If you love dark & moody style images, you might be surprised to know it’s not about editing (although that’s part of it). But it starts with exposure – low key photography is the first step to a dark & moody style, and in this tutorial we’re showing you how to master it so you can take your own delicious dark and moody images.
Hope de la Rosa, CLG Advanced Grad
What is Low Key Photography?
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!
Read on and learn some easy ways to use natural light for stunning dark and moody pics!
1. Side Lit Low Key Portraits
These stunning portraits were 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.
This dark and moody photo uses the light in the same wasy as the one above. Stunning!
Below, the subjects are positioned at a 45-degree angle to the light source, and all other light sources in the room are blocked off. Whilst you can see some detail in the shadows behind them, it’s muted and not at all distracting, and it’s still a low key photo because the overall tones are mostly dark.
This enables the subjects to really separate from the environment. And what a beautifully delicious, emotive image to be cherished!
Dark and moody style isn’t just about low key light. You also need some low key tones – so dark, muted colours that sit to the left of centre on a histogram. So if you’ve got dark walls in your house, you can use them to easily create a dark and moody look.
Buy what do you do if your house is light and bright with white walls all around? This image below 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, and the backdrop falls away to shadow.
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.
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.