Lesson 4 – Exposure: Low Key

This is the opposite of the previous lesson. A low key photo is pretty much black on black, or at least very dark on dark. This kind of photo can create a sense of intimacy, foreboding, sadness, and / or heaviness. You might have a face or object rimmed with light in a silhouette, but dark on the side towards the camera and dark background.

The problem with shooting dark on dark is that the camera will try to lighten the image up making the picture look washed out and grey.

For this shot you'll need a really dark cloth, preferably black, and an object that is dark or has some dark tones in it. You could shoot a portrait of a dark haired person in dark clothing against a black or dark background for a low-key portrait.

Note: Shooting an object or person that is very light or white against black has a different effect and is not really considered "low key", although it can be striking image anyways.

Exercise: First, shoot the image with what you camera says is the right exposure. Very few in-camera meters will render this scene accurately. Now, take a meter reading on something dark/black that has the light hitting it and close the aperture two stops (i.e. if it is ƒ1.8 you'll want to go to ƒ4.)

Compare the two images and see what difference it made.

Next Lesson: Depth of Field

12 thoughts on “Lesson 4 – Exposure: Low Key”

  1. Thank you for these lessons! I’ve read a lot of online photography tutorials and I still learned something new. Your explanations are so clear, and your analogies are great. The image of a seesaw will definitely stay with me when thinking about compositional balance in the future.

    Actually, within a few minutes of finding your website, I found the answer to the two things that were still troubling me! The first being that I have an all black cat and the photos I take of her tend to come out overexposed. I was getting frustrated with my camera, but now that I understand why the camera suggests the exposure it does, I don’t mind having to compensate.

    The other issue I had was with my new 18-200mm lens. My zoom photos weren’t as sharp as I felt they should be. I thought I was using a fast enough shutter speed (one that always gets good results with my 50mm lens). Now that I know that focal length and shutter have to be proportional, I can’t wait to practice more with my lens, when before I was getting fed up.

    Thank you for renewing my interest in photography!

  2. ”First, shoot the image with what you camera says is the right exposure”

    Is it meaning to say that, we have to shoot in the exposure, that will make the histrogram remain in the center??

    1. What I meant was to put the camera on Program, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority and let the camera determine its own exposure. Or, if you want to stay in manual, watch the meter at the bottom of the viewfinder and set the camera so the indicator is in the middle. (See your manual for your specific camera on how to use the internal meter for manual exposure.)

    2. No. When he says shoot the image with the camera meter setting mean let’s say you are in A (aperture priority mode) you point the focus on the subject you want to take the picture and then use that reading I.e. If you set the A at 5.6 and if the shutter is suggested at 15sec then you just take the shot at that setting. Then from there you adjust the shutter speed leaving the f stop the same.

  3. a low photo is dark and dark so it will make the pic look sad or u won’t be able to see it or u will have to get some light.

    1. Many people find the dark low key photos ‘romantic’ or ‘intimate’ compared to the very light high-key photos. As well, low key can be used to convey mystery.

  4. My camera only has aperture settings from -2 till 2+. It doesnt have the ETTR settings. So I am confused how to click a photo in the low key and high key! 🙁

  5. Thanks so much. I know nothing of photography beyond a point and shoot. Just got a new camera with some basic manual options and I’m learning so much. I live the hands on assignments!

  6. Hi,

    Thanx for these lossens I am an amateur, & ur lesson is helping me a lot., but i cant understand ur low key exposure lesson… if will get some audio visual demonstrations that will be very helpful for understanding the lesson.

    1. The grey card works great by placing it front of your subject, place it so the ‘main light’ hitting the subject (the light hitting the side you want to feature) is hitting the grey card. Measure the light with your camera, filling the frame of your camera viewfinder so nothing else is visible, and use that setting for your exposure. Best done in manual mode.

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