Low Key Still Photography – A Beginner’s Guide

Low Key Still Photography Guide

It is every photographer’s dream to master the art and skill needed to take low key still photographs. Not only does this technique make otherwise boring objects dramatic, but it also brings character and mystery. 

If you are a newbie into low key still photography or are trying to hone your skills (because it takes a lot of practice), then this article is what you need. 

What is a Low Key Still Life Photography?

What is a Low Key Still Life Photography

Low key still photography focuses mostly on the elimination of light as opposed to how high key photography thrives on illumination. The photographs have dark, mysterious tones, and most often than not, the background is black/dark too. 

To shoot low key photographs, you need to manipulate the natural/artificial light so that it only falls on specific parts of the frame. So for this to happen, you should have a lot of skill in eliminating and illuminating aspects of photography.

Contrary to the four light sources needed to eliminate dark shadows in high key photography, low key photography capitalizes on the shadows as they create the dark, mysterious vibe you are after. This is a unique concept for any photographer and is definitely a worthy escape from the norm.

What You’ll Need

What You'll Need

The best part about shooting still low key photographs is that you need very little equipment. A good camera lens and one light source are enough to get you started. So if you do not have a photo studio, that should not be reason enough to lose hope in this art.

Here is a list of the few pieces of equipment you will need;

  • Camera

The Camera you use entirely depends on the image quality you want to achieve. Anything from your smartphone camera to full frame large format film cameras will suffice.

If the image being shot is for print, you will have to invest in a camera with an APS-c or a full-frame sensor. However, if you are just practicing and the image is for fun, then a smartphone point and shoot camera will do just fine.

This is because shooting with a smartphone requires manual adjustments that are hard to tweak to perfection. Also, the image may/may not be too exposed hence noisy.

  • Lenses

If you are just new in this photography thing and you don’t have a lot of lenses to choose from. The lenses in your collection will do just fine so long as they are of good quality. Avoid wide-angle lenses at all costs as they will leave you with lots of void space that you will need to crop out.

The reason you need a quality lens is that the cheap ones come with a maximum aperture of f/3.5. This will let in little light; hence the end result will not be as dark and moody as you anticipate.

Opt for prime lenses with an aperture as low as f/1.8 or f/1.4. This is ideal for low key images. If you are wondering which lens to go for from the many options in the market, check out the following suggestions:

  1. Canon 50mm f/1.8
  2. Canon 85mm f/1.8 
  3. Sigma 50mm f/1.4
  4. Sigma ART 30mm f/1.8
  5. Tamron 45mm f/1.8 
  6. Nikon 50mm f/1.8
  7. Sony 35mm f/1.4
  8. Olympus Zuiko OM 50mm f/1.4
  • Lights

When it comes to light needed for low key still photography, many people usually wonder if they can create a Low Key Image with only One Light. Yes you can. In fact, that is the only way to go.

This doesn’t mean you only go for artificial lights. Outdoor lighting can do just fine; the problem is, you have very little control in regards to what the weather will be.

If caught up in a low key photography fix, remember that the shutter speed should be at least a 1/ depends on any number. This is a very important detail when it comes to the lights as many photographers capitalize on the big things and forget the small things.

  • Reflectors

Though having a reflector is optional, it goes a long way to add the dramatic feel necessary for low key still photographs. As compared to other photography gear, reflectors are quite inexpensive hence totally worth the investment.

Reflectors are used in place of fill lights; their main job is to enhance shadows and either block or reflect light. They, however, do not produce light of their own and instead just bounce off the light coming from the main source.

Most reflectors either come with four colors; Silver (increases the light intensity, Gold (creates an orange hue), White (Doesn’t change anything), and a black side for blocking all light. For low key photographs, you will find the black backside of the white color very useful for minimizing the light which gets to the subject.

The market has its fair share of reflectors to choose from so you are bound to be confused on which one works best for low key photos. Small reflectors result in harsh shadows and extra-large reflectors are hard to handle and adjust. 

For these reasons, a 42′ size reflector will work splendidly for both studio and outdoor still photography. The images will have a soft touch and the shadows will be easy to manipulate. However, if you do not have a reflector, don’t fret as a fill light will do just fine.

  • Tripod

Tripods are also optional in low key still photography, so if you don’t have one, you will do just fine. However, if you have one at your disposal, using it in shooting still photographs creates a big noticeable difference. 

As a typical human being behind the Camera, your wrists are bound to get tired. This will prevent you from having the patience to shoot variety. Also, tripods significantly reduce the noise that results from shaking the Camera. 

If at all you are shooting outdoors, Tripods allow you to capture more in-depth images. This is extremely hard if you are holding the Camera in your hands as you are bound to capture somewhat wide-angle photos. 

Also, in outdoor low key photographs, the natural light should be reduced so as to get enough light through the lens. This will require you to use fast shutter speeds, which increase the risk of camera movement hence unwanted noise. Tripods save you that hustle.

Tripods also come in handy when you are shooting micro-images. This type of photo requires a lot of precision and adjustment that are made easier to achieve if your hands are free.

How to Setup Background and Composition for Low Key Photography

How to Setup Background and Composition for Low Key Photography

It is a popular belief that you need a studio and fancy equipment to shoot low key still photography. Well, that this is not the case. You can create an equally perfect low key photograph if you choose to be resourceful.

Here are simple steps you can follow so as to achieve the perfect setup background you are looking for:

  1. If your Camera has flashed, turn them all off. You will need to depend on a bright light source entirely.
  2. Due to the fact that you don’t have a studio that comes with the ambiance already tailored, you will need to set the Camera and strobes to manual mode. 

Hard as it sounds, it will allow you a wide playing field for adjustments and editing

  1. Set the Camera to an ISO as low as 100, then the aperture to about f/1.4 or an equivalent. Also, set the shutter speed to as low as possible. Most people usually go for 1/250 of a second or lower depending on the Camera they are using.
  2. Time to take test shots. Other photographers’ settings will not necessarily work for you, so you need to adjust the settings accordingly. Adjust until you achieve a completely black background.
  3. You can now start to set the rest of your equipment as the hardest part is over.
  4. Test shoot an off-camera to an umbrella and adjust accordingly to get the perfect amount of light hitting the model. For the best results, set the Camera to a minimum.
  5. The more the light outdoors, the more strobe setting you need to for. Start from the highest strobe setting and reduce from there.
  6. Enjoy your shoot!

How to direct the viewer’s attention 

If you are aiming in capturing the attention of the viewer, capturing the details of the model is very ideal. The glassy eyes the glossy hair, the silhouette figure etc. All these will capture the attention of the viewer, question is, how you will actually achieve the final image.

Ideal camera settings for low key photography

Ideal camera settings for low key photography

Since the main point of low key photography is to make the images as dark as possible while still maintaining quality, you need to set your Camera to the lowest ISO possible.

Anything from ISO 100 should be great as this will give you images devoid of noise. After countless practice shots, many would highly recommend going for the lowest aperture your Camera can support.

A setting of f/1.4 or f/1.8 will give you the dark shots you want. The best part about using a low aperture setting is that you can go for quick shutter speeds. This is because the wider the aperture, the faster the shutter speed. However, you need to put the light source you are using to consideration and not just go for the quickest shutter speed.

If your Camera has an auto-exposure setting, this is the time to put it to use. Try and apply negative exposure compensation to get impressive contrast photos. If you don’t have this setting don’t sweat as it is not very important.

With the auto-exposure feature, you will need to switch from automatic metering to spot metering. Spot metering is when the Camera calculates exposure using a small part of the image. This will result in the background staying black hence very good low key images. 

Using one source of light for low key still photography

For those who are just experimenting with this photography thing and have no fancy studio equipment, don’t worry. There is a solution for you- torches and candles.

Not only are they cheap and readily available, but they will also help you create images full of character. This type of setting is mostly used if the photographer is aiming for a romantic or horror vibe to the images.

If you choose to go with candles, try using several candles that are strategically spaced. This is because placing the candles within close proximity of each other will result in harsh, ugly shadows. 

For the torch, you can use one only if the brightness allows. However, if they are too dim, try placing several of them on top of the tripod stands strategically placed around the room. The best low key torch images are when the subject holds the light source under their face. For this technique to work and result in great gothic images, the photographer needs to know how to work his angles. 


Photography is like an art. This means the final product is extremely dependent on what you, as the photographer, would term as acceptable. It is for this reason that any image can be accepted in the low key category-everything is art.

However, this technique requires a lot of practice and patience. Every Camera is different; hence needs different settings and adjustments. It all depends on how fast you train your eye to see the same as the Camera would in a similar situation. Doing this will save you so much from the image appearance department.

Since you are going for dark and moody images, it is important to note that you, as the photographer, need to be equally prepared for the intensive elimination and application of light.

Sharing is caring!

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

Related Posts

Subscribe To Our NewsLetter!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x