Photography 101

Photography 101: Low key photography

This is the sixth in my ‘Photography 101’ series, aimed at helping people feel more confident with their camera. Ideally you’ll have read all of the others before now. For best results, follow the ‘Homework assignments’ and try the exercises. You’ll get to know your camera a lot quicker if you do. Yesterday we started breaking the rules (always the fun part) so let’s carry on!

Today we learn the second of our ‘breaking the rules’ techniques. Low key has always been my favourite technique and my IRL Instagram is full of images that are about 90% black. If you’ve done the high hey exercises then you’ll find this exercise comfortingly familiar. I always say that photography is down to light and angles – it’s nothing to do with stunning models and high end cameras. Where it differs from high key is down to the angles, which I will now attempt to demonstrate with the use of diagrams which will show once and for all time why I stick to taking images, rather than making images.

With high key photography, you’re trying to take an image that’s flooded with light coming directly on to the camera. With low key photography, you’re trying to capture highlights and dark shadows. To capture shadows, you need angles – you can’t capture shadows head on. Let’s look at that principle in practice with a bathroom wall and a bare bum.

Return of the bum

Cameras at the ready! We’re at F2 and ISO 200 with our fingers on the shutter dial/button/slider. F2 is extra helpful here, even more so than in the last exercise – can you work out why? Answers after the gratuitous arse pictures.

1/1250th of a second. This is too dark but it demonstrates the principle. You see how the light is catching the right side of the right buttock? The light source is at 45 degrees off to the right of the picture. The camera is at 45 degrees on the other side. That’s how we create the shadow. There is some light catching the left buttock (that’s such a weird word, especially when you have to type it a lot) and we have created a nice shadow in the cleft (an even odder word) but not enough to make the picture interesting.

1/1000th of a second. Slightly better. There’s more definition on the right buttock and my back dimples are more pronounced. Why do backs have dimples? Still too dark to be a good picture.

1/500th of a second. I would probably stay with this exposure. The light and shadow is about right for my tastes. There’s real contrast on the leading edge, and good, deep shadows in the cleft. And because I left some space between me and the wall, the left side has good definition too – see how the light is washing onto the wall, making a line out of the darkness? Wish I’d not taken pics so soon after getting out of bed, you can still see the marks.

1/250th of a second. You could use this one if you were after a really contrasty image, but to my tastes there is too much light around the back dimples. We’ve lost detail on the skin and the extra light is not my friend.

1/180th of a second. Far too much light on the back and bum. Yes, it produces good contrast and strong shadows, but the highlight areas are all burnt out. My back appears to be a 3D relief model of the Nazca Lines.

So, to recap – as normal, we set the aperture and ISO number. Then, we start dark and use the shutter speed to adjust backwards to the right exposure until we (repeat after me) “get it right in camera”. Good.

Did you work out why F2 is extra useful here? Obviously for one starters it lets in plenty of light. But you can achieve the same effect at any aperture by adjusting the shutter speed. The wider aperture is useful because it blurs out the wall, even though it’s only a few inches away. If there was detail in the wall covering, that would be distracting. F2 helps get rid of those distractions by blurring them out, allowing your thirst responders to focus fully on your fleshy bits.

My preferred method is to control natural light, but the effect is achievable with artificial light. It’s a little more advanced, but have a look at this short video from Lindsay Adler. It uses the same technique of using angles to create shadows, which is what adds interest. She explains it brilliantly without ever having to get her arse on camera.

Homework assignment

As if I need to spell it out for you. Find a flat wall with a light source (they may be called ‘windows’ in your house) at a right angle to it. Then, recreate the shot above. You can do it with clothes on if you like but it’s not as much fun. Start with similar settings (Something around F2, ISO 200, 1/1600) and work backwards until you’re happy.

Quick snaps

  • The technique is the same as high key – start dark adjust your shutter speed until you are happy.
  • The difference from high key is in the angles and shadows. Start with the light source at 45 degrees to the subject, and the camera at 45 degrees on the other side. Adjust your position if you don’t get the shadows you want.

3 replies on “Photography 101: Low key photography”

[…] I googled how to do low key lighting and realised that this is how Charlie makes his pictures. I had been wondering where he’d found such a perfect black background in his house but turns out you don’t need one! However, the tutorials on low key lighting on google weren’t very helpful to me. They all said that ideally, you would use a black wall and clear bright light, as well as a reflective screen. Well, I had none of those. Thankfully, Charlie was more than happy to help me and tried to talk me through the steps all day long because I just didn’t get it, lol. (See his tutorial here) […]


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