Low-Key Photography: How To Shoot Shadow Photos with Inexpensive Gear
In this article, I provide some shadow photography tips and show you how I create my low key lighting photographs with very little financial investment.
Even if you are photography beginners, you can create these types of shadowy pictures with only a few common photography techniques. I’ll explain the lighting gear you need. You’ll also want a camera that can shoot in manual mode (which is pretty much every DSLR these days). Frankly, low-key lighting can be done with any camera on the market (including your smartphone) but is easiest to obtain with manual controls. Let’s get to it!
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What is low key photography?
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. It is a style with a high lighting ratio that allows the photographer to play with lighting and shadows.
But, in low-key photography, it is intentionally underexposed for dramatic effect and predominantly darker tones. In this case, you are intentionally removing some of the traditional three-point lighting options that are customary in studio photography (key light, fill light, and backlight).
You see this lighting style in portrait photography, street photography, landscape photography, and so on. It is an abstract, suspenseful style because the shadows wrap around the subject in an often unusual way. This style is used in film noir and German Expressionism quite a bit. Not to mention horror movies.
What I find most interesting about this style, and the way I choose to take these photos, it is actually shot in the light with a single-lens reflex camera (SLR). It’s simply a camera trick that makes the image look like it was taken in the dark with pointed light at the focal point. I’ve seen this style shot in the dark, but in my opinion, it’s much easier to work with your subject and focus appropriately with your studio lights on. It’s always interesting to see how the light pattern looks in your camera versus how you think it will appear.
The image above is an example of low key photo lighting. But here (below) is my original image. It’s not nearly as abstract as my final photo, but it’s a lighter degree of low-key. It’s not quite the interesting shadow image as above, but it is a good example of the different degrees of low key photography.
For this style, it’s as much about the setup and composition as the final editing. You may need to think about light in a new, liquefied way. A bit like the fluidity of water.
By the way, while we are on the topic of low key, you may not know there is an inverse to this style. Aptly called high key, this style takes on the look of an overexposed image. But maybe I’ll write an article on that another time.
“You Don’t Take A Picture, You Make It”
Before we dig in, let’s talk about this quote. The quote is often attributed to Ansel Adams. It’s definitely the way I approach photography. As I’m composing the shot, I’m thinking about the end result. Photography is inherently an abstract art. Your eye is different than others’ eyes. Your lens will abstract the image. 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.
When Taylor arrived for this photoshoot with this flowy dress, the first thing I noticed was the wavy, fluid nature of the outfit. I find one of the best ways to enhance the lines of any subject is with shadows. I knew that I wanted the light to naturally dissipate behind her. I already knew it would be black on the right side, so I didn’t even worry about getting the whole dress in the frame (thus excluding a helper who was holding an electric fan, adding body to Taylor’s hair).
We were going to make the image I had in my head into the image you see before you.
How To Take Low Key Photos
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 create curved shadows with our lighting setup.
Think of it as painting with dramatic shadows.
I like to keep my lighting very simple. Photographers sometimes collect all types of different lighting rigs. Some with grates and shutters to create different designs. But many photographers eventually widdle down to just a few personal favorites. While I do own a few powerful strobes and continuous lights, it’s a simple speedlight setup that usually works wonders.
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.
At only $50, it has the power and durability to work anywhere, including outside with natural light. For non-low key photography, If you find yourself fighting with a harsh sun that’s creating shadows, set this up to blow out some of those shadows. It’s super versatile and a must-have for any photographer.
It’s a powerful blast of light that recharges quite fast on four AA batteries. You can plug this directly into your camera’s hot shoe, but it’s much more interesting to put this somewhere around your subject. I like to mount mine on a light stand. Sometimes I’ll set up two of these at different powers to create some interesting shadows. For example, this shot in which the two separate speedlights (wrapped with gels) created a soft blue and a harsh red:
You will want to buy a wireless control to plug into the hot shoe of your camera. This allows the speedlight to fire remotely and perfectly in sync. I find it to be much less restrictive than having a cable tethering your camera to your speedlight.
This is the wireless flash controller I own ($35). It easily allows me to control the power of the speedlight(s) with the LED screen. Attach this to your camera, and you should be ready to go.
So far your investment, with the speedlight and the controller is around $85.
A black backdrop is an optional component to these low-key photos. Sure, you can use a black wall if you’re lucky to have one in your studio. But a cheap black bed sheet works just fine.
Or for $15, you can pick up a muslin photo backdrop. Muslin works great because it’s lightweight cotton. Tack it up to the wall or buy a simple stand. Here is the portable stand I own — it’s only $35. You can spend more on brand names, but you certainly don’t have to.
You could pick up a speedlight reflector. This light modifier is something I definitely recommend, as it helps you get really creative with your light control for virtually no money. With this, you can create sharp cuts in your shadows like a crescent moon. Very cool.
Positioning Your Light
Here is our original photo again for reference:
Some people choose to shoot low-key photos in the dark with a modeling light to show where the burst will ultimately be when the flash fires. I prefer to shoot in low ambient/available light (like my image above). I find it to be far simpler for everyone in the room.
To compensate and make it look like a darker and shadowy image, I set my camera to allow less light in (using manual mode). I’m setting the camera so only the brightest light gets in, turning the softer light into blackness. In the above photo, the raised foot looks very dark. But if you were in the room, her foot was very visible to the naked eye. It’s a camera trick of sorts.
Usually an F-stop of 9, a shutter of 1/100 and an ISO of 100 works just fine. Sometimes I will raise the shutter speed if I need to make it a little darker.
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).
With your model in their spot and your light where you like it, now it’s your job to pivot and find the best shot! Take a few shots, adjust your position as needed, and adjust your shutter speed as needed. In a few tries, you should have something you’re pretty happy with. If not, move the light differently and try another round.
This is very much a trial-and-error exercise. Since you don’t see the end result until the shot is taken, you have to guess at how the light will ultimately look. But study your shots as you take them to fine tune your image. It’s not uncommon for me to delete 80% of these photos, thus keeping about 20% as possible candidates for publishing.
Once you have the shot you want, it’s time to fire up your image editor.
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.
But if you have a continuous light, it can certainly work as well. (A continuous light is simply an ‘always-on’ light source balanced for photography.) Just make sure it’s a powerful one that can equal the blast of a speedlight. I own a few of these, including this pack by Emart. I love using the boom arm.
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.
If you understand how to set the camera, and can scout a proper outdoor location, you can create this effect in the daylight without artificial light. The exact same rules apply. I recommend practicing with controlled light first, but once you understand how to set the camera and take the shot in a studio, it becomes infinitely easier to recreate the effect with natural daylight.
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.
I tend to start all my edits in Adobe Lightroom, then move them over into Adobe Photoshop. Lightroom is an application that allows you to catalog all your images. And, it has powerful image editing controls. It’s not quite as robust as Photoshop, but it’s a great place to start.
Here’s a screenshot showing my settings in Lightroom:
I do recommend you shoot in RAW (instead of .JPG), which gives you much more latitude for refinements and image detail. For this shot, I converted the color image into black and white. I brought the blacks way down and pushed the whites up. This created a really harsh (but beautiful) result. Then for fine-tuning, I adjust the contrast and highlights to taste.
While you don’t need Lightroom to replicate my settings, I should mention that Lightroom has a really great adjustment called Clarity. It adds a certain gritty effect when cranked all the way up. Sometimes this gritty look can be too much, but in black and white, it helps make it look more “cold.” Lightroom has also recently released a texture control with its May 2019 update. I love this for smoothing skin that can sometimes look a little rough under this harsh flash.
Also available to edit are the different grey tones, which are represented by the images original colors. It gives you wonderful, subtle controls. Here are my settings:
For my personal workflow, I’ll then take this image into Photoshop so I can remove any blemishes (with the clone or healing stamp), or slightly bend any lines I think can be more attractive (with the Liquify tool). Usually, the work I do in Photoshop is very, very subtle.
As an example, here is a time elapsed video that I edited in the low-key style:
While this style is based on the concept of underexposed images, you likely want to refrain from showcasing accidentally underexposed images. This is an image (not mine) from Instagram:
While one can argue the above photograph is still “low key,” to me it misses the crispness of an intentionally built photograph. There is a haze. It isn’t crisp. It is a bit flat and doesn’t pop. Maybe you see it, maybe you don’t. Simply one person’s opinion.
Other Low Key Photography Examples
Here are a few of my favorite examples of different applications in nature, portraits, and more.
This first one is a photo of mine. Low key lighting can be your best friend, but sometimes your worst enemy. It accentuates the qualities of the body in amazing ways. Sometimes it is flattering, as is the case with this model’s muscle tone. But scars, unsmooth skin, and blemishes can also look much more enhanced. Knowing this means you can position your model in certain ways to avoid those unflattering features. Or, of course, there’s Photoshop to fix those problems.
This is yet another photograph of mine. The abstraction is even more curious here, due to the model’s interesting pose. In this case, I added some clarity and other touch-ups in Photoshop to make this a bit more unique:
Low key portraits might be one of my favorite things to shoot. I love the little details that make up a person’s face. This lighting helps accentuate the subtle details that make a person so unique. In this last photograph of mine, the model’s freckles and wet hair are very, very attractive to the viewer:
If you like scenic shots, urban environments can be naturally good subjects. Part of photography is scouting for good locations. Once your eye is trained to see the images like your camera, you can create some really powerful scenic shots like this. (Not my photo; see the link in the image for artists’ Instagram page.)
Understanding the flow of light can create low key images in broad daylight. With the sun source on the right of this image, the subject’s opposite side is cast in an alluring shadow. This is a very cool shot. (Not my photo; see the link in the image for artists’ Instagram page.)
To really get you thinking, and to close out this article, I’m sharing other inspiring images. Study these photos and apply everything I discussed above, and soon you’ll be able to create this amazing photography yourself. (All the rights to these images belong to the creators, linked with each photo.)
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.
In fact, when learning this style, I practiced on my 14-year-old son while he played video games. Lights were on, and while the speedlight was flashing, he was none the wiser that he was my guinea pig for my first ever low-key shot:
You may also be interested in some of my moody Lightroom Presets, available now on my Etsy store.