Using Low Key in Wildlife Photography

A low-key black and white photo of a swanling in a pond in Dombes. Photo taken from a floating blind.
A low key black and white photo of a swanling in a pond in Dombes. Photo taken from a floating blind.

Why and How: Photographing Wildlife in Low Key

In the previous article, I shared with you some techniques and ideas to make your landscape photos low key.

In this article, I approach another theme: wildlife photography.

Wild animals are perfect subjects for low key photography. The low key technique allows you to highlight feathers and coats. Remember, as I explained in the first part of this article, low key technique is the domain of textures, shapes, and details.

The Story Behind This Article

Wildlife photography is a real passion for me. I started to photograph wild animals in France. The weather conditions are not always excellent. It is not uncommon that the rain begins to fall during my photo sessions or that the sky is covered with clouds.

In addition, I have a passion for large mammals. Being prey, they tend to hide in the woods and forests, where the light conditions are not always ideal.

For a long time, I took pictures of deer in the undergrowth and forests without succeeding in exploiting my images. I accumulated a lot of pictures, until the day I understood how to develop them using the low key technique.

Low lights and shadows have become allies for me, while for others, they are synonymous with dull photos that lack impact.

Today, even if I like to shoot high key photos because they allow me to use the technique of minimalism, I admit that I take more and more pleasure in wielding low key photography.

In the rest of this article, I will explain why that is. I hope to inspire you to do the same.

Why: Photographing Wildlife in Low Key

One of the reasons why you may want to take wildlife photos is to show wild animals in their natural environment. In this case, your photos are descriptive or illustrative. You may be filling the frame of a photo report for a magazine article or for a zoo advertisement.

If the reason that pushes you to photograph wild animals is rather artistic, it is because you want to share your emotions and your feelings through the transmission of the photographic language. In this case, you are in the register of the photographic interpretation. You want to impart a deeper meaning in your photos.

In this second case, the low key technique will suit you perfectly.

The low key photo is very symbolic. The wild animal world is often mysterious to most people. Ask around how many people have actually seen a deer, a bear or even a fox. Everyone can describe these animals to you. But most of these descriptions are based on images and not on reality. For most people, the lives of animals are mysterious.

Using the low key photo enhances the mystery and wonder of the photo.

Low key photography also allows you to highlight the beauty and grace of the animals you photograph. Indeed, as the low key relies on shadows, I recommend you to strengthen the shadows either at the shooting or at the time of development. For example, you will use the spot exposure technique as I will describe in the next paragraph. With a retouching software, you will darken the foliage or the environment of the photographed animal. This will focus the viewer's attention on the animal.

Low key wildlife photography can be like an “eraser” for your image. You can increase shadows in those areas that are less interesting to focus on your subject more. You will emphasize the animals by using only one source of light, like a performer illuminated in a spotlight before a dark stage.

The Right Scenes for Low Key Wildlife Photography

Not all scenes are suitable for low key wildlife photography. For example, snow scenes are more suitable for high key, as are open scenes like meadows or sky.

Remember that the low key consists in mixing the clear parts and the parts without real gradient. It is also ideal to choose a single light source to highlight the animal. In this case, the light falls on the coat or feathers. This is why you must learn to master and control the light. Keep in mind that the blacks must be deep, the tones dark, and the shadows should be present.

For example, undergrowth or forests are great scenes for low key wildlife photography. Personally, when I photograph deer in a meadow, I like to choose trees in the background.

Likewise, when I shoot from a floating blind, I know that a nice tall green reedbed will give me excellent backgrounds to showcase the birds. Green is a color that is well suited to low key for both black and white or color.

But be careful. Choosing the right setting is not enough to create a good low key wildlife photo. You have to give it a meaning or convey emotion for it to captivate your audience.

An Easy Technique for the Low Key in Wildlife Photography: Spot Mode

The low key photo technique is a style that you can easily create or enhance with software on your computer. In the field using the spot mode of your camera will allow you to achieve an interesting result.

On your camera, you have several exposure modes.

On your camera, you have several exposure modes.

  • The first mode is to calculate the exposure on the whole scene. With some brands, this mode is called "evaluative". It may also be called "matrix".
  • The second mode consists in calculating the exposure by favoring the center of the photo according to a percentage that you will set. This is the central weighted mode.
  • The third mode uses only the center of the picture or a small area defined around the focus area. This is the spot mode.

When photographing an animal with a light tone or when you want to emphasize the details of feathers or fur, perform the light metering in spot mode. This will ensure that the exposure is calculated on the animal and not on its environment.

If you are photographing an egret, for example, the white plumage should not be overexposed. If the rest of the scene is in the dark or medium tones, it will appear very dark. Your egret will be highlighted. You will naturally create a great contrast, which will inevitably attract your viewer's eyes to the animal.

Personally, this is a technique I use a lot. Even when I photograph a large animal like a deer, I do not hesitate to use the spot mode. I am sure to receive the best rendering of the coat, with enhanced textures and details.

Analysis of a Low Key Animal Picture

To illustrate the low key technique in wildlife photography, I have chosen a photo of a red deer stag. This picture was taken in France.

A low-key black and white photo of a red deer stag in France. Photo taken from a blind.
A low key black and white photo of a red deer stag in France. Photo taken from a blind.

I have a real passion for this animal species. I find deer to be majestic, graceful, and powerful. These are the morphological characteristics that I always try to illuminate when I photograph them.

But above all, I like their looks. They are curious and attentive animals. They are very fearful because they are hunted. The best way to photograph them is to use the stalking technique or the approach technique.

For this picture I was in a blind near a large oak tree. I have a 500mm lens with a full frame sensor. I am about 230 feet (70 meters) away from the animal, in an area that is covered with brambles.

I chose this scene because the background is made up of tall trees. I wanted a closed scene where I could solely showcase a deer.

Do not think that this picture was taken in a few minutes. It took me several mornings of waiting for the deer to borrow a stream that I had spotted. It circulates between the brambles.

When the deer arrived, I started to trigger my camera. Since I am in a blind, I know that even the slightest noise is amplified. Deer have very acute hearing. When they hear an unusual noise, even a very slight one, they point their heads in the right direction. Their ears are real noise concentrators.

He looks at me carefully because the front lens of my objective is important. It reflects the light, thus creating flashes that a deer will immediately spot. Stalking is not such an easy technique. He stood there watching me for a few seconds. I had time to take several pictures.

I selected this picture because the dewlap is beautifully developed. This is the fur around the neck. It is the period of the slab. The antlers are dry. The muscles are prominent. The morning light rose from the right side of the picture little by little.

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All the conditions were perfect to make a low key photo.

The light metering of my camera is set in spot mode. The focus is centered on the eyes. The calculation of the light is made on the coat. The tone of the scene is average. The differences between the different parts of the photo are not obvious at the time.

By using the spot mode, I am sure that the textures and details of the coat will be perfect.

It is during the phase of developing with my computer that I added the vignetting. I chose black and white because it is a technique that is well suited to my mode of expression.

The rest of the retouching consisted in using the dodge and burn tools to increase the light in some areas and to decrease it in others.

My goal was to show the animal beauty in all its splendor. The pride and grace of this red deer stag touched me, and I hope that it impacts you as well.


I hope that this article dedicated to low key wildlife photography has given you the desire to practice this technique.

Remember that this is only a technique. The important thing is what you wish to say with your photos. Low key should simply serve to express yourself and your emotions, not vice versa.

Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.


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