Low Key Photography-Modifying Existing Light in Your Camera

by Laurie Madsen January. 29, 2019 1334 views
Using in Camera Settings To Modify Bright Sun to Achieve Low Key Photography

Using in Camera Settings To Modify Bright Sun to Achieve Low Key Photography

In my last blog "Winter Birding in Sub Zero Weather", I shared how we combine bird-watching with our love of photography, using birds as our "models" to practice our photography skills. I commented on using the down-time of winter to explore creative use of camera settings and modes to achieve different results.

This blog is a follow up to that post, illustrating one of the ways I put camera settings to creative use to achieve "different looks", practice portrait photography, and familiarize myself with my cameras at the same time.

My gracious subject is a greedy Blue Jay who stood guard over the feeder until all the peanuts were gone. Being a beautiful and candid subject with his many "expressions", I decided to take advantage and use him for a portraiture model.

Greedy Blue Jay dubbed "LORD OF THE PEANUTS" Provides Practice for Low Key Portraits on Bright Sunny Day

Greedy Blue Jay dubbed "LORD OF THE PEANUTS" Provides Practice for Low Key Portraits on Bright Sunny Day

It was an extremely bright winter day, with sun bouncing off all of the snow, and glaring on our windows. Instead of putting the camera away, I decided to use it creatively to practice some "Low Key" Blue Jay portraits.

Bright Sunlight Provides Details While Camera Settings Create Light "Fall Off" for Low Key Images

Bright Sunlight Provides Details While Camera Settings Create Light "Fall Off" for Low Key Images

Low key photography is created by intentionally limiting the amount of light factoring into your exposure (allowing less light in than you normally would for a "balanced exposure") and thus creating a darker image. In a studio setting, one can use modifiers, backgrounds, etc to help achieve this look.

Low Key Can Provide Mood In Images- This Image Seems to Have a Meditative Mood

Low Key Can Provide Mood In Images- This Image Seems to Have a Meditative Mood

Low key photography can be done outside of a studio, even in full sunshine and bright light, and produce "studio like" results without modifiers. Using nothing but the creative control of camera settings, you can "trick" your camera to expose for the look(s) and "mood" you desire.

A Change in Amount of Light Fall Off Quickly Changes the Mood of Your Photos

A Change in Amount of Light Fall Off Quickly Changes the Mood of Your Photos

A low key photo uses light in a very selective way so that the surrounding environment is overall dark. It can be used to make background light partially or completely fall off to dark tones, enabling you to isolate your subject from busy backgrounds and create mood for your pictures/portraits.

Possibilities are Limitless-Vary Your Settings to Vary the Modified Lighting Effects

Possibilities are Limitless-Vary Your Settings to Vary the Modified Lighting Effects

This can be achieved in several ways with creative combinations of these in camera tools:

-Using Exposure Compensation to decrease exposure

-Using Fast Shutter Speeds to Limit Light

-Using Low ISO to decrease sensors sensitivity to light

-Using Smaller Aperture (allowing less light in and grabbing more detail)

-Using Spot Metering with AEL (auto exposure lock) to meter on bright area-lock with AEL and reframe subject (some cameras allow you to lock exposure and re-frame with half press of shutter button-some do not).

Achieving Studio Like Results in Full Sunshine

Achieving Studio Like Results in Full Sunshine

You can experiment with many different combinations for different effects. I find that results differ from camera to camera. Some are easier to use with Spot meter/AEL than others. Mirrorless cameras give the advantage of being able to see what your exposure will look like in the Electronic View Finder (EVF).

A Royal Crest of Feathers Befitting The LORD OF THE PEANUTS

A Royal Crest of Feathers Befitting The LORD OF THE PEANUTS

Experiment until you get the effect that YOU are trying to achieve. If you find settings that you love the results of and plan to use it often, your camera may have the option to save those settings, in a user preset, for future use.

Birds are Wonderful Practice Models Providing Many Poses Quickly

Birds are Wonderful Practice Models Providing Many Poses Quickly

This series of examples were shot using my husbands very first Sony dslr using a fast shutter speed and exposure compensation of -3EV. If I remember correctly, I also used the "spot metering/AEL" on many, to get a really dark background. Note: The exposure compensation may have not been necessary, had I remembered to lower the ISO from the previous shooters setting.

Every camera I use (and lens combination) rends slightly varying results, so I find it necessary (and fun) to experiment with each camera until I achieve the result I am aiming for.

Using Fast Shutter Speed and Spot Metering/AEL Rendered Very Dark Background and Surroundings

Using Fast Shutter Speed and Spot Metering/AEL Rendered Very Dark Background and Surroundings

Next time it's "Too bright and reflective" to take pictures...take advantage of the light and experiment with your cameras settings for "Low Key" photos!

THE END....UNTIL NEXT TIME.

THE END....UNTIL NEXT TIME.

THE END....UNTIL NEXT TIME...

Join the conversation
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There are 34 comments , add yours!
Camellia Staab 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I just stumbled on to this entry thanks to Sherry. I love low key and I have used some but not all of your recommendations. Great information Laurie and thanks for sharing.

11 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Marsha 1 year ago

Interesting, helpful information and great images!

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Marsha 1 year ago

Thank you Marsha!
It has always been one of my favorite "techniques"!

1 year ago Edited
Jay Boggess 1 year ago

WOWZERZ!!! These are incredible images! Thanks for all the wonderful information, as well! 
Being kind of a rookie and an old man, at that, I need all the tips & tricks I can gather!
Thanks for your generosity & jaw-dropping images!

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Jay Boggess 1 year ago

Jay,
Thank you for your comments!
You are very welcome! 
It is my pleasure to inspire others and give tips and tricks!
Glad you find it useful!
I posted more photos shot in Low Key using the same methods. You can find them here:
https://www.photoblog.com/lauriemadsen/2019/02/02/soft-focus-horse-portrait-in-low-key/
and here:
https://www.photoblog.com/lauriemadsen/2019/02/02/for-the-love-of-cats/
So that you can see it can be done indoors or outdoors in existing light.
(and see samples of something besides Blue Jays)
Enjoy! Let me know what you think of them!

1 year ago Edited
Jay Boggess Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year ago

WOW! Thanks for the wonderful info and images~

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Jay Boggess 1 year ago

Thanks Jay!
I just posted more taken in daylight with ambient sunlight coming through window, doing nothing more than modifying the light with camera settings and spot metering:
https://www.photoblog.com/lauriemadsen/2019/03/19/the-holy-grail-low-key-dark-photography/
and
https://www.photoblog.com/lauriemadsen/2019/03/18/low-key-dark-photography/
Hope you like them, and I hope it inspires you to give it a whirl!
If you have questions, feel free....

1 year ago Edited
Jay Boggess Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year ago

My Pleasure! Thank You for the great info/links!

1 year ago Edited
Paul Moreau 1 year ago

Not just me that finds these beautiful to look at and technically interesting. My (third year Zoology student) son was looking over my shoulder and adores them. Incredible that these were taken on a bright and sunny day. Two questions... did you use a tripod and did these in-camera techniques create noise that you had to manage in post-processing?

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Paul Moreau 1 year ago

Paul,
Thank you for your comments and thoughts!
These were actually shot through the glass of my window.
I did see noise in the images, but only because I grabbed my husbands camera, and he had the ISO set quite high, and instead of checking that, I just dialed down exposure compensation. SO, had I checked ISO and lowered it to low 50-100, I would not have had noise at all and would not have had to use EV -3.00 exposure compensation.
I'm not one to spend any time correcting images in photoshop. I know how, and used to do that, but realized it was making me into a VERY LAZY photographer.  I learned on film, when each image was well thought out for exposure, because of EXPENSE! When I started shooting digital, I quit thinking about exposure so much because we tend to think "I can correct it post process".  So my personal quest is to try to get the image as close to what I envision as I can "In camera". My reasoning for this is a personal one, to try to keep myself from being lazy, and sharpen my photography skills and not post processing skills.
I did not use a tripod, the bright light makes it very easy to hand hold the camera. I rarely use a tripod out of the studio, and am finding the newer camera's with great Image Stabilization (such as my Olympus OMD) let me push the shutter speed to very slow and I can still pull off most images hand held. (I credit this to camera, more than technique).
This can be done with any subject in sunlight, flowers, human, whatever and give the images the look of studio portraiture. It is one of my favorite things to do, and I did post some other images of cats and a horse so those who love it, can see how it can be done indoors or outdoors with existing light.
If you have any other questions, I would be very happy to try to answer them!

1 year ago Edited
Paul Moreau Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year ago

Thanks for the reply Laurie, very interesting and thought-provoking stuff...

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Paul Moreau 1 year ago

Thank you!
Isn't it nice when we can interest, inspire and provoke thought just by sharing?
That's part of the fun!

1 year ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Paul Moreau 1 year ago

Another thing I would tell my photography students.
You essentially have a computer in your hands- your CAMERA!
You can program it to "see" the picture any way you envision the scene.
In other words, you can TRICK the camera by learning how to use the settings creatively and manipulate light, etc.
Which is what I did in these examples.

1 year ago Edited
Lee Santiva 1 year, 1 month ago

Very helpful, thanks for posting

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Lee Santiva 1 year, 1 month ago

You're welcome!
I just posted a photo journal of cat portraits.
Some of the portraits done in that blog were using this same method.
Check it out if you want to see this on a subject other than birds!
Glad you enjoyed it. More articles to come soon.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Glo B 1 year, 1 month ago

Amazing detail and color!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Glo B 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks!
Seems underexposed images are always more saturated.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Pete Fitzgetald 1 year, 1 month ago

WOW I love them all, super cool

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Pete Fitzgetald 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks Pete!
I appreciate your feedback!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Bill Baird 1 year, 1 month ago

Love them all !

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Bill Baird 1 year, 1 month ago

Thank you Bill!
Your feedback is appreciated!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Berckmans Peter 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks,good article. I play around quite a lot with lightmeasurment. You results a very good

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Berckmans Peter 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks Peter!
Glad to hear you are experimenting with your camera!
I think we often forget that it it a very powerful tool capable of endless creative possibilities!
Keep on shooting!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Berckmans Peter Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year, 1 month ago

I have an older Fuji and like to look where the limits are. Already had a lot of fun

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Berckmans Peter 1 year, 1 month ago

It is FUN.
I think too many people move on to the 'next camera' before they even explore the capabilities of the one they own! 
I am constantly amazed at the endless possibilities!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Bethany Plonski 1 year, 1 month ago

I love this, thank you so much for sharing! I've been testing out spot metering indoors but never thought to try it with birds. And of course, stunning photos!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Bethany Plonski 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks again Bethany!
Spot metering is one of my favorite ways to modify lighting. I use it a lot for horse portraits, but it can be used on all kinds of subject matter.
Unfortunately my external hard drive crashed and most of my good photos are on it.
If I run across any in my folders, I'll post one for you.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year, 1 month ago

scream cat You do horse portraits too?!? I'm so glad you are here!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Bethany Plonski 1 year, 1 month ago

Yes, I do. One of my favorite subjects.
I used to own some GORGEOUS horses-so got lots of practice.
My friends still own horses, so I'll have to make a point of getting some new portraits taken!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Bethany Plonski Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year, 1 month ago

Fantastic! I've never had my own, but I still ride a little every now and then, and I love any time I can get around horses. Such beautiful animals.

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Sherry Hill 1 year, 1 month ago

stunning..
i know i'm going to learn a lot from you.. 
i'm still reading and looking at this post 1/2 hour later..

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Sherry Hill 1 year, 1 month ago

Sherry-
That's FANTASTIC! 
I couldn't receive a better compliment than that!
That is my aim in sharing- inspiring myself and other's to push the creative boundaries of photography!
I explore the Art of Photography and love to share it!

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Sherry Hill Replied to Laurie Madsen 1 year, 1 month ago

please, keep sharing.. [smile]

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
Laurie Madsen Replied to Sherry Hill 1 year, 1 month ago

Ok!
If you keep letting me know if the information is useful! Smilesmile

1 year, 1 month ago Edited
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