Low-key photography is a terrific challenge for both the novice and the experienced. It is a very simple technique that brings instant drama to an image but could take a lifetime to master. Like most other forms of photography, it is all about illumination and elimination.
A low-key image is one that contains predominantly dark tones and colours. Like high-key images, they convey atmosphere and mood. But where a high-key image feels airy and light, a low-key is usually dramatic and full of mystery. And where high-key lighting over-lights the subject to reduce contrast, low-key lighting creates striking contrasts through reduced lighting. Shadows are now the primary element of the composition.
Black and White photography is a popular choice as it really brings ‘light’ to the shadows but there is a lot to be said about the drama of a hinge of colour when the light is right. To create a low-key image, all you need is your camera and one light source. Depending on the results you are looking for, you might also make use of a fill light or reflector. The only setting that should absolutely stay constant is the ISO. Set it to 100 (or as low as your camera will let you) and never move it. Keeping your ISO low will give you good image quality, keeping it both dark and noise-free. Then it is just a matter of adjusting the shutter speed and aperture to achieve the desired effect for the light you’ve chosen.
Choice of light is all up to the photographer. You have only one key light so the only choices you have to make now are direction and strength. The only ‘rule’ you should impose on yourself when shooting low-key is to never allow light to reach your background. I know, never say never. But unless you have a particular reason to add texture there, don’t do it.
Ultimately a low-key image is just one that contains predominantly dark tones. There are many ways to achieve that. Feel free to use one of the most useful (and under-used) features on the camera – exposure compensation and if you would like to learn more on this subject feel free to contact me for more information on my 1:1 workshops on low key photography or other subjects.