Photography Techniques – Low Key Portraits

Ever wondered how to create a “Low Key” portrait like this?

This tutorial will teach you an easy way to do it, WITHOUT a studio and using only one Speedlight.

Firstly to kill the jargon around what is and isn’t “Low Key”?

Generally, any image in which most of the tones are dark is a low key image, so if it’s a portrait like this one, or a full body shot where the subject is wearing dark clothing and is stood in shadow it will be classed as a Low key shot.

To Achieve this shot you will need a few things.

  • A camera that lets you adjust shutter speed and Aperture value. (For a basic run down on this, you can check out This Article ) The camera also needs to be able to fire a Speedlight/Flash from a hot shoe/ or sync cord.
  • A Speedlight that has manual power adjustment. 

Setup

You can see from my setup shot that you don’t need a studio, and you don’t need to black out all the light or do the shot in the dark. The flash ideally needs to be on a stand. If I hadn’t have left my DSLR on the tripod to show the setup for the shot, then I would have mounted the flash onto the tripod. This can be done using the plastic feet that come with most brands of speedlights. If you haven’t got one, you can pick them up very cheaply on internet auction sites.

Firing The Speedlight.

I use a radio trigger to fire my off camera flash, but the cheapest way to do it is to buy a TTL extension cord (Also available for very little on-line)This allows you to fire the flash whilst it’s not on top of the camera. One end of the cord slides onto the hot shoe on the top of the camera body, then the other end attaches to your flash.

 Control The light.

The first thing we have to do is set the camera to the highest shutter sync speed that the manufacturer allows. This is the highest speed that the camera can use and still see the light from the flash. It is a little more complex than that, but for the purpose of this exercise it’s not important. You can find the maximum sync speed of your camera in your user guide, or if you’re not sure, stick to a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second. (This is normally the speed for most consumer DSLR’s and bridge cameras)

Once you’ve done that and you are set to the widest aperture your lens will allow, if you press your shutter release you’ll probably have something like this. (Although your subject will probably look more interested than my son does !)

The next step is to get rid of all the Ambient light that the camera sees. This is all the natural light that’s bouncing in and around the room. To do this we adjust the aperture until the light is no longer visible. You can take test shots at each setting and just have a look on the LCD screen to see when you have the right setting. I’ve shown this in the images below, but bear in mind that your values might be different depending on what lens you are using. And the shutter speed needs to remain at 1/200 or whatever your maximum sync speed is.

Once you have a completely black image like the one above, you can bring in the Speedlight. What we want is the camera to only see the light that the Speedlight is giving off.

Setting your Speedlight.

The Speedlight needs to be in nice and close, set to manual (If you set the Speedlight to TTL it will try and put enough light out to properly expose the whole room and that’s not what we want this time) Your Speedlight needs to be set on the lowest power in my case 1/128 of full power.If your Speedlight doesn’t have a power adjustment, don’t worry, I’ll cover that at the end.

This is my result for the first shot.

You can see that there isn’t quite enough light getting onto my subject. So leaving all settings on the camera as they are, we adjust the power on the Speedlight. The power setting is increased up to 1/64 power and the result is below.

Now you can see that the subject is properly exposed, and the background is still black. All that’s left is a slight change in the subject’s position, or moving the location of the Speedlight slightly to put more light on his face where we want it.

Overcoming Problems

If as discussed earlier your Speedlight does not have a manual power control there are several things you can do. Most Speedlights have at least a MH (Manual high) and ML (Manual Low) setting. If this is the case then set to ML, then if you find you still have too much output (The background is lighting up) you can do a few things to combat this.

You could put an ND filter on your lens to reduce the amount of light getting to your sensor. But this is not a cheap option. You could put an ND filter on the Speedlight itself to reduce the power of the output. These can be bought very cheaply, or sometimes “LEE Filters” will send out free sample packs of coloured gels and filters for free on request to one of their suppliers.  The cheapest way, and the solution I often use is to get an elastic band, and fasten one or two sheets of toilet paper over the Speedlight  head. This diffuses the light and makes it softer, and it reduces the output.

I hope all this helps, and don’t hesitate to pop over to the Photography Chat community on G+ to ask for advice and help or to share  your own images done with this technique.

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