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When it comes to photo exposure, there’s no one-size-fits-all. You can expose dark, light, and everything in between according to your subject matter and creative vision. You’ve probably heard the concept of dark and moody images. This is a popular term for low key images and is something we teach in-depth in our Advanced Photography Course.
So what does low key mean exactly?
It’s a photo that contains more dark tones and colours than any other, and typically the light is not as bright as a “light and airy” type of image. Which, by the way, is otherwise known as a high key image, and yes, we also teach that style!
When done well, a low key image can be beautifully dramatic, moody and mysterious! And the best bit? If you’ve got a severe lack of light — whether it’s because you live in a cave or you’re enduring a dark winter — you only need a tiny low light pocket to try this photography style!
This week the array of beautiful low key, dark and moody photos jumped out at us from our Grad’s Group, so it was only natural they should feature in this blog post! Read on and learn some easy ways to use natural light for stunning dark and moody pics!
This stunning portrait was created using a combination of dark colours, low light, and a position near a window with soft gentle light filtering through.
By positioning them at a 90-degree angle to the light source, the shadows on the left are maintained, which adds depth and conveys a quiet moment.
In this dark and moody photo, she’s facing the light so she’s lit directly front on. But Kirsty stood at an almost 90-degree angle to her daughter, enabling her to create a directional light portrait by including the shadows behind her. Stunning!
Below, the subjects are positioned at a 45-degree angle to the light source, so you see more shadows back right, whilst you see some detail in the shadows directly behind them.
This is still a low key photo. However, as you can see, the tones are mostly dark — what a beautifully delicious, emotive image to be cherished!
Related: Dramatic Natural Light Portraits
Now, this was shot near windows, in soft mid-tone to high key light. But Sue created a dark and moody result simply by adding a black backdrop. Notice she’s exposed for the brightest part of her subject’s skin, but the predominantly dark colours throughout ensure a low key photo.
The moral of the story? You don’t need to underexpose in higher key light in order to create a low key picture. It’s all about the surrounding colours, tones and light.
Related: Low Light Photography Tips
Believe it or not, this shot was lit the same as the one above. The light source is in the same position in relation to the subject, the surrounding colours and tones are dark, the strength of the light is very similar, and both subjects are exposed for the brightest part of their skin.
The only difference is in this shot, Morvern’s little one is facing the light, whereas in Sue’s image her subject is positioned so that she’s side lit.
Expose for the light or the colours in the sky at dawn or dusk to create a beautifully dark and moody silhouette photo. You can expose so your subjects appear fully in silhouette or partially to capture some detail and emotion.
The settings? You can do this using an aperture of around f/2.2, shutter speed around 1/250 and an ISO to balance — start with 320 and tweak if required. Bear in mind your settings will depend on the ambient light you have at the time, so there’s no one-size-fits-all exposure setting.
Related: Sunset Silhouette Photos
A garden is a fantastic and unexpected place to create a dark and moody photo, regardless of the time of day. In between the foliage, you’ll find gorgeous little pockets of low key light, then shoot directly down into the darkness to capture flora. This works especially well if the earth is dark, whether it’s soil or bark chips.
We have a fantastic beginner’s guide to get you started trying macro photography. You don’t even need a dedicated macro lens… check out our macro gear guide to discover how you can start taking macro photos for as little as $20.
Even without any macro gear, you can take shots like this with a good sharp lens, getting in as close as your lens will focus. Choose a narrow aperture of, say, f/7.1 to compensate for the small depth of field you’re afforded when up close.
Related: Macro Photography Beginners Guide
In this late in the day sunlight, look for well defined hard light shadows to create unexpected low light imagery. The subject doesn’t have to be a person either. Any shadow, if well defined and interesting, can be a subject within itself if you pay attention to the surroundings and your composition.
Patterns made by the shadows also make a surprising and creative image.
Related: Shadow Photography Tutorial
There’s something about low key food photography that makes your mouth water, and that’s a sign of a good food photo! Above all, isn’t that the sole purpose? To make you want to eat the subject?
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