Low Key Landscape Photography

A low-key landscape photograph of the Grand Canyon in black and white.
A low-key landscape photograph of the Grand Canyon in black and white.

Why and How to Photograph Landscapes in Low Key

If you like to create landscape photographs, you may certainly be looking for a new style or a new way to capture your pictures.

Landscape photography is a photographic theme perfectly suited to low key, as your goal in low key is to make pictures with mysterious and dramatic atmospheres.

I am passionate about the low key style. I use it quite often in my landscapes of the southwestern United States.

In this article, I will share with you some of the techniques I use.


This article devoted to landscape photography in low key is the continuation of a dossier devoted to low key photography from a general perspective. As I am specialized in nature photography, my three favorite themes are landscape photography, wildlife photography, and underwater photography.

This article addresses one of these three photographic themes. I advise you to read or reread the general article on low key before beginning this particular article. I have already developed many points in the previous article which I may mention here but which I will not attempt to revisit.

The Little History of This Article

Landscape photography was not for me the first photographic theme I chose for low key photography. I began with wildlife photography.

For an exceedingly long time, I used color for all of my landscape photos. I used the HSL technique frequently to modify and embellish my color photos.

A few years ago, I decided to start a large photo project dedicated to the landscapes of the southwestern United States. I started buying many books from American photographers who had chosen this theme for their photographic creations.

I was very inspired by Ansel Adams' books, not only by the quality of his black and white photos but also by the techniques he used to make them.

I began to study the 10-zone system he had developed. I very quickly realized that this system was applicable almost exclusively in black and white.

The photo that really triggered my passion for low key landscape photography is the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. It was a real revelation. It was like an electric shock when I first gazed upon it. I was touched emotionally in a way that I had never experienced before when looking at a landscape photo. It was from that day on that I decided to create low key landscape photos.

Why: Photographing Landscapes in Low Key

The first reason that comes to mind is the ease of finding scenes. You certainly have landscapes around your home to photograph. All you have to do is move a few kilometers to find them. As I will explain in one of the following paragraphs, the crucial choice is that of the scene.

The second reason is that you will master a new photographic style. It will be an additional tool to help you express your moods and emotions which will help you to create interesting photos.

The third reason is that you are stepping out of your comfort zone. Why do you always do the same thing and follow your habits? Low key landscape photography is a way for you to get out of your comfort zone, test your limits, and build new creative boundaries for your photos.

Good Landscape Scenes for the Low Key

For your low key landscape photographs, I advise you to choose scenes that include:

  • Dense backdrops like heavy foliage.
  • A single light source like stripes of light.
  • Clouds or a storm to reinforce the dramatic flair.
  • A body of water to reflect the light and subjects of your photos.

Your scenes must have textures, details. But above all, they must have a strong element such as a tree or a mountain. You have to fix the viewer's gaze to a main point. Do not forget that a low key photo is made up of an illuminated area in a darker setting. You should attract attention with the light.

Scenes to Avoid for Low Key

I think that landscape scenes with snow should generally be avoided when using low key. However, you may encounter a snowy situation which would be a good fit for low key, and I encourage you to use it then. It is just that these occurrences are very rare. Snowy scenes are often suitable for high key, and usually these clear, minimalist scenes are badly adapted for low key.

The softer the scenes are without textures or details, the more vaporous they are, and consequently, the less suitable they are for low key.

The Zone System For Measuring the Light

When you are going to make a low key landscape photo, you need to know how to evaluate the brightness in dark and light tones. The greater the difference between the two tones, the greater the contrast will be and the more visual impact your scene will have.

To carry out this evaluation, I advise you to use the zone system.

I want to remind you that the zone system was invented by the American photographer Ansel Adams. His goal was to obtain the maximum detail in each tone of the photo. The principle is simple. The chart includes 10 zones (10 tones) ranging from 1 to 10, each zone is noted in Roman numerals. Zone I (1) is the tone most images fall into. It is usually said to be the underexposed zone. Zone X (10) is the brightest tone. This is the overexposed area.

The system therefore consists of 10 zones. Between each of them, there is a difference of one light stop. So, you will have a dynamic of 10 stops between the lightest and the darkest zone.

I consider that the best way to get high quality low key landscape photos is to use Ansel Adams' 10 zones.

The principle of the zones is quite simple to understand. Ideally a scene that is photographed should have a dynamic of 10 zones. This way you would have details in both the dark and light areas. Everything would be perfect in the best of worlds. The problem comes from your camera. Even if the dynamic range of today’s sensors can reach 14 stops, you will still have trouble getting interesting details in the dark and light areas. This is due to the measurement of light. You will have to make choices for your exposure. Ultimately, your low key will not be perfect.

The only way you can get a picture that conforms to the 10 zones is to bracket your scene. That is to say that you will photograph a scene by changing exposure by one stop for each shot. To make this bracketing, I recommend that you use a tripod so that you don't move. The change of exposure will be done with the shutter speed. Here is the procedure to follow:

  • You take a first picture with a balanced exposure for the camera. For this you use your bar graph. The cursor of the bar graph must be on zero. This value means that the exposure is correct for the camera's light metering.
  • You then vary the speed by -1 stop. You take a picture. You repeat the process until you reach -5 stops.
  • You start this state again by varying the speed from plus +1 stop to plus +5 stops.

Thus, you will get a picture with the dynamic valley ranging from -5 stops to +5 stops.

The process of creating the low key photo will take place on the computer. You have two solutions at your disposal.

The first solution is to use a software called HDR (High Dynamic Range) to stitch your photos. The software will work automatically for you. The purpose of HDR software is to show details in all areas of your photo whether it is in dark or light tones.

The second solution is to use software capable of creating layers and blend masks. Using the brush, you will reveal details in light and dark areas. You will then start from the photo with the exposure at zero. Then you will stack the other photos to add the details.

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Personally, I often use the fusion mask and brush technique because I can completely control the creative process. I can easily manage the details to so that they appear accompanying the density of the image. It is an easy technique to put into practice. As it is manual, it is a bit more time-consuming than using HDR software.

To summarize this paragraph, I advise that you choose your scene well in terms of light, shadows, textures, and details. Take several photos by bracketing your exposures. Assemble them with a software on your computer in order to have the best possible low key.

Using Clouds

Clouds can totally change the mood of a low key photo. Indeed, it has a wide range of contrast. However, be careful not to overexpose the highlights. In this case it could distract the eye for hours.

With experience, I have found that the details in the clouds were what the eyes of the hour appreciate the most.


I hope that this article about low key landscape photography has inspired you and opened new creative avenues.

The best advice I can give you to succeed in your landscapes with this style is to learn how to use the 10 zones system. This will allow you to have details in both dark and light tones. Development is an essential phase to master for this style of photography.

In the following article, I will share with you some techniques concerning the use of low key in animal photography.

Wildlife Photography in Low Key


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