Low-key photography involves using darker exposures and tones in an image to create a dramatic and moody appearance. Taking a successful low-key photo is part on-camera skill and part editing technique. We’ll talk briefly about the on-camera part in this tutorial. After that, we’ll focus on editing to enhance dark and moody photos.

On-Camera Techniques for Low-Key Photography

When taking a low-key photo, you’ll follow photography best practices: choose your focus point, set exposure manually, etc. The following tips are specific to low-key photography:

  1. Background – you’ll often see low-key photos taken in a studio with a black backdrop. If you don’t have that, you’ll need a dark or poorly lit background.
  2. Lighting – Many low-key photos are taken with an external flash positioned to create dramatic shadows on the subject and the background. Usually only a carefully controlled part of the photo is well lit.
  3. Out of the studio – The simplest way to get a low-key photo would be to shine a flashlight on your subject’s face in a dark room.  Because flashlights are usually harsh and don’t have a flattering light color, this won’t be the most sophisticated low-key photo. It will, however, teach you the technique so that you can practice and learn to refine it. You could also try positioning your subject at the edge of a dark room. I took this photo with my daughter sitting on the front edge of our garage:
  4. Expose for the highlights. This is probably the most important on-camera skill you need for low-key photography. It’s ok if there is no detail in the shadows. That’s the point, in fact. Exposing for the highlights is a technique we cover in the Guided 365.
  5. ISO – Shoot with your ISO as low as possible to avoid noise in the bright parts of your image. I used ISO 2500 on the first photo up above. It’s higher than I’d like but it was the minimum I could manage in the low light.
  6. Define your subject – Regardless of where you shoot, have a good plan for which part of the photo is your subject and which will fade into dark shadows.

I took the photo that I’ll use for this example at a shoot in a mystical looking location. My subjects were wearing their Renaissance Faire costumes. The sun was close to setting as I took this photo. My subject was facing the setting sun.

Editing Techniques for Low Key Photography

Editing is where low key really gets fun. You’ll definitely want a black point in your image, and shooting in low light situations presents challenges that can be addressed while you edit. The first set of instructions are geared towards Lightroom. If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, you’ll find a list of adjustments and resources for this process below.

Follow these steps as needed to add drama to your low-key images:

  1. Set the black point. Photos with black points have at least one area that is a true, deep black. You’ll know that your photo has a black point if the histogram shows pixels touching the left wall, like this: Low-key photography histogram(By the way, most of my photos have much more centered histograms, or they even skew to the right. But for low-key photos, you should expect many pixels to be on the left side of your histogram. You can find your histogram on camera, in Lightroom, or in Photoshop/Photoshop Elements. ) If you don’t have pixels touching the left wall, move your Blacks slider to the left until you see pixels touching the left wall. The Blacks slider is circled in the image below. Note that my photo already had a black point, so I didn’t need to darken the blacks further.
  2. Brighten your subject. If you composed your photo properly, your subject will be the only bright part of the photo. You’ll often find, however, that you need to brighten this subject a bit more – especially if you don’t use off-camera lighting. To brighten exposure, you can use a combination of the Exposure, Highlights, and Whites sliders, depending on the needs of your photo. In this edit, I used only my Highlights and Whites sliders. If I had brightened the Exposure slider, the shadows in the background would have brightened too much. Low-key photography - brighten the subject
  3. Adjust white balance. When taking low light photos, you’ll usually find that the white balance is too cool. (Unless you are using indoor lighting to make your photo. In that case, your white balance might be way too warm.) I want my subject to stand out from the background, so I am looking for as much contrast as possible. For that reason, I adjusted white balance over my subject only. This leaves the background cool but warms her skin and gives me two types of contrast:  a bright subject in front of a dark background and a warm subject in front of a cool background. I painted these local adjustment brush settings over her entire body, including her clothes: 
  4. Brighten shadows more, if necessary. I used various local brushes with settings like those in the next image to brighten my subject’s face a bit more. I also brightened her shirt just a touch – it was about to become a black hole of nothingness. That’s ok for the background, but not for the subject.
  5. Edit the eyes with care. Unless the eyes were exceptionally bright on camera, you can’t make them very bright as you edit. Always stop and do a reality check to make sure they look believable. My primary goal for the eyes was to brighten the iris and the catchlights, with a small amount of brightening on the whites. I also added a significant amount of Clarity.
  6. Reduce noise, if necessary. Noise can be a big deal low-key photography. Because we often shoot in low light, we have to crank up the ISO in spite of all of our efforts to keep it low. I take a very minimal approach to noise reduction because reducing noise blurs the photo. I only reduce noise when and where it’s absolutely necessary. In this photo, the only place the noise bothered me was on her face.
  7. Shift the colors to create more contrast. Up above, I mentioned that I liked the cool background because it contrasted with the warm subject. I made my background even cooler by shifting the greens of the trees closer to a blue color using the HSL panel:
  8. Create a vignette with the Radial Filter. The Radial Filter works better for vignettes than the Vignette tool because you can control where it goes. The top of my photo was plenty dark – I didn’t want to hide further detail. I drew a huge oval and dragged it so that it only darkened the bottom corners: 
  9. Get creative. For an added special touch, I took the photo into Photoshop to clone the berries that appeared near the top right corner of the image.  I loved the subtle red they added and placed the duplicates so that they would help draw the viewer’s eye around the photo.

Why didn’t I sharpen? Great question! If I sharpened the photo, it would sharpen the noise that the ISO created. I don’t sharpen grainy images unless I want a gritty look.

You can see the before and after of all the edits in this zoom in:

And here is my final photo:

Photoshop/Photoshop Elements Adjustments for Editing Low-Key Photography:

If you don’t use Lightroom, read the information above and substitute the tools below in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

  1. Set the black point. Add a Levels adjustment layer and move the Blacks slider to the left until you see pixels touch the right wall of the histogram.
  2. Brighten your subject by moving the Whites and Midtone sliders to the left. Use a layer mask to constrain your edits to the subject only.
  3. Adjust white balance using a Levels layer and a mask.
  4. Brighten shadows, also using a Levels layer and a mask.
  5. Edit eyes using these techniques.
  6. Reduce noise by creating a duplicate layer and going to Filter/Noise/Reduce Noise. 
  7. Shift the colors with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
  8. Create a vignette using one of these methods.


And finally….

The great thing about low-key photography is that, once you master the technique, it can be the silver lining inside of the low-light cloud. It won’t work in all low-light situations, of course. Keep your eyes peeled for places where you have defined areas of dark and light, post your subject, and give it a try!