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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 privilege 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 get a part of the image well exposed and 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 Too High 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 ideal 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 push the black much too hard. They become 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, blacks 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 keep 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, light tones.

Do not use the overall contrast setting because you will lose detail on the contours of your subject. In print you will have a 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. As I often say, a correct exposure is the hallmark of any good photographer.

In your developments, keep in mind that a low-key photo must be mysterious. It is above all a question of atmosphere.

A complete article would be necessary for low-key development. It would be much too long for this subject which is more related to the photographic approach. I will describe a development 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 give 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. As your low-key photos in nature are made in dark places with a lot of details and textures, with black and white you will have remarkably interesting results in terms of 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 change the contrast only during this step. The result will be much better than 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 its examples below. Some colors like green are very admirably adapted. But the final result is less spectacular than with black and white.

However, if you choose the color for your low-key photos, the trick is to decrease the vibrance to remove the impact of 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, translate your feelings.

In order to express yourself photographically, you have a photographic language at your disposal. You will use a system of signs specific to the photo to visually translate what you feel. These are for example shapes, perspective, 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 a photographic grammar. The low-key gives you a structure to set up your photographic elements in order to better express yourself visually.

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. This is for the past time.

On the other hand, I am passionate about the future. I will be able to make my dreams come true, discover new landscapes, observe animals I didn't know. The future is the realization of 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 she falls.
  • The cliffs to the right and left.
  • A promontory in the foreground.
  • A small waterfall on the left.
  • A sky with cloudss.

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

For the elements of the photographic language, I chose a slight perspective that goes 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.

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

The small pool of water symbolizes humanity. It records the experiences, the effect, the acts, 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 on the right of the waterfall allow us to channel our gaze. Symbolically, they bring nothing. They are just present for the low-key.

The presence of the sky and the multi-plane is essential for me. It helps to create hope. I try to say that nothing is 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 are obstacles to 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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