You may have seen the term “low-key” polluting your social media feed. Millennials know it to mean something along the lines of “minimally”, “slightly” or “secretly”, and though their lingo is often very curious and illogical, this definition isn’t entirely incorrect when it comes to defining Low-Key Photography.
A low-key photograph is usually minimalistic, simple and uncluttered; predominantly composed of dark tones, highlighting, and intense contrast. Only specific components of the subject are illuminated, while the background is typically very dark or pitch black, which creates an eminently dramatic and mysterious (dare I say “secretive”?) atmosphere.
Though there is merit in keeping your photograph in colour to bring life to your subject matter, most low-key photographers tend to edit their photographs in monochromatic tones (black and white) to avoid distraction, while
bumping up the contrast and playing with levels in Photoshop in order to emphasize the dramatic quality of the subject matter.
However, this form of photography can be achieved with very little or no editing, and is a fantastic challenge for both the amateur and professional photographer. Should you be the former (which may very well be the case — you’re reading this article after all), and you find yourself without a wonderful little studio of your own, do not fret. There are ways.
Only a few things are needed to create a low-key photograph: your camera, a subject, a dark/shadowy background, and a light source — in this case, daylight. First things first: set your DSLR to Manual. This way, we can get the camera to do exactly what we want, rather than have it give us what it thinks we want. Set your ISO as low as it can go — the lower the ISO, the less sensitive your camera is to the light, which is what we need to achieve that black background and crisp subject, an added benefit being that low ISO means no noise/grain in the photograph.
To truly get your DSLR to follow your instructions, change your metering system from evaluative metering (which is usually the default) to spot-metering. Now you can tell your camera which spot in the frame you want to use for setting your exposure, rather than the camera wanting to evaluate and expose the whole scene.
The next part is really all up to experimentation, but it is a good idea to start with a wide aperture (a low number like f/1.8, or f/5.6 if you are using your kit lens — go as low a number as you can). This will add emphasis on the shape and texture of your subject matter, while blurring the background, which will be a lot easier to edit in post-production (if need be). A wide aperture will take in a lot of light, so you will need to compensate with a fast shutter speed so that you are letting in less light. This is an advantage if you are shooting outdoors — perhaps you are trying to shoot a flower and there is a breeze, the fast shutter speed will allow you to capture the flower effectively and clearly.
If you are shooting outdoors, try to find a dark patch of shadow to use as your background. Locate which direction your light source is coming from (i.e. the sun — note that it might not be coming from directly above). Place your object/model half in the shade, or just out of the shade, and position them depending on which elements of your object/model you want to highlight. It is best to do this when the light source is coming from the side so that no light spills into the background of your shot, so it may be worthwhile to attempt this at sunrise or sunset. An easier set up would perhaps be in your garage, where it is generally dark and you may be able to control the light source depending on how much light you let in from a side door, if this is available to you.
Once your subject is in place, set your ISO and aperture the lowest numbers it can go, and show your spot-metre what you want to highlight. Now, change your shutter speed until your exposure value (EV) is two or three stops below 0. Be sure to shoot quite close for your first attempts, as this will eliminate additional background editing if any needs to be done, plus this tight composition is a favoured aesthetic amongst many low-key photographers.
Assess your shot on your camera, and change the EV if need be by playing with the aperture and shutter speed settings. Working with natural light and shadows can be tricky, so this is your time to experiment until you get your desired shot — and it CAN happen, without a fancy studio, external flash equipment, or a collapsible backdrop.
Now go outside and play!
Well isn’t that phrase low-key reminiscent of childhood amongst many of our young Millennials today. Did I use that right?