It is a cliché that we always need loads of light for good photography. However, good light does not necessarily mean a lot of light. Sometimes, very little, but just enough light creates a magic that too much light cannot. Welcome to the amazing world of low key lighting.
What is low key?
Low key lighting is often misinterpreted as lack of light. It simply means the main light source is just about illuminating the main subject or important parts of the subject, and not the entire frame. The general mood of a low key image is dark, but that does not necessarily imply an under-exposed image.
Low key subjects :-
Let’s take a look at the different subjects that can be shot with low key lighting.
Portraits are the most popular subjects in the genre of low key photography. In low key portraiture, natural or artificial lighting is carefully and selectively used to heighten contrast and often, dark shadows are allowed to be cast to create a sense of mystery and drama.
Still life :-
Still life subjects can also be shot with low key lighting. This often shows a different aspect of the subject which was not visible in normal lighting.
Interiors and architecture :-
Architecture or interiors shot with low key technique reveal a totally different mood than brightly lit interiors. Here, the forms are more important than the details.
The inherent drama in street photography is often enhanced with the use of low key lighting.
Even wildlife can be shot with natural light illuminating a subject selectively, and bringing out a dramatic character in the subject.
Low key light sources :-
Both natural and artificial lights can be used in low key photography. In case of portraiture, window light or light from a ventilator or shaft can be used to create the desired effect. Flashes and studio strobe units can also be used. Any other light sources are also good, as long as they can be controlled for selective lighting. Artificial lights can be used with snoots, or barn doors etc. to concentrate light on a small area.
If all this sounds too complicated, try using street lights. They work perfectly too!
Low key exposure :-
As mentioned earlier, low key does not mean an under-exposed image. You just have to expose for the main subject and not the entire frame. Hence, using spot metering is effective. While using matrix or centre-weighted metering, using negative compensation may be required, otherwise matrix metering would try to expose for the dark areas and over-expose the main subject. Manual expose is good if you know the right exposure settings.
Placing the subject close to the light source prevents light spilling on to the background. Framing tightly also prevents unnecessary light coming into the frame.
Low key composition :-
Remember, the idea of low key photography is to convey a sense of mystery and drama. Your composition should also compliment this mood. A low key portrait where a cheerful looking person is smiling may not be very effective, but a subject dressed in dark clothes and looking mysteriously at the camera will certainly be.
In-camera modes :-
Certain Nikon D-SLRs offer in-camera low key photography option. You can try these modes if you’re not sure how to start. They work very well under the situations discussed.