Low key


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
...Read More

Low key

25 Nov 2020 9:39AM   Views : 381 Unique : 255


Letís start with a definition: a low-key picture which has predominantly darker tones. It isnít just underexposure: most successful high-key pictures have a few small areas of brightness Ė such as an outline of light around a dark body, or a streetlight in a night scene.

How to achieve it Ė because you are aiming to take a picture that is not, overall, an average tone, just following your cameraís meter wonít work. You need either to meter manually from individual parts of the scene, or to use negative exposure compensation to lower the exposure. Either way, it will be important to look at the results critically before taking a lot of pictures. Use a combination of how it looks on the cameraís screen, what the camera histogram says, and any exposure warnings that show on the screen Ė many cameras can show a flashing image where the over or underexposure is extreme.


On a really good day, you will find situations where natural light and shade will give you low-key results if you simply get the exposure right. As the light may often be genuinely dim, donít be afraid to wind up the ISO setting: better noisy (Ďgrainyí as we old film photographers say) than blurred.

Histogram Ė if you donít use it, start looking at what it can do for you. Itís a graph showing the mix of tones, and the relative areas of each. A normal scene gives a histogram that looks like a wide bell resting on the bottom of the graph. An underexposed picture is skewed to the left hand side, and an overexposed image is skewed to the right. If the graph seems to be stacked up against one side or the other, the exposure is probably a long way from right, and the quality will be poor.

RAW files Ė if you shoot RAW files, you have much more scope for managing tones, and you can recover highlight or shadow detail to an extent that is simply not possible with JPGs. Most cameras come with free software for editing RAW files, and all the common editing software handles RAW files, though you may need a recent version if your camera is newer than the software.


Lens hoods Ė are a big help for this sort of work, as the lights will be close to being in frame, if not actually so. A clean lens with no filter, plus a good, deep lens hood will minimise the risk of flare reducing contrast in the picture, or even appearing as a bright streak across the frame. Even this isnít always enough, and sheltering behind something so that light canít strike the lens surface direct can help. So can holding a hand in the right place, or asking a colleague to hold a piece of card in the way of the light. All this needs to be done carefully, as the hand/card/other object will be very close to the edge of your frame. Of course, you may choose to make creative use of flare Ė it can be great fun!

Previsualisation Ė Ansel Adams, the American landscape photographer, suggested that you should always have the finished picture in mind when you take the shot. This allows you to make the right technical choices so that you donít have to do loads of work later on to rescue a picture that isnít working. This is especially important for low-key and high-key shots, where the histogram will definitely be bunched up at one side of the screen, rather than being an ideal bell curve.


Recent blogs by dudler

Focus scales

If youíve been taking pictures since before autofocus arrived, youíll be very familiar with focus scales Ė they are one of the primary controls on an old-school camera, and just one more of the things that you really needed to get right. With autof...

Posted: 27 Dec 2022 7:01AM

Porcelain processing

People commented on the look in my last post and it seems like a good idea to share the secrets for Christmas. I learned the technique several years ago: a modelís boyfriend told me about it, and a website that described it in detail: I tried it, l...

Posted: 23 Dec 2022 10:47AM

You develop your own films donít you?

If you have your own darkroom, or if you use film cameras regularly, there are always a few people who mention the attic. As in ĎGrandpaís cameras are in the attic. I donít even know if they have film in them!í This leads me to ask if I can have a l...

Posted: 16 Aug 2022 11:17AM

Choose your pond

Thereís an old saying about being a big fish and a little pond. Do you want to be the most important person in a small organisation, or are you content being a relatively small cog in a big machine? Itís the same in photography. With relatively mo...

Posted: 3 Jun 2022 2:25PM

Graduated filters

This is for Hannah, and anyone else who has come across the casual way that a lot of togs talk about one or two types of filter that landscaper photographers use a lot: graduated filters and neutral density filters. A graduated filter is one that i...

Posted: 25 Apr 2022 12:18PM


dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
25 Nov 2020 9:45AM
It strikes me that adding a view of a low key histogram might be a smart move. Coming later...
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
25 Nov 2020 10:38AM
GGAB Avatar
GGAB 7 31 1 United States
25 Nov 2020 12:47PM
"Previsualisation Ė Ansel Adams, the American landscape photographer, suggested that you should always have the finished picture in mind when you take the shot".
So very true and My biggest challenge.
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
25 Nov 2020 1:07PM
I really love your tree trunk photo. It might be the colour of the toning, but to me it looks to be a wonderful well-lit night shot, whether it was shot at night or not!

As for shooting in RAW and then Photoshopping, I must admit that after using it for 24 years it has made me very lazy. Gone are the days when I had to light everything within the range of the slide film which also often had only a half stop latitude. Sadly now I mostly ensure that the over exposure burnout warning isn't flashing in my camera preview and then let Photoshop do the rest!
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
25 Nov 2020 2:59PM
I wondered about saying more about the tree image. It was shot in daylight, with a gold course beyond the trees. However, cropping out the sky and using a blue filter in the Nik conversion rendered it much lower-key than the original colour shot!

If i'd been shooting on film, I couldn't have done this, as i don't carry a blue filter... Some advantages to digital, then, without spending more than two minutes on the edit...
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
25 Nov 2020 3:04PM
I agree. Besides the coolness of the monochrome is what makes this image work imho
chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.5k 682 England
25 Nov 2020 7:40PM

Quote:you should always have the finished picture in mind when you take the shot.

I see where I want to be in my head, no problem with that, it goes round and round driving me nuts, getting there is the challenge Wink
whatriveristhis Avatar
26 Nov 2020 8:29AM
I always previsualize the image, but then I might well change my mind when processing and end up with something quite different. I like that, the unpredictability of it. Nothing's written in stone.

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
26 Nov 2020 8:41AM
There's nothing wrong with having an idea of the destination, but then going with the flowing... And it's an approach that's led you to post some of the best images on the site, in my opinion...
whatriveristhis Avatar
26 Nov 2020 9:21AM
Oh you flatterer Blush

...cheque in the post...

You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join for free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.