Low-Key Photography for Beginners – Enter the Dark Side

By gone / August 29, 2011

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.

Low-Key by Mo Dube (Shadow Stalker)

(Tucker by Sarah Christine on Flickr)

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.

A Portrait in Darkness
(A Portrait in Darkness by Sean McGrath on Flickr)

Black and White is a popular choice as it really brings ‘light' to the shadows.

(Thinking by Thibault B Photography on Flickr)

But there is a lot to be said about the drama of colour when the light is right.

Heels, low key.
(Heels by woody329 on Flicker)

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. If you are lucky enough to have your own photo studio, fabulous, this will give you a reason to use it. If you don't, no worries, you don't need one.

This shot was inspired by the way the computer monitor lit the photographer's hand:

Hand Print
(Hand Print by qwikrex on Flickr)

Camera Settings – 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.

Lighting – 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. This is called ‘contamination'.

Following is a very basic studio light setup for low-key photography. Remember that direction and intensity are all up to you but avoid lighting the background. And don't be afraid of back lighting! It can produce some spectacular results.

Backlighting in the Golden Hour by Joanna Smith Photography https://www.facebook.com/JSPhotographyBusiness

If you don't have a studio, you still have several choices. A popular one is to use two separate rooms. Block off all light in one room so that if the door is closed, you could see nothing. Use the adjoining room as the light source. You can use the door to help control the incoming light. Try to keep the light from hitting the camera or the background.

If you are unable to muster adjoining rooms, we still have choices. Indoors and out. Daylight and night. Why, I've been known to create low-key images with the levels sliders in Photoshop. (no hate mail, please).

But this isn't about Photoshopping, so let's look at ways of setting the camera up to achieve our results. With an off camera flash, we can create a low-key image any time of day. It works in the midday sun if you are indoors and works nicely outdoors on a dull, overcast day.

On a tripod, in manual mode:

  1. Set your ISO as low as your camera allows.
  2. Set your shutter speed to the fastest it will go with the triggers you are using. This will reduce a lot of the sun light.
  3. Set up your shot.
  4. Start with the aperture wide open (low number). Take a test shot and progressively narrow it until there is no ambient light in the frame. The histogram should be flat lined at the bottom.

From there, you have to experiment. Set up your flash and shoot. If there is too much light in the scene, you could lower your flash output or move the light further away. If the background is contaminated, you could change the direction of light or move your subject further from the background. Whatever you think of is fine so long as you achieve your intended outcome.

(Tea Cup by Renee Stewart Jackson)

If you are not blessed with a flash, you can still take outdoor, low-key shots. You just have to wait until night. Then head out into the darkness and find your light source. It could be a streetlamp, moonlight, car headlights, or a flashlight that you brought along.

Experiment – 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.

copyright Aloha Lavina.

A high key image with backlight and a reflector to fill in deep shadows, with exposure compensation. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In closing I'll add that although we are trying to capture darkness, it is the application and control of the light that makes a great low-key image. The lack of light puts all focus on what light is allowed to stay. All your lighting decisions will show in your image so although it can be fun and whimsical, really good low-key photography requires a good knowledge of light, shadow and tone. Precise application of lighting is required in order to control the very important shadow detail.

Manipulate your lighting and placement of subject until the shadows fall exactly as you want them. It's that easy. And difficult.

If you want to go even further and start printing your low key photographs, then take a look at our guide to the best photo printer for the job.

See you on the dark side.

Mo is a long time Light Stalking denizen who you can also find on Flickr.


About the author


  • Hey Mo!!! Fantastic. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

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  • Richard says:

    Great article
    Now to go out and practice…

  • nice post indeed…. great examples…

  • Tersha says:

    really good tutorial, Mo,…..coincidentally, it’s what I was trying to do at the week-end……must go and try again……

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  • Theresa says:

    Fantastic tutorial. I’m always pleasantly surprised when this kind of shot happens “by accident” and the photos are striking for all the RIGHT reasons! Now I know I can play around a little more with it…gonna share some of what I’ve got already on my blog and keep going. Thanks for the inspiration AND instruction!

  • Terrific article- as to be expected. I will be looking for more from you. Low key photography is definitely a medium that needs to be explored further. Congrats!

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  • Susan Olheiser says:

    Thank you for the article – a great read and easy to follow. Will definitely be trying some low-key photography soon!

  • Mo, great lesson! Took notes – will practice this weekend πŸ™‚

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  • beautiful, i’ll be trying some of these techniques

  • Susanne Conyers says:

    Can’t wait to try. This will be my new project. Always enjoy your blog. Inspiring !! Now I must go practice. πŸ™‚

  • Pam says:

    Now I have inspiration … and just need to go find a subject!

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  • Lisa Hill says:

    Thanks Mo, great article, I’m sure I will refer back to this from time to time

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  • Maybe one of these days I’ll try it !
    Great tutorial, Mo’ !

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  • Mike Dean says:

    A great tutorial. I played around with this idea a while back and got some pleasing results. Especially as I was just sat in my room on my bed! The wall was only 12″ behind my head. A true testament to the power of the snoot!


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  • Pere Ferrer says:

    Great work Mo! and thanks to share it via Ligh Stalking

  • Emanuel Table says:

    I really like this style of photography and have only tried it a few times. It definitely takes me many trials and errors before being satisfied with the shot. I will be trying your techniques out this weekend. Below is one of my low key photos using a violin. Thanks for the great article… http://www.flickr.com/photos/emantable/6102118372/

    • gone says:

      Love the image! And yes, although the concepts are simple, it takes a lot of trial and error to get it right. I’m still working on it myself. But if we work at it we end up with great images like your violin!

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  • I have tried this with a colour layer aver a black & white low key shot


  • Joanne says:

    Fantastic article Mo. Loved it.

  • Russtalbo says:

    Great shots and tutorial. Well done.

  • Martin says:

    Just when I was feeling flat – a new inspiration – thanks

  • Susan says:

    I have been looking for an article to learn more about low-key photography because I love it. Thanks! I just found it!

  • Rob says:

    Thank you for this article, congrats!

  • Shane says:

    Some good advice here. I was so impressed I set up a shoot to do some low-key trials myself.
    Results can be found here:

    Thanks for the motivating kickstart πŸ™‚

  • Carmen says:

    I tried to do this the other day and could not workout why it was not working, now I know, thanks heaps for the diagrams for both styles

  • Such a good idea about using a door as a reflectore. I will be trying these out.

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  • Carolyn Agnello says:

    Thank you for the great tips, can’t wait to try them.

  • Great article, now i know what to do, its just a matter of doing it

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  • anugrah says:

    Low key does have a very good depth of field, resulting in a dimension to a picture, but without a good concept will be difficult to produce good photos

  • Dwaine Gipe says:

    OK I learned about Low Key. Why are so many images no longer available?

    Is there any place on site the deals with sports action and low light in most gyms?

    This site will take some patience. It is not the easiest place to learn.

  • Great tutorial! That’s what i’ve made: [img]http://i49.tinypic.com/np2kbq.jpg[/img]

  • Noemi says:

    Some pictures are mising. πŸ™ Could you fix it? Thanks in advance!

  • Sonit says:

    How to do a dark photography with help of a smartphone 8mp camera in which only ISO is mentioned ?

  • Petra says:

    THX πŸ™‚

  • Jeff says:

    Great article, but unfortunately most of the important images are missing…

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