There’s a saying that photography is writing with light. I believe that this is only partially true. Besides light, there’s another important ‘pen’ – the shadows. It’s the play of light and shadows that creates stunning images. Nowhere is it more evident than in low-key or dark photography.
While it is a challenging genre of photography, it allows you to become more versatile and find many new opportunities. Basically, it is a technique that takes full advantage of darkness and negative spaces to accentuate a subject or detail. Dark background and shadows create a dramatic, mysterious and emotional atmosphere.
Great people in any profession are great because they can turn obstacles into opportunities. Dark photography is a great example of this. Photography needs light. The lack of light can be a problem, but masters from the past found a way to open a whole new world of opportunities.
By the way, photographers didn’t invent this technique.
The Renaissance artists used this technique to achieve dramatic impact and solidity of form. Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio are credited for developing the technique. It was called chiaroscuro, while the extreme use of these effects was called tenebroso or tenebrism.
Both photography and cinematography use this technique to enhance the impression and create a gloomy or dramatic mood.
Some of the most famous photographers such as Yousuf Karsh and Edward Weston used low-key lighting extensively. Ansel Adams’ legendary photos also come to mind when you think of low-key landscape images.
When we talk about modern masters of darkness in photographs, I would mention Annie Leibovitz, Bill Henson, and Floria Sigismondi and many more, but I lack space to mention them all.
“Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Colour, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest.” – Leonardo da Vinci
So, let’s see where to start with low-key photography and how to improve efficiently.
Gear and Preparation
To be prepared is half the battle. I’ve said it many times before, but I’ll keep saying it.
If you plan ahead and prepare well, you can control things better and you also increase your chances to get a stroke of luck and capture an unexpected moment of magic.
Anyway, good preparation starts with gear.
Basically, you can take dark photos with almost any equipment but for better results, you will need a couple of specific items.
- Fast lens. A full-frame camera and small f-number will allow you to let in enough light. In low light conditions, it is crucial to get optimal results. So, prime lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or 1.4 are the best for dark images and low light conditions.
- Single light source. A single bright light is the best to illuminate whatever you want without lighting the background and ruining the contrast. It’s not carved in stone, you can use more than one source of light, but it would require additional efforts to avoid getting too much light into the image.
- Dark background. You need a dark background to achieve desired effects. You can choose dark settings or you can use dark backdrops. Also, the more you move your subject and the source of light away from the background, the darker it gets.
- Tripod. A tripod is not necessary, but it is helpful, especially if you use long exposures. The longer the exposure, the more difficult it gets to avoid camera shake. That’s where a tripod and remote shutter come to the rescue.
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” – Carl Jung
You can experiment with settings because it varies a lot depending on available light, brightness, distance, and the effect you want to achieve. So, there are no perfect settings for low-key images.
But, there are some general guidelines on how to search for perfect settings.
Start with ISO. You want the ISO number to be as low as possible to avoid noise and grain. Low ISO value makes images dark right from the start.
As for aperture, set it to the lowest f-number for starters. This way you allow the most light to enter the camera. Usually, that will be too much so you should fine-tune it from there.
Also, wide aperture correlates with shallow depth of field, which is the right setting for the dark image.
It’s a similar principle for shutter speed. With very fast shutter speeds you will get sharp and clear images, but probably too dark. So, the idea is to set it relatively fast while keeping the subject illuminated enough.
5 Additional Tips and Tricks
We covered basic preparation and settings for low key photography, so it’s time to get into more details. Small things can make a world of difference, so it’s worth it to consider every little help you can get.
- Always shoot in RAW. I could write for days about the advantages of RAW images, but I’ll mention just a few. RAW file captures more detail, provides a wider range of colors and tones and has a higher dynamic range. It allows much more control in post-processing as well. The only ‘downside’ is that it requires more skill and more time for post-processing. But, if you want to become an expert, you need to master shooting in RAW.
- Use side lighting. To create a dramatic atmosphere, you should use a single light source that illuminates your subject from the side. You are looking for strong contrast and dark shadows and it’s easier to achieve this with light coming from one side.
- Keep the background dark. If your background is not dark enough you can use black backdrops to make sure it doesn’t create a distraction. Another nice trick is to move both your subject and the source of light away from the background. The light and the shadows on the subject will remain the same while the background will become darker.
- Use negative spaces. Don’t fill the frame with your subject. Using negative spaces will make a better composition. It will create more drama and draw attention to your subject.
- Use the rule of thirds. Speaking of composition, there’s a good old rule of thirds. It naturally creates a better balance and more engagement. And that’s what you want – to engage the viewer.
Practice with toys or food. Before you get to the business, it is a good idea to experiment and practice. A doll or a teddy bear can be a perfect replacement for your model.
Food or still life can do as well. This will help you to figure out the ways of the dark side.
To become a master of darkness you need to be a master of light. Low key photography is a delicate play of light and darkness. It’s all about the balance between what you want to illuminate and what you want to eliminate.
While it takes some time to master this genre, it will be highly rewarding, eventually. You might even start a new career, or at least dazzle your followers on Instagram or Facebook. So, embrace the darkness and make the most of it!