longer for your eye/brain to see the light the way your camera sees it. This type of shadow photography can create amazing one-of-a-kind visuals, but it can also create a lot of duds until you get better at understanding how lights will bounce. Be prepared to delete many poor attempts — just don’t let that discourage you. Practice, practice, practice.

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