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

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.


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.


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.


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.)

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.

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.

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
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.

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