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How to Create Dark Moody Low-Key Portraits with Minimal Gear

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To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown, “Grids: when you absolutely, positively got to kill every lumen in the room, accept no substitutes.” Do you have a room or environment that you want to appear black? You don’t even need a black backdrop or the dark cover of night to create a dark, dramatic scene. All you need is a flash, a grid and enough space to allow your subject to be at least 5-10 feet away from any walls. As long as you can keep your strobe light from falling on the ground, background or other objects in the scene, only the subject will be illuminated.

1

The scene: If you want to black out your environment to create dark moody low-key images, look for shaded areas with enough space to allow at least 5-10 feet between your subject and the background. The darker the background wall is, the better.

2

The raw file: If you look closely, you will see that there is a bit of background detail, which can be easily eliminated in Lightroom.

It was a particularly windy day that I photographed ballerina Kristie Latham. Since I didn’t have an assistant, and sandbags were too heavy to lug around by myself (I was already pulling my case and carrying two light stands), I would have to shoot without light modifiers. Note, if I had added an umbrella to the light stand without it being sandbagged or held by an assistant, it would have blown over onto a nearby car within five seconds. Though an un-modified flash on a light stand can still be blown over by the wind, it’s much less likely to happen. That said, I still made sure that it wasn’t too close to any nearby cars.

I wanted to highlight her form and the details of her outfit – specifically the tutu – so even though the light was going to be hard without modifiers, it would actually work out to my advantage. I began by setting up the main light. I placed it high – about 8 feet – in order to create dramatic, directional light. After taking a test shot, I saw that the light fell off below her tutu, since it came out about a foot from her body, causing her legs to go into shadow. To remedy this, I added a second light, placing it on the ground, aimed slightly up, to avoid lighting the ground. The second light worked at illuminating the lower half of her body (image above). By zooming the flashes in to a medium setting of 70mm, it allowed just enough light spread to cover her, while not spilling on too much of the environment around her. While a bit of background detail can be seen in the raw file, it can easily be removed in Lightroom in post-production.

3

The final shot: Kristie is now completely isolated in the void. Poetic.

In a slightly different environment, I was doing a shoot with model Dani Dikeman, in a basement. She was in black body paint, wearing all black above the waist. I wanted the whole scene to appear black, save for the highlights on Dani and the textures of her outfit. It was a conceptual portrait shoot, this portion being the Hell portion of a Heaven/Hell-themed shoot. (The as-yet-to-be-shot Heaven scenario will, fittingly, be all white.)

4
The setup: This scenario took place in a basement.

I met Dani at the makeup artist’s house, about an hour after they got started on the makeup, in order to give them a head start on the lengthy application. I knew that the basement was going to be an optimal shooting space because it was not only windowless, but wide open and barren. I quickly set up the sole flash, see above, and then waited while they put the finishing touches on the makeup and hair.

5
The raw file: Though a bit of Dani’s unpainted abdomen and sweatpants are visible in the shot, a quick Lightroom adjustment would have the image ready to go.

The shoot actually went rather quickly (15 minutes), which is ironic since the makeup application took two hours. Though the basement wasn’t especially large, by using a grid on my light to contain light from spilling on the nearby walls, the environment read pretty close to black in the raw files, as seen above. Although Dani’s unpainted abdomen and sweatpants visible in the shot, this wasn’t too big of an issue. Because the light falloff was so dramatic from her bust to her torso, a quick adjustment in Lightroom, lowering the exposure and it went easily to black.

6
The final shot. All black everything.

Have you done all dark or low key images before? Have any other tips or comments to share?

Further Reading:

Check out this great video on the topic of creating an invisible black background to portraits using the same techniques.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Nick Fancher is a portrait and commercial photographer based out of Columbus, Ohio. His clients include The New York Times, ESPN Magazine and Forbes Japan. He specializes in a no-frills, run and gun approach to lighting. His two ebooks are available here. You can connect with him on Instagram.

  • Jack the Hat Photographic

    Interesting article but I think it would help beginners if you mentioned that either a fast enough shutter speed, a low enough ISO or a powerful enough flash is required to ensure the ambient light isn’t registered. This is especially important for the outdoor shoot.

  • Michael Owens

    I find this easier by taking a shot at 1/200 with a high enough f stop so that the entire shot is black. (f11) usually does it for me.

    That’s when I bring in the flash, I’ve found 1/16th enough to lighten my subjects.

    The below examples are all single flashlights.

    I do this a lot for my portraits.

    For example:-

  • The diagrams-

  • me

    Made to sound more complex than it needs to be. I have done this using just natural sunlight (even outdoors) and the appropriate camera settings. Even an on camera flash can be used if really required

  • Loessie-loes

    Hi
    I’m curious you did that!
    Can you tell me where i can find some information about this?

  • Debbie Langer Borato

    Yes I’m interested in that technique as well. Especially since my flash broke over Christmas.

  • Alex Silva

    I didn’t go for a completely black background but still liked the result: http://pxboard.com/en/entry/2014/11/20/how-did-i-shoot-that-low-key-portrait

  • That’s amazing…

  • rwhunt99

    not sure what you are talking about when you say grid, you didn’t mention what is or was and where you get it. In the photo, I see a simple flash on a light stand

  • Shot in a residential kitchen using the window as a single light source. Ambient background was a neutral colored painted wall and a Little Tykes basketball goal, all blacked out in the image.
    f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 640, 47mm, center spot metering, no flash.

  • Great post!

  • snarls

    This article is interesting…thank you. I understand that a grid is a honeycomb filter placed on the flash…but I’d have liked more explanation of what setup of grids you used.

  • I used a Honl grid on the basement shot, since the white walls were close, and I wanted to contain the light. On the outdoor shot I didn’t need any grids, since there was enough room to keep the model away from the back wall.

  • Honl grid on the basement shot, since the white walls were close, and I wanted to contain the light. On the outdoor shot I didn’t need any grids, since there was enough room to keep the model away from the back wall.

  • rwhunt99

    Thanks, I want to check that out! Especially for those indoor mood shots.

  • Rob

    I had to look that up myself, lol here is the unit: http://www.honlphoto.com/product-p/honl-grid.htm

  • Tino

    Nick, as always a great read. You prove yourself to be one of a handful of photographers who does not need to stand on his wallet to rise above others.

    Your low budget setups are always simple and the results are fantastic. Simple setups means less to cart around and fast deploys and repositioning.

    Keep up the good work!!

  • Marko

    I really liked your article. Especially how you wanted to (and others in the discussion) point out how “effects” can be achieved by setting your camera right. But for me, very amateurish photography enthusiast, but very mathematical person, you should have presented some technical details to explain HOW this blackness or invisibleness (is that a word?) is achieved. For example, a picture of speed/ISO/aperture with lines going from the camera, “through” the subject and to the background, and what do different setting do these lines… or is it just me being lazy (to think myself)? 🙂
    Really liked the article. Planning some dramatic shots of my wife tomorrow, in broad daylight. As if my wife needed “added drama”… 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • Gary Zaborowski

    I have done this as well. It’s tons of fun!

    I used a canon rebel t3i for this shot with a 50mm 1.4 lens

    The sun was coming in the living room window perfectly and caught my dogs face. I just dialed in to make the background darker. You’re basically just trying to expose for the highlights. You just have to play with the aperture and shutter speed.

  • Joe Schmitt

    Check out the MagMod system. You can basically leave the magnetic rubber piece on your flash at all times and then the gel and grid attach magnetically. When you’re moving the flash around, it’s nice to not have to worry about velcro pieces coming loose. I tried the Rogue system before and couldn’t stand the velcro. It just never fit right.

    www.http://magnetmod.com

  • Michael Owens

    I’d be glad to find out how far away from the wall you were, as at 5.6 with natural light, and a neutral colour you would see some wall. Have you edited a bit? I always end up having too.

  • Michael Owens

    I’d have been happier to just see the resulting image, but to share a link to your own personal tutorial, which in turn leads people to like your ‘photography Facebook’ page, this for me, is nothing but SPAM and should be removed.

  • Check out the lighting diagrams, posted in the above comments.

  • Michael Owens

    If anyone wants to try this and is confused by the diagrams Nick has kindly provided, then give this guide by Glyn Dewis a try.

    http://glyndewis.com/the-invisible-black-backdrop-photography-technique/

    DPS mods. This isn’t spam, or a way to subvert Nicks great post. It’s just a helpful hand to newbies.

  • That’s awesome! I never heard the phrase “invisible black backdrop” before, but that really describes it well.

  • Michael Owens

    Hope you don’t think I’m hijacking though but yeah it does really help lol

  • Alex Silva

    Hi Michael, I see your point and I understand. I’ll make sure to share images first and offer help later.

    In any case, I’m just trying to learn and share the things I learn. Have a good one!

  • Michael Owens

    Nice one. We are all here to learn, just not to poach readers or get clicks. 🙂

  • Archie Alimagno

    I love these type of mood/low key shots and appreciate the comments and techniques others are using. I try to keep my setting simple using an inexpensive flash unit (non ttl Neewer TT560 lowest flash setting), ISO 100-400, 5.6-11.0 and 1/250th to 1/320th (a different Neewer with HSS for better control and higher sync speed).

    My favorite subject is my grand-daughter Kainala or roses from my wife’s garden (or the store). I’ve included a couple of sample. I took about 7 shots to get the light the way I wanted on my grand-daughter’s face. The rose was a little easier since I wanted the reflection of the rose to show up without the flash being evident in the capture.

  • Michael Owens

    Or check out my link above. I got it first go after coming across that guide.

  • Michael Owens

    Doing this type of shot with a camera based POPUP flash doesn’t result in the exact same result.

    Editing will be required. Using Nicks technique, won’t.

  • joan dapidap

    dramatic effect…i think it’s not 100 percent visible int these photos.
    Great pictures but i can’t really feel the drama.

  • Michael Owens

    Lol. Oh dear.

  • Michael Owens

    Very nice. Well
    Done.

  • Fahd MahaMa

    This is soo beautiful. I’m planning on shooting something likenthis but i was doubtfull of how to go about it. Thanks very much!

  • Michael O

    Nick. What else are you going to inspire us with in 2015? You’re my creative genius!

  • Ha! You flatter me. I have a post coming soon to DPS on lighting and photographing cars. Also, my book, Studio Anywhere, will be out March 31st. Pre-order it here- http://t.co/bM2rUlivJC

  • Michael O

    Excellent. I hope you mention invisible black backgrounds in that book hehe. Look forward to the car post then! Thanks Nick.

  • Michael O

    PS. The book and ebook bundle. That means a physical copy as well as digital editions right?

    If you ship to the UK, I’ll order that now. As looking at the sample guide. There’s some good stuff in there.

  • Daja Baj
  • Jayprakash Parmar

    Hi Nick, I have Canon 1200d with 2 kit lens 18-55 mm & 55-250 mm lens. I dont have external flash. Photography is my hobby. I understood the ISO/Aperture/f-stop setting. Do i still require an external flash to get such images?

    Eagerly waiting as i want to shoot it…..

  • PeeDee

    Hello fellow photogs, is it true also that if you increase shutter speed it will block out as much ambient light as possible thus only the flash lights yoursubject

  • tonyc0101

    hmm…I would think for low-key images that an essential constant would be to solely use ISO @ 100 (or lowest possible), no?

  • foxykate

    This is amazing, I wouldn’t have thought of trying this out. What type of grid are you using in particular? Are you using just a off-camera flash or a strobe?

  • Kimberly Landers

    Hi Nick, Im curious to know what camera settings you used for the balerina? Im going to be doing my first fitness shoot and want a dark background with only the person lit up…the only thing is the room will be pretty bright.

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