Shooting Challenge #29 -- Low-Key Photography

By Martin Snelling on at

One of the great fears for a photographer is water in your camera/lens, and with the 'great' British weather clearly showing no signs of improving over the next couple of decades, find yourself a nice dark room, a single light source and get to grips with some low-key photography.

The term 'low-key' refers to the practice of making a dramatic photograph with a strong contrast between light and dark. By using a single directed light source to illuminate the area of focus on your photographic subject, the rest of the composition should remain unlit being in either shade or complete darkness.

In a studio environment you might traditionally illuminate your subject from three different points using a combination of a main light source (your key light), a fill light and a back light. With low-key photography, you use just the one key light on its own or combined with a reflector to bounce the light on to a different part of the subject that isn't being lit.


The Brief:

For this challenge I want you to try your hand at low-key photography. You'll need to find somewhere dark, a suitable subject, a single light-source and a bit of time to experiment and try different things. Really think about your final image and focus on what part of your subject you want to be lit. There's a lot of fun to be had with experimentation so try different light sources, or maybe make a reflector out of tinfoil to bounce the light on to different parts of the subject. The only limit is your imagination.


The Technique:

Low-key photography is quite straight forward and easy to learn; the real skill comes from understanding and controlling light to achieve the results you want. The number one thing to know is that unless you're incredibly lucky, you won't achieve what you want straight away. Low-key photography takes time, patience, a lot of experimentation and tweaking of camera settings, light positioning, light direction and light strength to get the required result.

Here are some top tips to get you on the right path to low-key enlightenment:

- Your camera's ISO setting (how sensitive the sensor is to light) should be as low as possible. This will allow you to create a high quality dark but noise-free photograph.

- Having your subject against a dark background will help you achieve better results. If you don't have a dark wall, depending on the size of your subject make a temporary background using dark clothing or black card.

- Position your subject away from the background as to not illuminate it. You want the background to remain as dark as possible to create the strong contrast between light and dark.

- If you're using an off-camera flash, try different intensities to see what works best for your composition. If you are unable to control the flash power or light intensity, move it further away from the subject if you find it is too powerful.

- If you don't have an available light source, consider a two-room setup; use a second lit room and position your subject near the door so you can control the amount of light on your subject by opening the door in varying amounts.

- It is better to learn how light works than fixing your image in Photoshop. Aim to get the required photograph in-camera and don't rely on fixing it with some post-processing. The rules for this challenge state that only minimal global post-processing is permitted.

- Experiment with moving the light source to highlight the different contours of the subject. Lighting from one side will give you dramatically different results than if you lit your subject face-on.

- Use a tripod to keep your camera steady if you're a slow shutter speed.

- Start with your lens aperture as wide as possible (the low number) and take a test shot. Gradually reduce the aperture size until there is no ambient light in the image.

- If you find your background is being contaminated by the light, move the light further away from the subject or change the position.

- While low-key lighting is often used for portraiture, it can work very well for both still life and even architectural photography.

- Just because you're restricting light, don't feel you need to restrict colour. While low-key photographs can look stunning in black and white, they can look just as good in colour.


The Example:

Regular Shooting Challenge readers/participants will recognise this image from the very clever and creative Spencer Hart. Spencer used a slave flash triggered by his on-camera flash to light the left side of Woody, for our challenge last week. In order to stop the on-camera flash from lighting the whole subject, Spencer blocked the on-camera flash using an instruction manual.

Here's another low-key image, this time from me; you may remember it from a previous Shooting Challenge.

The Batman figure was illuminated with a tealight to create a soft shadow. The background was contaminated by the light source, but that was my intention.


The Rules:

- Follow the brief
- Submissions must be your own work.
- Submit up to five images
- Photos must be taken after the challenge was published; so no existing shots please.
- Minimal image post-processing is permitted (global changes only)
- Explain briefly in your submission email the equipment, settings, technique used and the story behind the image/images.
- Ensure EXIF info is intact (if image was taken digitally).
- Email submissions to
- Please ensure your image is at least 600px wide and less than 3MB in size.
- Save your image as a JPG, and use the following naming convention FirstnameLastnameLOWKEY.jpg
- Don't forget to include a shooting summary (see above).
- Send your best photos by Monday, February 24th 2014 at 6pm UK time with "Shooting Challenge - LOW-KEY" in the subject line.
- Anyone can enter, regardless of location.
- The most important rule -- HAVE FUN!

Martin Snelling is a Hampshire-based photomatographer and wearer of fine hats. He tweets here, Flickrs here, and does his website stuff here.