Embrace the darkness with Low key photography


If you are looking to add some drama to that dull old portrait images, then you have come to the right place. Introducing low key portraiture, a way of capturing portraits with a dark and dramatic look and feel. This technique is all about creating a contemplative mood through the clever use of shadows and lighting. If the technique looks familiar, it’s because many mainstream movie posters utilise this technique to add that extra hint of drama. Distance and lighting are the two most important factors when trying to achieve this technique, by carefully adjusting both, you would be able to create this effect easily.


In simple terms, low key photography is all about making your background far darker than your subject. The first thing to factor in is your light source. The choice of light source is entirely up to you, as long as there is only one. By no means is this a strict rule, but having one primary source of light allows you to properly control your environment, and gives you the flexibility to focus solely on the direction and strength. When choosing a light source, keep in mind it doesn’t have to be artificial, low key photography can also be executed with natural light streaming through a window. Simply arrange the curtains so there is only a slit of light streaming through, and position your subject in the light. Make sure the rest of the room is dark.


Another key ingredient of this technique is distance. To achieve the desired shot, you need to properly coordinate your lighting with the background. By anticipating how much light is lost over distance, you will be able to figure out the best position to place your light. The idea is to find that sweet spot, where the light hits your subject perfectly and doesn’t reach the background. To do this, simply adjust your shot by either moving your light back and forth, or by bringing your subject further away from the background. The single most important rule of low key photography is to not let the light reach your background, as this is how the effect is achieved. If by chance your space is limited, try moving the light to the side of your subject, making sure that focus of your shot is still well lit. This will darken the background even more, and will add drama to your composition.


In low key photography, the focus should always be on your subject. That’s why it’s best to avoid bright colours to achieve the desired result. When you can, always choose dark clothes or props for your subject. Try to avoid patterns, as this will detract from the overall composition, as you want the emphasis to remain on your subject’s face, not their body. When choosing a background, pick materials that aren’t reflective, or colourful for that matter. This means choosing a room that doesn’t have white walls or reflective textures. Adding texture to the background will only give the light something to highlight – this is called contamination.


When it comes to camera settings for low key photography, you need to choose settings that enable you to capture your subject without any ambient light in the frame. To do this, it is best to use the lowest ISO possible, a higher shutter speed and adjust your aperture until there is no ambient light visible. As with most techniques, continue experimenting until you find the settings that perfectly match your environment, and yields that breathtaking dramatic shot you seek.