9 Tips to Master Low-Key Photography and To Create Good Photos

Black and white low-key photograph of a landscape of Caddo Lake in Texas. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
Black and white low-key photograph of a landscape of Caddo Lake in Texas.

Application to Photography

If you have read the previous paragraph carefully, you have understood that some Renaissance painters chose to favor the color black and dark tones in their artistic creations.

For me, the important thing is to show you that the low-key photo technique is just an application of the chiaroscuro technique for painters.

Low-key photography takes up all these principles.

The technique of low-key in photography consists in mixing in your images the light and dark parts without real gradation.

This technique makes it possible to create photos with strong contrasts.

In nature photography, you will have to use natural or artificial light sources to create your contrasts.

You will have to learn to control the light on your subject and the shadows on the environment. Remember one essential thing. Low-key in photography is characterized by deep blacks, dark tones, and very present shadows.

The Low-Key Is Only a Tool to Express Yourself

Before listing a number of criteria in favor of the use of low-key in photography, I would like to emphasize once again that photography is a visual artistic discipline.

I consider it an extraordinary means of non-verbal expression. I think that the main strength of photography, even if it can be factual in the case of photojournalism, fashion, or commercial photography, is that it can be used to express your emotions, to translate your feelings, to convey your messages.

For me, photography serves to show what is beautiful and to express myself.

To achieve your goals, you have the choice of tools such as photo styles. Low-key is one of these styles. Do not use the low-key technique because it is trendy or because another famous photographer is using it. Low-key photography is a tool that you must use wisely to express yourself and say what you have deep down inside.

If you use this technique "just because others do", you will not get good artistic results.

Remember that you want to create interesting pictures that make sense. This is the price you will be satisfied and happy to create your photos.

Why Use the Low-Key Technique in Photography

After reading the historical foundations of low-key and understanding its etymology, you may wonder why to use this technique.

Before I list a number of reasons to convince you to use this technique in your nature photos, let me remind you that this is just a particular photo style. It is just a simple tool that you will use to strengthen your photographic signature.

Do not imagine that you have the panacea to make your photos interesting. Only the meaning you give them will identify you and give you credibility with your audience.

This being said, here is my opinion a list of reasons in favor of low-key in pictures.

Some Reasons to Use the Low-Key in Pictures

The low-key technique allows to create images with strong contrasts. It allows the viewer's gaze to be guided towards the main photographic element.

The low-key technique allows you to create photos that have style and impact. Indeed, it adds depth. It creates a dramatic and intimate atmosphere.

The low-key style is mainly used to evoke mysterious, enigmatic, sensual atmospheres. It allows to highlight the often-graphic forms.

The low-key allows the viewer to interpret the scene in a subjective way. The low-key gives emotion to the photos.

Personally, I think that even if low-key is an interesting creative technique for creating intimate scenes with mysterious atmospheres, it is still a real challenge for you.

Indeed, if you have read my article on the reasons to create photographs, you will remember that the definition of photography is to write with light. It implies that the light must be present in all parts of your photos and above all that it must be dominant.

The low-key takes this definition at face value. This photographic style highlights black in an iconic and symbolic way. Dark becomes the equivalent of light.

Personally, I have become a true enthusiast of low-key photography because the two tones can cohabit in a harmonious way.

For me this is an incredibly good reason for you to try this photographic style.

How to Use the Low-Key in your Photographs

A low-key photo is dominated by dark tones and the color black. The light comes from only one source. It allows to accentuate the dramatic side of the photographed scenes.

To create a beautiful low-key photo, you need to increase the depth of the shadows. The blacks become deep and rich.

But above all, be careful not to block these black areas. If you do, you will create a feeling of oppression when reading the photo. In addition, you would create a significant mass imbalance.

You need to maintain detail in the dark areas.

For me maintaining the details in all parts of a photo are the mark of properly exposed photos. This is what I call the hallmark of a good photographer.

Tip #1: Choose Your Environment for Your Low-Key Photos

In this article, I will approach Low Key photography in a general way, but the examples will all come from nature photography because it is my specialty. So, this advice applies to this theme.

When you choose the scene to be photographed, choose an environment with a dark tone. For example, for a low-key photo of a deer, I always choose a background with trees. For a landscape, I choose a scene rather closed as caves.

If you choose an open environment, your photo will be oriented to lighter tones instead. Do not forget that closed environments evoke mystery and drama more easily.

Tip #2: Use Only One Light Source

This is an important tip because do not forget that the sources of low-key photography are chiaroscuro and sfumato. The goal is that only the subject is illuminated. The rest should remain dark. The light source should highlight the subject. The ideal is to photograph perpendicular to the light source. It should be very directional and fairly concentrated. Personally, morning and evening lights are ideal. One of the techniques I use is that of light filtered by trees. The closer the light is to your subjects, the better the effect will be.

Tip #3: Frame and Compose Well

I will always repeat it. The choice of a good framing at the time of the shooting is essential to the success of a photo. This is even more true with the low-key photo. Once in the field think in terms of shadows and dark areas. All photographic elements that you are going to integrate into your scene must be in dark tones. The whole of your photo must be harmonious and consistent with the low-key.

When you use a style as strong as low-key, framing well does not just mean choosing the elements of your scene. You must also consider the final result you want to achieve. It is much more complex.

This also applies to the composition you are going to make. You must choose to establish the relationships between your different elements according to the low-key technique.

Tip #4: Measure Light in Spot Mode

 

I Want to Help You to Create Interesting Photos