Tips and tutorials

How to take low key images in natural light?

During my early days of photography, I always wondered how to take photos with black background. One day I was taking photographs of flowers in my garden. I was experimenting spot metering, with different exposures, in manual mode. While reviewing the shots, I noticed some photographs with black background. I had no idea how I got the black background because that was not what I was looking for. I was concentrating just on the subject. But I had been searching for how to make images-with-black-background until then, but had never found any good information. Yes. I accidentally learned how to make low key images in natural light. Seeing those images, I went back and started experimenting. I took the photograph of the same flower with the same exposure settings I used before, and I figured out how to make low key images. In this article I am explaining what I learned that day.

low key image of white flower

What is a low key image?

A low key photograph has most of the tones in shadow region. In layman’s words, most part of the photograph is dark. Only the subject or part of the subject is lit. Low key images make use of contrast, in a different way, to grab the viewers’ attention.  Taking low key images in natural light is difficult since you cannot control the light. In studio, it is simple since you have full control over the light. Usually people make low key images in photoshop – by replacing the background or by using brush.  However, there are certain ways to take low key images in the camera itself.

How to take low key images in natural light?

There are two ways you can do it:

  1. Find background which is atleast two stops less than the subject. I.e. The subject is sunlit and the background is dark or in shade.
  2. Sometimes you may not find a background described above. In such cases, you can use a black cardboard/ cloth.
white flower in black background
I took shot this with a point and shoot camera. Since I couldn’t find a dark background, I used a black cardboard.

Camera settings

    • You can use either DSLR or point and shoot cameras.
    • If you are using a point and shoot camera, use spot or partial metering mode. Point the camera on the subject and take the shot. If you point it to the background, camera ‘thinks’ exposes for the dark background, which results in properly exposed background and over exposed subject.
    • If you are using a DSLR or a point and shoot camera which provides manual/semi manual mode, underexpose the background by 2 stops. You can use either aperture priority mode or manual mode for this.
    • If you are using aperture priority mode, set the EV to -2. The camera selects a shutterspeed which underexposes the background by 2 stops.
    • If you are using manual mode, set the desired aperture, and set a shutterspeed when the EV marker goes to -2.

black and white low key portrait

That’s it! Review the shot on your camera, and change the exposure until you get the desired result.

Are you ready to try it out?

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Vidhu Soman

Hi, I am Vidhu Soman, Editor of Shutterstoppers. I have been doing photography since 2010, and I co-founded shutterstoppers community in 2012. I love photography, writing, travelling, and reading. If you wish to contact me, send a mail using our contact form.

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  1. I feel other internet website proprietors should take this internet site being an design, extremely thoroughly clean and outstanding consumer genial design and design and style, allow alone the content material. You are an professional in this subject!

  2. Hi Mr.Vidhu,”….underexpose the background by 2 stops..” u mean to reduce the exposure compensation to -2 or something else..?? or please make it clear how to under expose the background alone….

  3. Hi, I am ton from the netherland.I like your explanation of the high-key and the low-key very good. I can use it well in the photography course.If i need more information for my course in the future i would defently advice on your website. thank

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