Your challenge this week is to capture a low key photo in the camera. “Low key” means that the majority of the tones in the image are in the shadows. “In the camera” means that I don’t want you creating the low key effect in post processing. Low key does not mean low contrast. In fact, the most effective low key images have high contrast. It takes thought and intention to capture a dramatic low key image.
Low key photography is all about the lighting. At first you might be tempted to simply capture an underexposed image and call it low key because it is dark, but that produces a low contrast image and is not what this challenge is about. Instead think about lighting only the parts of the subject that you want to include in the photo and letting the rest fall into dark shadow with little or no detail. The shadows dominate the photo but don’t define it.
There are many options for subjects in low key photography. Portraits are particularly popular. They tend to mimic the Chiaroscuro style of painting from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Chiaroscuro is created by light hitting the subject from a particular direction. It is the reflection of the light on the subject – not the light itself – that is captured. Many modern day photographers create this using a single flash unit, but it is entirely possible to create the effect using either natural light or some other form of directional light: flash light, computer/tablet screen, etc.
Macro and still life images can really come alive when captured low key. Have you ever been out on a walk and noticed a single flower being lit by sunlight while the area around it is in the shade? This is the perfect setup for a low key macro shot. Of course you can create that sort of set up in a studio as well. The trick is to shine a directional light only on the subject (not on the background) so that you get a nice dark or even black background behind your subject.
Low key landscape photos can be tougher to find and capture in the camera, but they are very effective when you do. The trick is learning to see how the light plays off the landscape and capturing that instead of capturing the source of the light. This is probably the most difficult subject for the challenge this week because you don’t have control over the light and I don’t want you creating the low key effect in post processing – I want you to capture it in the camera.
So how do you know that you’ve captured your photo correctly in the camera? With the histogram, of course! Let’s take a look at the histograms of the above photos. Notice how they are all heavily weighted to the left? In fact, the ones with black backgrounds are stacked up against the left side. If you remember in the past couple of histogram challenges I’ve encouraged you to avoid stacking up against the left or right sides to avoid losing detail in the shadows or highlights. But in the case of many low key photos with pure black backgrounds, the whole point is that there is no detail in the shadows and that is reflected in the histograms being stacked up against the left side.
Also notice that all of these histograms extend pretty far to the right. That indicates that the images have high contrast. (The histogram for a low contrast image would not extend much past the middle of the histogram range.) Thus, you can use the histogram on your camera to tell you whether you’ve captured a low key, high contrast image: heavily weighted towards the left but extending almost all the way to the right.
This week’s challenge:
- Capture a low key photo in the camera.
- Do NOT simply reduce the exposure compensation of a normal scene and call it low key. This will produce a low contrast image. I want you to capture a high-contrast, low key image in the camera.
- Do NOT use post-processing to make a normally exposed photo look low key. The goal is to find or create a scene that is already low key and capture it in your camera.
- You don’t need to post the histogram this week because I figure by now you know how to find it, but if you would like to post it please do as I find it helps everyone to become more familiar with them.
For more information on how to take low key photos, I found the following links particularly helpful while doing research for this challenge:
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Low Key
Low-Key Photography for Beginners – Enter the Dark Side
How to Create a Low Key Portrait using Natural Light
Low Key Photography Tips
Macro: How to Take Low-key Close-ups
20 Outstanding Low and High Key Photographs