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how to create low key images

Low key images are fun to take as one can play around quite a bit with light and shadow.

What is low key

Low key in photography pretty much means to create predominantly dark images. It is however not a new concept by any means but much older than photography. It has its origin in painting whereas some of Da Vinci’s or Rembrandt’s masterpieces are based on low key painting techniques. I love to do low key stuff ever since I tried it.

Required equipment

Let’s first start with the good news – you don’t need a studio to do low key images and you don’t need to invest crazy in equipment. In fact you can do low key stuff with nothing more than your camera and a light source.

Low budget, low key photography

Nikon D750 50mm f/1.8 | 50mm, f/18, 1/200, ISO 300, outdoor, flash-light with umbrella

If you don’t want or can’t invest in equipment or facilities, don’t worry at all. You can even take low key pictures outside without having a studio. I would recommend you do so during the evening, when the sun already is about to set and no other light source is in your way. Now you want to point some kind of light source (e.g. flash light shining through a white umbrella to soften the light) to your models face and take a picture. The trick is to stop down your camera to darken out everything that’s not lightened up by the light source (start with f/8 and stop further down if needed – I do a lot of stuff with f/18 believe it or not). The picture on the right, was taken outside in our backyard with a cheap flash light and umbrella setup. You likely wont get shiny eyes with such a setup but its a good thing to start exploring this kind of photography.

Medium budget low key photography

Nikon D750 50mm f/1.8 | 50mm, f/18, 1/200, ISO 100, Outdoor, Softbox and Flash @ 1/16

I would highly motivate you to invest some money in equipment in order to get much better results compared to the above mentioned option. I would recommend to buy external flashes and one or two soft boxes. As you need to mount the soft boxes somewhere you should think of getting some cheap light stands. You could of course try to get away without these but your setup would end up a little bumpy. Another thing you can consider is a remote trigger that not only fires the flashes but that allows you to control the light intensity. I am using the following, relatively affordable equipment. This is not top notch material but very well suits my purpose and I think its a good mix between quality and cost:

  • 2 x SMDV Strobist Speedbox Softbox 60cm
  • 2 x Yongnuo YN-560 IV flash
  • Yongnuo YN560-TX remote trigger
  • 2 x Falconeys light stands
  • LADDA 2450 rechargeable batteries (these flashes eat a lot of batteries)

If bought them new and the expenses where just a little over CHF 500.-

  • ~ CHF 150.- for each of the soft boxes
  • ~ CHF 70.- for each of the flashes
  • ~ CHF 40.- for the remote trigger
  • ~ CHF 50.- for each of the light stands

If you compare the first and the second image you will notice a difference in terms of quality. The second one is much clearer. If I could take that shot again, I would however position the soft box more direct as one side of the face is slightly overexposed. This by the way tells you something about the angle in which the light source was pointed to the face.

Camera and flash settings


I am mostly using my beloved 50mm f/1.8 lens that is great for portrait photography in general and also works wonderful for low key photography. Please be aware that I am using a full frame camera. If you are using a crop camera, you may would like to consider a 35mm f/1.8 lens because of the crop factor. In order to take shots inside (and not only outdoor), I bought a black blanket and hammered it to an empty wall. Depending on what I want to do, I am using only one or both soft boxes. The beauty of the remote trigger is, that one can add the boxes into two different groups and with this control the light for each soft box individually (without constantly walking to the flashes). As you can see in the above sample images, I tend to stop down quite a bit.

Nikon D750 50mm f/1.8 | 50mm, f/18, 1/200, ISO 100, Softbox, Flash @ 1/16
This not only supports the low key effect but also leaves you whit a very sharp image as the entire face from the tip of the nose to the lobes of the ears is in focus. You can play around with light, shadow and dark by changing the position of the soft box. Be creative and use both boxes with different light intensity from different angles or create a lot of drama in your pictures by keeping most of the image in dark.

Let me know your thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you. If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss.

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