9 Tips to Master Low Key Photography and Create Good Photos

Black and white low-key photograph of a landscape of Caddo Lake in Texas. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
Black and white low-key photograph of a landscape of Caddo Lake in Texas.

Application to Photography

If you have read the previous paragraph carefully, you hopefully have understood that some Renaissance painters chose to favor the color black and dark tones in their artistic creations.

For me, the important thing is to show you that the low key photo technique is just an application of the chiaroscuro technique for painters.

Low key photography takes up all these principles.

The technique of low key in photography consists in mixing in your images the light and dark parts without real gradation.

This technique makes it possible to create photos with strong contrasts.

In nature photography, you must learn to use natural or artificial light sources to create your contrasts.

You will have to learn to control the light on your subject and the shadows present in the environment. Remember this: In photography, low key is characterized by deep blacks, dark tones, and very present shadows.

The Low Key Is Only a Tool to Express Oneself

Before listing a number of criteria in favor of the use of low key in photography, I would like to emphasize once again that photography is a visual artistic discipline.

I consider it an extraordinary means of non-verbal expression. I think that the main strength of photography, even if it is focused on facts as is the case of photojournalism, fashion, or commercial photography, is that it can be used to express your emotions, to translate feelings, and to convey your messages.

For me, photography reveals my inner beauty of self-expression.

To achieve your goals, you have the choice of tools such as photo styles. Low key is one of these styles. Do not use the low key technique just because it is trendy or because another famous photographer is using it. Low key photography is a tool that you must use wisely to express yourself and express what you are experiencing deep within your spirit.

If you use this technique "just because others do", you will not receive good artistic results.

Remember that you want to create interesting pictures that make sense. This is the price you must pay if you want to be satisfied and happy with your product. You must make decisions regarding technique and style carefully.

Why: Using the Low Key Technique in Photography

After reading the historical foundations of low key and understanding its etymology, you may wonder why to use this technique.

Before I list a number of reasons to convince you to use this technique in your nature photos, let me remind you that this is just a particular photo style. It is just a simple tool that you will use to strengthen your photographic signature.

Do not believe that low key is the end-all solution for making your photos interesting. Only the meaning you impart in your work will identify your photos’ value and increase your credibility with your audience.

With that being said, here is a list of my reasons for favoring the use of low key in photography.

Some Reasons to Use the Low Key in Photography

The low key technique allows you to create images with strong contrasts. It allows the viewer's gaze to be guided towards the main photographic element.

The low key technique allows you to create photos that have style and impact. Indeed, it adds depth. It creates a dramatic and intimate atmosphere.

The low key style is mainly used to evoke mysterious, enigmatic, and sensual atmospheres. It allows you to highlight and contrast graphic forms.

The low key allows the viewer to interpret the scene in a subjective way. The low key encourages emotional expression in the scenes.

Personally, I think that even if low key is an interesting technique for creating intimate scenes with mysterious atmospheres, it is still a real challenge to use.

Indeed, if you have read my article on the reasons to create photographs, you will remember that the definition of photography is to write with light. It implies that the light must be present in all parts of your photos and above all that it must be dominant.

The low key takes this definition at face value. This photographic style highlights black in an iconic and symbolic way. Dark becomes the equivalent of light.

Personally, I have become a true enthusiast of low key photography because the two tones can harmonize beautifully.

For me, this is an incredibly good reason for you to try this photographic style.

How to Use the Low Key in your Photographs

A low key photo is dominated by dark tones and the color black. The light comes from only one source. It allows the artist to accentuate the dramatic side of the photographed scenes.

To create a beautiful low key photo, you need to increase the depth of the shadows. The blacks should become deep and rich.

But above all, be careful not to block these black areas. If you do, you will create a feeling of oppression when reading the photo. In addition, you would create a significant mass imbalance.

You need to maintain detail in the dark areas.

I believe that maintaining details in all parts of a photo are the mark of properly exposed photos. This is what I call the hallmark of a good photographer.

Tip #1: Choose Your Environment for Your Low Key Photos

In this article, I will approach low key photography in a general way, but the examples come from nature photography because it is my specialty. Thus, my advice still applies to this theme.

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When you choose the scene to be photographed, choose an environment with a dark tone. For example, with a low key photo of a deer, I always choose a background with trees. For a landscape, I choose a closed scene, like a cave.

If you choose an open environment, your photo will be oriented to lighter tones instead. Do not forget that closed environments evoke mystery and drama more easily.

Tip #2: Use Only One Light Source

This is an important tip because you do not want to forget that the sources of low key photography are chiaroscuro and sfumato. The goal is that only the subject is illuminated. The rest of the image should remain dark. The light source should highlight the subject. The idea is to photograph perpendicular to the light source. It should be very directional and fairly concentrated. Personally, morning and evening lights are ideal. One of the techniques I use is that of light filtered by trees. The closer the light is to your subjects, the better the effect will be.

Tip #3: Frame and Compose Well

I will always repeat it. The choice of good framing at the time of the shooting is essential to the success of a photo. This is even more true with a low key photo. Once in the field, think in terms of shadows. All photographic elements that you are going to integrate into your scene must be in dark tones. The entirety of your photo must be harmonious and consistent with the low key.

When you use a style as strong as low key, framing does not just mean choosing the elements of your scene. You must also consider the final result you want to achieve, which is more complex.

This also applies to the composition you are going to make. You must choose to establish relationships between your different elements according to the low key technique.

Tip #4: Measure Light in Spot Mode


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