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Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography

Think dark, moody shadows. Sparse illumination and a somber atmosphere. No color. This is low key black and white photography.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Dark Male Portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Usually one main light, or ‘key’ light, falls on your subject and the background fades to black. It’s all about the highlights and shadows and how they define the shapes in your composition.

Subject selection for shape

Low-key lighting will not suit every subject. You will find bold subjects and bold composition of subjects are best for low-key photography.

Busy scenes with a lot of detail end up looking jumbled and are best avoided. Or at least composed in such a way as to make the content in your photo minimal.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Novice Monk Portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

A novice monk in a shrine was the center of my attention. Around him was clutter. Bright sunlight shone through an opening with a grid, making the light directional.

By selecting to make my exposure based on the highlight on his face I have made the scene work in low-key black and white. The candles, people, Buddha image, and other distractions in the background are insignificant. Had I included them in my composition the impact of the simple outline of his face would be lost.

Exposure choice is essential

Low-key lighting is as much about the shadows as it is about the light.

Let the darkness envelope all but your main subject. Even let it consume most of your subject. So long as it enhances what you want to show.

Taking an exposure reading from the highlight area, when the light is harsh and the background is darker, creates a moodiness.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography High Structure Harsh in Silver Efex Pro

Small Buddha statue photographed on a bright, sunny afternoon

Set your ISO for the overall amount of light. Outside on a sunny day you need to keep your ISO low. Inside, or in other situations where there’s not much light, choose a higher ISO.

Balancing your aperture and shutter speed to the brightest parts of your composition will expose well.

This method of exposure will provide you highlights with detail and shadows rendering black, (or close to black.)

Experimenting with your settings will help you understand this principle. If you haven’t tried this, don’t make one exposure, make many of the same subject at various settings. When you view them on your computer, look at the metadata for the settings you used and make comparisons. Which settings give you the most pleasing results?

See in black and white

How will the tones of what you are seeing in color translate to black and white?

Complementary colors will help provide contrast in your black and white photos. Blue, violet and red convert to darker tones. Green, yellow and orange will convert to lighter tones.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Muddy Ceramin Artist

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Setting your camera monitor display to grayscale will help you learn to see in black and white. When you try this at first look at the colors in your composition and see how they are shown in grayscale.

Color contrast is more critical when the light is softer. When the light is soft, it’s more challenging to make low-key photographs because the overall tone values are evener.

Squint your eyes to help you see

When you’re not sure if there’s enough contrast in a scene for a low-key black and white photo, squint your eyes. Doing this reduces what you see and contrast becomes more apparent.

Compare the brightest and darkest areas in what you are looking at. Train your eyes to understand when there will be enough contrast.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Low Key Bottles

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

With your eyes open you can see a broader tone range than your camera is capable of recording. By squinting your eyes you are effectively narrowing the tone range which is visible to you.

The importance of post-processing for low-key digital photography

Even though your camera records a reduced tone range compared to what you see, it’s still recording more than you want for a low-key photo. Certainly more than photographing with black and white film.

Post-processing your photos to achieve the contrast and minimal tone range requires a different technique than it does for images showing a wide range of tones.

When you’ve made photos where you expose for the highlights it’s easy to darken the shadows during post-processing.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Low Key Eyes

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

These are the tools I most frequently use when processing low-key photos to reduce the shadow detail:

  • Contrast
  • Blacks
  • Shadows
  • Highlights and Whites
  • The Burn tool (or similar)

Enhancing the overall contrast boosts the highlights and diminishes shadow detail. Increasing the blacks and decreasing the shadows will help gain the effect you want also.

Manipulating the whites and highlights will help you keep some detail in the brightest parts of your image. If the detail is totally removed low-key photos can still look okay, but it’s good to be mindful of this and make sure it’s a deliberate choice.

As with all post-processing there are many different ways to achieve the same or similar results. Experiment and find what works best for you with each photograph you work on. The more you try different methods the more skilled and quicker you will become.

Plug-ins and apps can make post-processing easier

I love using the Silver Efex Pro plug-in with Photoshop. There’s a good selection of presets which can also be customized after you have applied them.

Don’t get stuck thinking you need to use the Low-Key presets. If you’ve got your light and exposure right, other options will be more effective.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Fine Art Process with extra burning in

I used the Silver Efex Pro preset ‘Fine Art Process’ and added extra burning in. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Photography is very subjective. Like any form of creative expression, I believe there’s no real right or wrong way to express yourself.

Most important is that you take your photos and post process with intent. Knowing what you want before you press your shutter release will help you obtain the look and feel you want.

These few techniques outlined here are by no means exhaustive or complete. I want to encourage you to experiment. I hope these points give you some foundation to work on when experimenting with low key black and white photography.

Once you’ve had a chance to try some on your own please post your pictures and leave your comments below.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography.
Check out Kevin’s Blog for articles with a more personal approach to photography.