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. 


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.

Photography Basics – Exposure and Histograms

histogramIn my previous post: Photography 101 – Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO we explored the basic camera controls, their relationship to each other and their use in both everyday photography and creative photography.

Today I want to look in greater depth at how this relates to the captured image in terms of Exposure and the Histogram.


In simple terms exposure is the amount of light that is allowed to fall on the sensor (or film) when you take a photograph and modern cameras will have a built in exposure meter (or light meter) that will determine the light values of a scene and attempt to return a result that will give a suitable mid tone which equates to 18% grey.

Why 18% grey? Simply, this is the correct value for caucasion skin tones under normal lighting conditions and is considered the standard that meters are set to.

So with our camera set to auto the meter will evaluate the scene and attempt to set the aperture and shutter speed to give an average exposure of 18% grey, which generally will give a reasonable image. The problem with this approach is that we do not always want to photograph average subjects; we may wish to photograph non-Caucasian skin tones, snow and beach scenes, night scenes, high key and low key scenes.

In these situation the light meter will attempt to reproduce the scene to 18% grey which will result in under exposed snow / sand or blacks will look grey or muddy, in these cases we need to make a judgement of what is the most important part of the image to expose for and trick the meter into making the correct settings.

Exposure Meters

Exposure meters fall broadly into two categories; built in (part of the camera) or hand held and can feature several different modes.

Center Weighted Average Metering

In this system 60-80% of the exposure is biased towards the central portion of the viewfinder and gives less importance to the exposure towards the edges. This will generally return acceptable results with portraits and general scenes as it will be less influenced by brighter skies etc.

Average Metering

The exposure is calculated by averaging out the entire scene.

Spot Metering

In this mode metering is based on 1-5% of the viewfinder, typically the very center, variations will enable the photographer to select from different areas of the viewfinder or may offer multi-spot metering, where a series of targets can be selected.

Spot metering is ideal for subjects with high contrast such as back-lit subjects, photographs of the moon or actors / musicians against a dark or light background.

Multi Zone Metering

Also known as ESP, Matrix, evaluative or honeycomb metering. Here, multiple zones are metered and used to determine exposure across the scene, different bias will be given to different areas and this will in some cases be linked to the camera auto-focus to bias the point of focus.

So far we have discussed various metering systems and how they attempt to make the correct exposure, some of their drawbacks and basics of operation, all of which leaves two questions; how do we know if the exposure is right? If it’s wrong how do we correct it?


The histogram is a graph showing the distribution of exposure levels across an image and can normally be found on most image editing software and can normally be enabled to appear on the rear LCD screen of most cameras.

Values to the left of the screen represent blacks and dark tones, to the right light to white tones and the graph will normally show a peak where the exposure is concentrated. If this peak is towards the left, the image will be dark and shadow detail may be lost, if fully to the right the image will be very bright and highlights may burn out. In the majority of situations we would want to expose so that the peak is just to the right of center as shadows can be recovered easier than highlights in post production.

If we need to adjust the exposure when using any of the camera auto modes e.g. program, auto, aperture or shutter priority, then we need to trick the meter by using the exposure compensation control to manually increase or decrease the exposure, use exposure bracketing to take a series of exposures (normally at 0, +1Ev, -1Ev) or use Exposure Lock (AEL) to meter an important part of the scene which is off center before re composing.

Correct use of the Histogram allows us to better understand where the light distribution is within the image and will lead to better captures, with experience and use of the histogram function you will learn to understand how light interacts with the elements of the image and how to better set the camera controls before taking a shot.