Low Key Photography: A Creative Photographic Technique to Make Your Photos Unique

When you make nature photos, you are certainly trying to create interesting images that not only make sense, but more importantly, that they have an impact.

I pursue the same goal for my fine art photo collections.

That is why I use the low key technique for my nature photos, in wildlife photography, landscape photography, and underwater photography.

In this article I share with you what I know about this creative photographic technique.

This article will help you understand how to implement a new tool in your photography toolbox. By implementing it, you will make your photos even more interesting and instill in them true meaning.

Black and white low key photo of pink flamingos on lake Magadi in Kenya. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
Black and white low key photo of pink flamingos on Lake Magadi in Kenya.

The Little Story of This Article

When I started creating black and white art photos, I quickly turned to the high key technique. Indeed, this photographic style corresponded very well to my state of mind and perfectly reflected my moods. I love the great outdoors. I like the freedom to move where I want and when I want. I love the wind. I love to inhale and exhaled the scents of nature. I also like to reflect the energizing emotions that nature radiates in my work, allowing my viewer to escape for a few moments.

However, as I wandered through Europe and the United States, I realized that I wanted to show more and more a mysterious and darker nature. I also wanted to translate the melancholy I often experienced in places I returned to after a few years.

The climax of when I identified my curiosity for this dark, bittersweet nostalgic style occurred during a trip dedicated to the rut of the deer. The weather conditions had been difficult. I had resigned myself to photograph deer stags in the undergrowth, and I knew that high key was not an adapted style. I had to show the scenes in a different way. It was at that time that I considered low key for some of my fine art print collections.

I had not considered publishing an article on this subject, this idea never crossed my mind. Until, one day it did. The idea came to me after a fascinating discussion with an intern at one of my workshops, Annik M. We were in the woods in Charente-Maritime in search of a deer. Annick wanted to make a special photo. During one of our blinds, she asked me if chiaroscuro could suit her photographic approach. After this long discussion, I wanted to share my thoughts on chiaroscuro in nature photography with as many people as possible.

This article was born from this exciting discussion with Annik. I thank her for her questions and willingness to learn.

Welcome to the Dark Side of Photography

You have learned that photography is just about light. With the low key I welcome you to the dark world. With this technique you will not only write your pictures with light but also with shadows. The stronger they are, the more emotional your photos will be.

Low key photography allows you to break many of the rules of photography. You can create your own boundaries.

The low key photo is the privileged domain of textures, details, lines, shapes, and curves.

If you are ready and willing to join the dark side of photography, I welcome you to a world without limits.

Should We Talk About Chiaroscuro or Low Key Photography?

The terms “chiaroscuro” and “low key” refer to the same style of visual arts.

The term chiaroscuro is an Italian term that is more suited to painting.

The term low key is an English term more suited to photography.

In the rest of the article, I will use the word “low key” when referring to this concept.

Definition of the Low Key

Low key photography is a creative technique of photographing rather dark scenes and then using light to highlight specific areas of a photo.

In a low key photograph, light tones meet dark tones without any real gradation.

A low key photo is characterized by deep blacks, dark tones, and many shadows.

Etymology of the Term "Low Key"

The term low key appeared in 1895. Its English source comes from the expression "low keyed". It evokes an audible sound that is quiet and very deep. It has been used in photography to evoke the calmness and quietness of dark tones.

It corresponds perfectly to the dark tones which are very deep.

If you have to keep in mind the sense of low key you have to consider depth, thickness, and calmness.

A Bit of History to Understand Chiaroscuro in Photography

In this paragraph, I use the term “chiaroscuro” because I am referring to its origins. This paragraph seems to me to be particularly important to make you understand why you should choose to use low key in your future photographs.

The photographic low key draws its sources from three styles of painting: sfumato, chiaroscuro, and tenebrism.

I am not going to give you a lecture on art history, but by understanding these three styles, you will immediately have in mind paintings by famous artists. When you develop your photos, you will be more easily inspired, and you will know which artistic direction to choose to create your photographs.

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First, let us return to the Renaissance to fully understand the artistic revolution that took place. Before the Renaissance, the color black was never used as a dominant color in painting. It was present but in a discreet way.

With sfumato, chiaroscuro, and tenebrism, the color black becomes essential. It is often the dominant color.

Sfumato was invented by Leonardo da Vinci. It is a technique of soft transition between shadows and light. There is no abrupt transition between tones. The principle of sfumato was to create different layers of paint to create a gradation between light and dark tones. Leonardo da Vinci thus eliminated the brutal borders and softened the reading of these paintings. The Mona Lisa painting was created using the sfumato technique.

The chiaroscuro is the second technique of the renaissance which promotes dark tones. It was developed by Rembrandt. The painter gives an extraordinarily strong direction to the light that falls on the subject. The result is an illuminated subject with a dark background. The chiaroscuro uses strong contrasts between light and dark tones to allow the creation of a 3D effect in a 2D backdrop. I want to remind you that 3D and the creation of depth is a visual work that exists within 2D form. It is still a flat piece of paper, and yet the use of chiaroscuro makes it appear as if the scene is lifted from the paper and brought to life. Even today, we still talk about Rembrandt light.

The third technique that originated during the Renaissance and which uses dark tones is tenebrism. It was developed by Caravaggio. It is a technique derived from Chiaroscuro. While chiaroscuro uses a shadow-based technique to give an illusion of volume to the subject, tenebrism strongly reinforces dark tones. Sometimes these tones are black in order to keep one or two areas in the scene well lit. The transition between light and dark tones is not gradual. Caravaggio's goal was to create only dramatic scenes without the concern of creating a 3D effect to his paintings.

The most interesting thing is that these painters, who became legendary artists over time, have been criticized for using black as the dominant color in their paintings. They were accused of wanting to hide defects and errors in their works through the use of black.

My advice at this stage of the article is to take an interest in these three painters as well as Rubens to look at and study how these precursors and artistic inventors created their paintings. Believe me, this is a real source of inspiration for your future nature photography.

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