In this low-key lighting tutorial we’ll show you how to use a single flashgun to light your subjects for truly atmospheric images.
Low-key lighting makes the most of dark tones and shadows to create images with drama and atmosphere.
Unlike high-key photography, which requires plenty of natural or artificial light, a low-key lighting shoot requires very little.
The backdrop needs to be mostly hidden in the shadows, while particular features on the subject are illuminated to make them stand out.
This means that when you’re shooting low-key portraits you don’t need much in the way of lighting kit – a single flashgun mounted off-camera will be adequate.
Some DSLRs have an integrated transmitter, which enables you to fire a compatible external flash via the camera’s pop-up flash.
If your camera doesn’t have this feature you’ll need a wireless flash trigger, which is mounted on your camera’s hotshoe.
For this technique the ambient lighting needs to be as low as possible, so shooting indoors is ideal.
You want to eliminate as much of the ambient light as possible, which you can do by narrowing your aperture; a fast shutter speed would achieve the same effect, but on cameras the top flash sync speed is either 1/200 or 1/250 sec.
When you expose for the ambient light you don’t need to worry about underexposing your subject, as the flash will illuminate them – you can simply adjust the flash power as required to expose them correctly.
How to set up your camera for low-key lighting: steps 1-4
A large and spacious room is ideal for this shoot. It doesn’t need to have good natural light – the darker the better in fact – and you don’t need to worry about cluttered backdrops, as only your subject should be visible when you exclude the ambient light.
02 Get set up
For this shoot a standard zoom lens will give you plenty of versatility. You don’t need a ‘fast’ portrait lens with a wide maximum aperture, as we’ll be using flash to light our model rather than relying on natural light.
As we’ll be shooting with an external flashgun you’ll need a light stand or tripod to place it on, using the mount supplied with the flashgun.
03 Camera settings
We want to eliminate as much of the ambient light as possible, so forget about exposing for your subject for the time being.
Set a low ISO of 100 to retain maximum quality for smooth, noise-free shadows, and set your shutter speed to the maximum flash sync speed, which is 1/200 sec (1/250 sec on higher-end EOS cameras). Start with a wide aperture value, such as f/5.6, and take a test shot.
04 Narrow the aperture
If the scene is still fairly light, dial in a narrower aperture and take another test shot, and repeat until you’ve eliminated all the ambient light and the whole scene appears dark.
You can use the histogram to help you; ideally there should be just a few lines of pixels clipped at the left-hand edge of the graph to indicate a heavily underexposed scene.
If you plan to convert your portrait to mono as we have, it’s a good idea to select your DSLR’s Monochrome picture style to give you a better idea of how the image look in black and white; this will also help you to judge how much light your subject needs, and where the shadows will fall.
Make sure you’re shooting in the Raw quality mode though, so that the mono style isn’t applied to your image when you open it in Elements; you can then use the colour information in the image to apply a custom mono conversion.
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