Basics of fine-art photography/Creating works in a low-key

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Cathedral, Encarnación (Paraguay)
Photo taken on a Latin American expedition

Low-key is a method of lighting used in photography to create a special artistic effect.

General information

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The meaning of the method is to highlight certain parts of the photographed object, while the rest remain dark, which is how the originality of the result is achieved.

When shooting outdoors, you can find a ready-made scene, all that remains is to correctly display it using a tripod or improvised means.
For studio photography, you have to create the conditions yourself.

Ways of implementation

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It is not necessary to use a special equipped studio — a darkened room is enough to start. If you want to create a portrait, cover the wall plane to be used as a background with any dark (preferably black) material. The discreet lighting technique suggests uses a single key light source, which can optionally be controlled by a reflector to create a fill light. As a result, a kind of gloomy, dramatic effect is achieved.

When manipulating the source of light, try to choose an angle for the poser so that the hard shadows fall on certain parts of the face. Avoid direct light hitting the background so that the photograph does not show its texture, but only a solid, evenly distributed black colour. The light fixture (or flash) used should not be too powerful, and if there are no others, you should cover the plane of the outgoing rays with a white or light cloth.

Possible mistakes

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The result of too little exposure will be an image with missing details in dark areas, or total blackout ; too much exposure will result in an image with missing detail in light areas, or even no image at all. Be prepared for the fact that the first result may disappoint you: experience does not come immediately.

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See also

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Creating works in a high key