Low Key Photography Allows You to Develop a Personal Photographic Language

A low-key photo in black and white of a red deer stag during the rut. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
A low-key photo in black and white of a red deer stag during the rut.

Tip #4: Measure Light in Spot Mode

On your camera, you usually have three different modes to measure light:

  • The matrix mode (sometimes called evaluative).
  • The central weighted mode.
  • The spot modet.

I advise you to utilize the spot mode. Many cameras allow you to use this mode either on the focus area or on an area in the center of the image. Consult the technical brochure of your camera to know the options. In any case, the spot measurement of the light is carried out on approximately 5% of the totality of the photo.

If you measure the light on the subject that is illuminated and the general tone of your scene is dark, you will receive a part of the image well exposed while everything else will be dark. This is exactly what you want. If you measure the light over the whole picture with the matrix mode, you will get an average. Your scene will not be contrasted properly.

Never forget that for a low key photo, you need to increase contrasts and dark shadows. They are your best allies.

Tip #5: Avoid Using Too High of a Sensitivity

When you photograph a scene with dark tones and if your light conditions are weak, you will need to increase the sensitivity of your camera. You will create noise. Even if you can reduce it with a noise canceller during development, the idea is to limit it as much as possible when shooting to preserve details.

Indeed, the noise reduction of a photo causes the loss of detail.

That is why I advise you to use a tripod for your photos. Even if your shutter speeds are low, you will be well stabilized. You will not need to increase the sensitivity.

Tip #6: Contextualize Your Low Key Photos

Often, when you look at a low key photo, you see a brightly lit subject that stands out in contrast to a dark environment. This is the principle of chiaroscuro. Today, many photographers encourage the use of black too frequently. Its use becomes a normal absolute. There are no more nuances. If you look carefully at the paintings of the Renaissance, you will see that details still remain in the dark tones. Blacks are never absolute.

This is what I call “contextualization of scenes.” I believe that in photography, black areas should not be blocked. Details should be visible. For example, when I photograph a bird in low key on a pond, I make sure I have its reflection on the water. During development, even if I accentuate the darker tones a bit more, I will preserve details in the reflection to contextualize the scene.

Tip #7: Process Your Photos

To get a nice low key photo, I think computer processing is an essential step.

Do not forget that the development of a photo allows you to strengthen your photographic approach.

Many tools allow you to strengthen or enhance low key photos. Simply change the contrast by selecting dark tones, mid tones, or light tones.

Do not use the overall contrast setting because you will lose detail on the contours of your subject. Once it is printed, you will have a flat photo with a lack of detail.

Do not force the saturation of the black color either. A good photo is always judged by the details present in all these areas. I believe that a correct exposure is the hallmark of any good photographer.

In your developments, keep in mind that a low key photo must be mysterious. Ultimately, its atmosphere should be one of intrigue and questioning.

To fully discuss the development of low key, I would need to write an entire article devoted to just that. This article has a different focus, one which is solely related to the photographic approach. I will describe the development of low key technique in a future article.

Tip #8: The Black and White Low Key Photography

When developing a low key photo with your computer, I recommend using black and white.

This technique is best suited to create mysterious and dramatic atmospheres. As I described in another blog post, black and white photography is suitable for scenes with a lot of detail and texture. Just as your low key scenes in nature are shrouded in shadows and dark textures and details, the use of black and white further intensifies the images’ visual impact.

Moreover, since you are photographing with a single light source, your subject will be even better highlighted because the viewer will not be distracted by the different colors.

If you choose black and white for your low key photos, I advise you to only change the contrast during this step. The result will be much better if you do not change the contrast on the color photo before switching to black and white.

As far as low key in color is concerned, it is quite possible, as these examples are depicted below. Some colors like green are very admirably adapted. But the final result is less spectacular than what it is in black and white.

However, if you choose to utilize color for your low key photos, the trick is to decrease the vibrance to remove the distractors of overwhelmingly bright colors.

Tip #9: Use Symbolism in Your Low Key Photos

In photography, symbolism is a mode of expression designed to express your emotions, convey messages, and translate your feelings.

In order to express yourself photographically, you must learn to speak the photographic language. You must use a system of signs specific to the photo to visually translate your feelings, such as shapes, perspective, and curves.

Low key photography is a way for you to shape the photographic language. If I had to simplify my point, I would say that it is photographic grammar. The low key gives you a structure to set up your photographic elements in order to better express yourself visually. Just how grammar outlines a sentence by defining boundaries in a story, so does the use of low key in photography.

Let me take a concrete example to illustrate the use of symbolism in low key.

An Example of Symbolism in Low Key Photography

The photo below was taken at the headwaters of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. It is part of my collection of art photos "time passing in black and white".

A low-key photo of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.

I am obsessed with the passage of time. On the one hand, I always wonder why all of humanity's past actions are useless since wars continue to exist; the poor are always present; many human beings only think of doing evil. You will think I am an idealist: you are right. I have been for quite some time.

On the other hand, I am passionate about the unknown future. I hope to make my dreams come true, to discover new landscapes, to observe animals I did not know existed. Within the future lies the realization of all my projects.

The passing of time is a recurring theme in my art photo collections.

For this photo of the Blue Nile waterfall, I chose as photographic elements:

  • The waterfall.
  • The small pond into which it flows.
  • The cliffs bordering the waterfall.
  • A promontory in the foreground.
  • A small waterfall on the left.
  • An overhead sky filled with clouds.

I wanted to add that I took more than 50 pictures before I found the right framing and composition for this scene.

For the elements of the photographic language, I chose a slight perspective that focuses one’s attention to the left of the photo. I chose a slightly off-center point of view to provoke this perspective.

I also chose a slightly raised point to have multiplanes above the waterfall to have the horizon. Now I just have to write the story.

By choosing a point of view on the promontory, I place myself as a spectator. I am an observer. I do not intervene, hence the foreground. The low key with a strong light on the waterfall allows me to direct the viewer's gaze to it, like a spotlight on a theatrical stage.

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The waterfall never seems to stop. It is the passage of time. That is the message I wanted to get across to my audience.

The small pool of water symbolizes humanity. It records the experiences, the decisions, and the impact of human beings.

On the left, the small waterfall symbolizes what we retain from our experiences. This is what remains of all the knowledge acquired and symbolized by the main water flow. The two cliffs on the left and on the right of the waterfall allow us to channel our gaze. Symbolically, they mean nothing. They are simply present for the low key effect.

The presence of the sky and the multi-plane is essential for me. It helps to create hope. I want to believe that nothing is ever truly lost. I am an eternal optimist. I always believe that men are good. I think that everything is possible to make people happy. The clouds symbolize the fact that it is not easy. They represent obstacles one must overcome.

I hope that this example of the construction of a low key photo in a symbolic way will allow you to understand the power of photographic grammar associated with a clear photographic language.

My art photos are always built on strong foundations.

Why and How to Photograph Landscapes in Low-Key Mode


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