Low Key Portrait Black And White Photography

June 6, 2019 7:06 am by columnblogger
Low key female portrait black and white photography by creative pad photography
Hand black and white white photography portrait darkness black monochrome close up blackandwhite face drama head
Low Key Portrait Black And White Photography

If you can diffuse the source, that’s even better. True, a bare-bulb, specular light definitely will make for some dark dramatic shadows, but until you’re skilled at illuminating faces with a hard light source, I recommend starting with some diffusion. If you insist on working with slightly harder light, consider a beauty dish, which is a great compromise between specular “pop” and beautiful diffusion.

Some might consider this a bit of a cheat’s method, but it will help. Use this tool to build up your ability to see in black and white.

Lastly, clean up any skin texture produced by the raking light position. The Frequency Separation approach is a great way to isolate texture from tonal values, or just use the Clone stamp and Spot Healing brush to eliminate the most egregious bumps and wrinkles.

Your background needs to be dark, usually dark grey or black, and the tone of the clothing will be of a darker tone. They don’t need to be black strictly speaking.

Look for or create the right kind of light. One main light that is significantly brighter than the ambient light will usually do.

If you move the light around to the side, into a short lighting position, you’ll see the background darkens even more, and there is an increase in the drama of the shot. We still have light spilling on to our background, though.

Adding a fill light to the scene evens out both the shadows and the skin tones.

If you want to express sadness, hope or tension, use a single light. Carefully position it to accentuate the shadows and the drama will be there.

Low key monochrome photography can be used with any subject you like. Low key portraits are popular. Flowers, landscapes, still life, food and even sheep can be given a high contrast treatment.

With digital cameras it is very easy to consider everything in colour and convert to a monochrome image later if we wish. Thinking about the colours in a scene and how their various shades will render in black and white is not easy.

You can learn to do this part of the process manually. It can be extremely satisfying, but, be warned, it can be incredibly time consuming.

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Mostly I will start with Silver Efex Pro and make further manual adjustments. I do not always rely on the plugin presets to get the look and feel I want.

I did not want to see detail in the background. Positioning my camera to compose so no sunlit areas were visible was important. Any light in the background would be distracting. This photo was taken at 3pm on a sunny day.

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

One caveat when it comes to light placement: A light like this can create a raking effect across the subject’s face. This is certainly dramatic, but it also can emphasize any texture on the subject’s skin. A diffused light source may help, as will subtle tweaks to the subject’s face or the light’s position. It also can be defeated with fill light, but too much fill flattens the scene and changes the key. Ultimately, it’s simply a technique that may not work for every subject.

Popular with movie directors for what’s known as ‘film noir’ cinema, low key lighting was used to create drama and tension in a scene.

Think about how you want your finished low key monochrome photography to look and how you will post process it.

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Squint your eyes as you look at your subject. This will help you see as though you have a narrow dynamic range. The highlights in what you are looking at will be visible but whatever is in the shadows will not be clearly seen.

In this first shot, you’ll see the model against the wall, photographed with a butterfly lighting pattern. Even though the tones are dark, the image itself is too bright for a low key portrait.

You’ll need a lighting setup that is flattering and controllable. A strip softbox lets you control the light more, as would a beauty dish. If you don’t have either, you can add some material over the softbox you do have to create a strip light. If you have a grid, even better. As long as you can control where the light goes, you’ll be able to get this down. You can even block your light from the background using a black card (things that block light are referred to as flags).

With a high key setup, light is usually softer and fills in the shadows. Low key lighting results in a much darker, moodier feeling because of the deep shadows and minimal tone range.

For the examples here, I used an Elinchrom BRX500 with a 44cm White Beauty Dish and a white deflector. Like I’ve mentioned, you don’t need to have exactly this gear to get these shots. Gear is only small part of the equation, it’s using the gear that counts.

Stripping the colour from your photos using a desaturation tool will render them monochrome. It may be the easiest way, but it is certainly far from the best.

You’re replacing the light, airy feel with a more moody, dramatic look. Looking at your histogram, most of the information is bunched on the left-hand side. That’s not to say that you’re underexposing the subject to get this look. You still need correct exposure on the face. A lot of action movies or thrillers have posters with a low key feel. Think drama and you’re in the ballpark for how a low key portrait will look.

To define an image as monochrome means it has only one colour represented or only shades of grey. Most commonly monochrome photography is perceived as being black and white.

With an image that was too bright at the time of exposure, drag the Exposure sliders down to darken the overall look of the scene, then grab and hold the sliders corresponding to whites and highlights and drag them to the right.

Looking at your low key lighting scene, remember that your eyes will see more tone detail across a broader range than your camera will capture. The tone range your camera can record, known as the dynamic range, is narrower than what you can see with your eyes. (This is changing as camera technology continues to advance.)

Manipulating our photos to make them look the way we want is essential in low key monochrome photography. If you are saving your photos as RAW files all the colour information your camera records is in the file.

There are four main things to think about when you want to make low key monochrome photographs:

Study the image. Look for problem areas of artifacting where the pixels look to be clumped together and jagged.

These examples should get you going towards making your own low key portrait. The trick is to control the light so you darken the environment. Try the curtain trick if you don’t have any lights. You can even use that trick with an off-camera speed light by putting the flash outside the window to replace the natural light for more control.

The easiest way to observe how it will look is to change your camera monitor or viewfinder, (if you are using a mirrorless camera,) to black and white. Working with your camera set like this allows you to see how your photos will look without colour.

In a lot of commercial portraiture these days, there’s an emphasis on high-production values. Whether from exotic locations or from using a lot of lights, it seems the conventional wisdom is generally “more is better.” But, in fact, when trying to create a moody, dramatic or intimate black-and-white portrait, sometimes less actually is more. With a simple setup, using strobe lights or constant sources, in a studio or even on location, photographers can create beautiful, low-key black-and-white portraits that prove minimal lighting can deliver a maximum effect.

As with every kind of portraiture, it’s the combination of quality lighting and just the right amount of retouching that make an image work. With low-key lighting, the effect can be as classic and timeless, or as hip and cutting edge, as you want it to be. Either way, these lighting and editing techniques go a long way to creating successful low-key portraits.

You don’t need to use artificial lighting to get a low key portrait. You could use natural light through a window. To get control, you need to close the curtains down to a tiny slit of light. Then, with the room lights off, place your subject in the light and expose for their face.

The shadow areas, particularly along the edges, are where problems will most likely show up. As you are working it’s a good idea to zoom in and view the photo at 100 percent from time to time.

I find that a very subtle fill from a reflector or very low-powered strobe positioned close to the lens works wonders to add a hint of detail to shadows. This might be a garment or a cheek or even a subject’s hair. Because too much pure black shadow can be overbearing, a little bit of fill can be a big help.

During post processing it is very easy to darken the shadow areas. If you have set your exposure well for the highlights there are many methods of exaggerating contrast.

Photography is all about painting with light. That’s what the word photography means. Applying too much or too little paint will seriously effect how a painting will look. It’s the same with light and photography.

As long as you’re thinking about placing sources, look to the classical lighting patterns as a guide. When it comes to low-key portraits, the butterfly/Paramount pattern works very well, and loop and split lighting also do a fine job here. But it’s Rembrandt lighting that really excels in short-lighting, low-key situations. Watch for a diamond of light spilling onto the subject’s otherwise shadowed cheek, and you’ll know you’re on your way to beautiful, dramatic lighting.

Having the contours of your subject thrown into areas of shade when you use a low key light setup can create a sense of mystery. A dark, somewhat sinister effect can be conveyed.

Try to ‘see’ in monochrome when you are creating your photographs. Doing this will help you get better results.

Your camera might have a monitor or electronic viewfinder which adjusts as you alter your exposure settings. This is a very easy way to work. You can ignore your exposure meter read out. Set your exposure to how it looks best on your monitor or your electronic viewfinder.

If there is not sufficient difference you may have too much ambient light in your scene. Increasing the strength of your key light or moving it closer to your subject will help.

For many people monochrome photography is a creative stretch. We see in colour, not in a single colour or grey scale. Visualising without colour can be challenging but low key monochrome photography can also lead to interesting photos.

Sometimes not only is a studio unavailable, anything indoors is unavailable. But low-key lighting can still be created. Even on a sunny day, you can use a strobe to overpower the sunlight and make the background fall to black. To do this, increase the shutter speed to the maximum sync speed. This is often a shutter speed of 1/250th. Then set the ISO as low as possible (100 or 50, ideally) and set the aperture to the smallest opening (ƒ/22 or ƒ/32, depending on your lens). Take a picture with these settings and check how underexposed the scene is. If you’re able to shoot at 1/250th at ƒ/32 and ISO 50, even on a bright, sunny day, you’re going to create a photograph that’s at least four stops underexposed. There still may be some visual information evident if it’s really bright out, but on an overcast day or any other situation where the light is low, the ambience should be very dark, maybe even pure black. Then you can add your strobe—placed close to the subject—and dial up its output to match the camera settings and create the appropriate illumination for the subject. This “day for night” effect can make practically any location look like a darkened studio.

  • how you will post process your low key photographs.
  • the colour, and, (mostly,) disregard it;
  • the light and shadow and how it looks on your subject;
  • the exposure you will use;

This risk is greater working with low key photographs because of the high contrast levels.

Some methods you can use to make your photos more low key looking in post processing are:

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Compose with the shapes and shadows in mind. Squint your eyes to look at the highlights and shadows. Set your exposure carefully for the highlights in you composition.

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By adding a grid to the light, you can control the light even more. The grid restricts the light to whatever is in front of the light only, none bounces around or spills out the sides.

Generally there are a few things to be careful of. When making these modifications to your photos be careful to maintain technical quality. Making extreme adjustments with the tools or sliders can result image deterioration.

The rest of the room will go dark for a naturally lit low key portrait. If you’re in a corner room with a window on each side, you could even do this trick where the second window acts as a backlight. Just narrow the slit in the curtains to control the light for this effect (see below).

Light position with main light (with a grid) and hair light (also with a grid) opposite and behind the subject.

The look of a high key monochrome photograph compared to a low key photograph is a lot flatter.

The word key refers to ‘key light’. This is the main light in a scene. When the key light is low, and there is little or no other light, the effect is called low key photography.

With a few simple adjustments in Lightroom, it’s possible to boost the effects of your low-key lighting setup.

Film is still far more limited in dynamic range than most digital cameras.

By carefully choosing to expose for the highlights in my composition the shadow areas are very dark. I have created a low key photograph.

Moving your subject and light, watch what happens with the highlights and shadows. Detail in the shadows will change or disappear. Highlights may lose their details. This depends on your exposure, which I will write more about in a moment.

This also works exceptionally well with a profile pose. To create this rim, position a specular light source directly behind the subject, aiming toward the camera, but ensuring that the subject’s body casts a shadow on the lens. If you’d like the light to wrap around a bit and provide more illumination on the subject’s cheek, simply move the light incrementally from behind the subject to the side. These subtle key adjustments, or subtle moveme nts of the subject’s head position, make all the difference.

If your goal is lots of darkness and minimal light, it can also be helpful to ensure your subject is wearing dark clothing, as well. A light-colored outfit will distract from the place in the frame where you want the eye to go: the few pixels that are brightly illuminated, often the face. I use a black cotton or velvet cloth as a drape to camouflage bright clothing and make it easier to achieve a truly low-key scene.

Start thinking about post processing when you are taking your photos. Low key photography and film making began when the limitations of the medium were restrictive. Film had a very narrow dynamic range back then. Exposing film for the highlights meant there was little or no detail recorded in the shadows.

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You should set your lighting to create drama. Take your cues from film noir. The photos don’t need to be in black and white, though. However, you may find that the absence of color in low key images can lend itself to this look. As well as choosing dark clothes, avoid ones with patterns, as this will draw attention away from the face.

Once you have your RAW files in the computer (you do shoot RAW, don’t you? It’s particularly helpful when working with low-key image files because of the retouching latitude), simple Lightroom adjustments can really refine your images. For an image that is very dark and contrasty, the Shadows and Blacks sliders will slightly bring up those values, while dragging down the Highlights and Whites sliders in the Develop module will keep the very brightest pixels in the scene in check. With Lightroom’s Adjustment brush, these edits easily can be applied selectively, like dodging and burning.

Practice thinking about how the tones in your composition will appear in your picture without colour. Look to see the difference in grey tone between a strong red and a pastel blue or deep yellow.

Understanding how different colours render is probably more important for high key photography. With high contrast low key photography, the colour tone differences rendered in monochrome are not so bold.

Moving the light to the side means even less light falls on the background, darkening it even more.

Your camera is recording more shadow detail than you want to show in your finished photo. More so if your camera is set to save RAW files rather than jpegs. To create a real low key monochrome look you have to eliminate some of this unwanted detail.

Moving the model away from the wall means the light falls off and the background gets darker.

A small softbox, an umbrella or even a light bounced off a white reflector can create just enough diffusion without scattering the light all around the room. Too much spill on the subject’s body or background will ruin the low-key effect. To fight this, use carefully placed flags. Not only can they prevent spill, they will help to stop lens flare when the light is placed beyond 90 degrees from the camera axis. And that’s often the ideal place for low-key lighting.

You will not see the shadows as dark as you will want them to be in your finished monochrome photograph. You need to think about the shadow areas having little or no detail and concentrate on the shapes they make.

You could choose a reflector, but a second light offers more control. I’ve added a strip light on the other side of the subject opposite the main light. Make sure that light doesn’t hit your lens or you will get flare. Use a grid or a flag to block it if necessary.

Look at the brightest areas of your composition and compare them to the darkest areas. If you can take an exposure reading from the highlight and from the shadows, compare them.

7 Different Situations Where You Can Use Fill Flash Effectively

You can also have this control in the studio, so let’s set up and refine a studio portrait.

There’s a black-and-white-specific advantage when it comes to dodging and burning a low-key image, too. Using the individual color sliders that adjust the black and white mix, whether that’s in Lightroom’s Develop Module or Photoshop’s Black and White Adjustment Layers, it’s easy to brighten or darken specific areas of an image that correlate directly to the original colors in a scene. Blonde hair, for instance, can be lightened or darkened easily with the yellow luminance slider, even though the image is now grayscale.

In high key photography the key light is bright and there will be one or more other lights and/or reflectors. The tone range of a high key image is typically wider.

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By moving the model and the light evenly away from the wall, you’ll notice the light on the subject stays the same, but the background gets darker.

  • Change the whites and highlights
  • Adjust the black levels
  • Use the burn tool (or similar)
  • Adjust the contrast levels

For example, in the case of my photo of the Buddha statue. I have made an exposure reading from the shaded part of the statue. Then I have moved my spot meter to take a reading from the bright part of the statue. I have set my camera to f2.8, 1/8000th of a second at ISO 400.

When I am making low key photographs I tend to review my images on my camera monitor to ensure they are looking how I want them to. Once I am happy with the exposure I will leave it set and not keep checking.

Smart photographers know that a single light source can deliver unbelievably beautiful illumination. (Don’t believe me? Watch a sunset.) By moving a single light source far from the subject, the illumination gets flat and less dramatic. Moving that source close to the subject, however, allows the faster falloff from highlight to shadow to make for more drama. This approach also helps to create the darkness in the background that sets the mood and isolates the highlights against a canvas of dark pixels. With a subject far from the background and the key light very close to the subject, the background is bound to go dark.

Low key monochrome photography consists mainly of highlights and shadows. Low key lighting dramatically enhances the contrast in a photograph.

Low key photographs are an illusion, because our eyes never see the way a low key photo looks. Be creative. Think differently. Carefully consider the technical aspects. And have fun!

Another refinement for low-key black-and-white images is toning. Because low-key images can easily come off as too stark, a bit of toning or split-toning can really add some dimension. Simply use Lightroom’s Split Toning controls to add a hint of warmth in the highlight (by first selecting the appropriate yellow or beige tone, then using the Saturation slider to increase its appearance) and balancing it with subtle blue or purple tones in the shadows. Failing that, consider using a Photoshop Adjustment Layer with the Filter adjustment dialed in to exactly where you need it. The Warming Filter is a personal favorite.

Enhance the effect by starting with a dark or black background. In the studio, a dark wall or roll of dark gray or black seamless paper provides the perfect backdrop against which to set your low-key scene. If you’re not in a studio, choose a space that’s large enough to put some distance between the subject and background so any falloff from the key light has dropped to nearly nothing by the time it reaches the background. Underexposing the ambient light in a large room works very well for low-key lighting when a black backdrop can’t be had (more on that in a moment).

Our cameras all have tools built in to aid us in making decisions about exposure. You can can control your exposure using manual mode or let your camera do this for you with an automatic or semi automatic mode. Whichever mode you choose you need to be precise with how your meter is set.

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William Sawalich is a commercial photographer, an educator and a contributing editor for Digital Photo Pro, Digital Photo and Outdoor Photographer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. Visit his website at sawalich.com.

I’ve already mentioned keeping the light close, but where exactly should it be? I find one of the most effective placements of a key light in a low-key portrait is to create short lighting, where the side of the face that primarily faces the camera is in shadow and only the smaller side of the face—or even just a sliver—is illuminated. Better still, consider backlighting for a rim effect to create separation between subject and background.

You’ll see that the hair is starting to blend in with the background now. This can be a great effect sometimes, but if you want separation between the hair and the background, you need to add fill light in there somehow.

Have you done any low key portraits? Have any questions? Please share in the comments below.

These effects can be achieved in Photoshop, as well. You’ll likely find that Adjustment Layers are the perfect tool to add selective brightness and darkness to an image to polish it off. If you have dark areas that need to be darker, you can always use Photoshop’s Paintbrush tool to paint away unwanted details in the darkest shadows.

I use my spot meter when making low key photographs. This allows me to take a reading from the shadow areas and the highlight areas of my composition. I then set my exposure manually to expose well for the brightest area of my composition.

Make sure there is one light source considerably brighter than the other ambient light. If there’s too much other light, achieving the dark shadows characteristic of a low key photograph will not be possible.

Making low key monochrome photos of particularly colourful scenes can be challenging. The colour in a landscape or a flower may not appear in your monochrome image the way you think it might.

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Using a combination of the various tools and sliders can help avoid technical problems. Making smaller tweaks to two or three sliders is more likely to give you a better result than using one slider stretched to it’s extreme.

You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos! Thanks again for reading our articles!

If you’d like to consider adding lights, you can. Just keep them behind the subject so they create edge lighting, and use a frontal fill for detail illumination, as needed. This technique is popular in edgy sports portraiture in recent years. The edge lights really define the shape of a muscular body, and the frontal fill adds the polish to this lighting approach. Without that frontal fill, the shot can still work—it just becomes a graphic, almost abstract outline of the human form.

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Don’t be afraid to take the time to move the light subtly in and out of frame, forward and back, up and down, until the effect is just right. As a world-class portrait photographer once told me, when an image is mostly dark tones, the few light tones really matter even more. So position the key light deliberately to put those highlights exactly where you want them.

Let’s be clear on some definitions, first. What is low-key lighting? Unlike high-key lighting—which creates a scene that’s very bright and low contrast—low-key lighting is darker and higher contrast. Low-key lighting features prominent shadows and many near-black tones, with minimal midtones and highlights serving as poignant counterpoint to all that darkness. And it works very well in black-and-white.

In a world where the crisp, clean, high key shot dominates, it’s great to see a return to the low key portrait. In comparison to the high key image, where most of the tones are above (lighter than) 50% grey, the low key portrait has tones that are mostly under (darker than) 50%.

If you prefer to use any of the auto modes on your camera you will need to use your spot meter the same way. Take a reading from the highlights. If you need to recompose remember to use your exposure lock. If your camera does not have a spot meter or you are not sure of how to use it, make adjustments with your exposure compensation.

Because low-key lighting, by definition, requires deep shadows and a plethora of dark tones, too many lights actually can be a liability. For most low-key lighting setups, a single source is all that’s needed. You can do a lot with just one light.

My exposure meter indicator was at zero when reading from the bright area. My reading would be different if I had used averaged, center weighted or another setting which took into account any of the shadow area.

If you allow too much or too little light into your camera to make the exposure your results will be disappointing.

Plugins and actions available to make photos black and white are numerous and diverse. There are so many options available, too many to mention all. Many of them are free. My preference is the popular Silver Efex Pro plugin I use in Adobe Photoshop.

Without a fill light, the shadows on the subject’s face facing the camera are very strong and create a highly dramatic look.

When you want to do low key photography don’t be restricted by your subject selection. Instead be more mindful of the feeling you want to portray in your monochrome photograph.

The huge dynamic range of modern cameras means the low key look is very difficult to capture in camera.

In the studio, creating a one-light low-key portrait can be done with either strobes or constant lights such as LED panels, compact fluorescents or even HMIs and tungsten hot lights. Whatever equipment you choose, it’s important to be able to move the light away from the camera. So if you’re using a hot-shoe speedlight, invest in the necessary accessories, such as a stand and remote trigger, to be able to move the light around the subject and away from the camera (more on placement in a moment).

There are so many combinations to make adjustments to highlights and shadows. Above I have only listed some of the tools I use when working in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Low-key lighting can emphasize the contours and shapes of your subject, while drawing the eye to the image more effectively than high-key lighting.

Think about how you position your light and subject in relation to your camera angle. The angle that the light falls on your subject will reveal more or less of it. If you are working with a portable light and a subject you can move, this is easiest.

Light your subject with a single main light, your key light. This could be an electric light or a flash. It could also be a window if you are inside or sometimes the sun when you are outside.

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