Low key photography and How to isolate your subject.

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Low key photography

Low key photography doesn’t depend on underexposure to make its point; the key to low key is that the majority of tones, even correctly exposed tones, fall below middle gray. This can be verified by looking at aluminum floor register box resting in a parabolic reflector.

The strobe was powered 2/3 stop less than the main light and measured at the paper just behind her head, so the brightest part of the light would be less than “perfect” and fall away quickly. It’s not necessary to power each light equal to, or greater than, the main light. Digital photography is touchy, but it will react favorably to underexposure, creating delicate areas of highlighted, yet saturated color.

The second example with this scenario uses just a little bit of fill light to add detail to the shadow side. I set a medium softbox over but behind the camera and powered it down to 3 stops less than the main. (Three stops is about the limit that digital can capture with a degree of clarity.) Even at such a low power, the fill light puts detail into the shadow areas of her dark dress and face without detracting from the look of the lighting.

Low key imagery is also possible with only one light. The trick is to add just enough fill to light the unlit side.

underexposure, creating delicate areas of highlighted, yet saturated color

My example (image 11.4), with the one light and only one bookend, takes advantage of light falloff by setting the main light close to the model (so the highlight- to-shadow distance is short). I placed the main light, a large softbox, about 2 feet from her so the highlights would be bright, but I also set the bookend close (about 2 feet from her) to maximize its reflective qualities. This allowed me to get a bright edge and richly colored shadows. I’m not sure you’ll be able to see it on this small sample, but the bookend fill adds color and contour to her eyes.

I placed my model about 5 feet from the background, a medium gray paper sweep. She was positioned close because I needed the main light to be strong enough to register with some degree of gradation and, to make it more evident, I angled the softbox so the light was aimed at the camera-left side of the background, more into the bookend. The slight gradation across the gray field gives the image more depth and a feeling that the background itself is angled away from camera. the histogram for a low key image. My first sample, image 11.2, produced the histogram in image 11.1.

produced the histogram

This example uses only two lights. The main was a parabolic with a 20 degree gridspot, aimed at my model from the side.My intention was to light only half of the model’s face, letting the rest quickly fall into deep shadow. A side benefit of using small gridspots is that they produce their own vignette, falling off quickly at the edges and producing light that is very circular.

To keep her dark facial shadows from blending into a dark background, I used a background light with an Another way to use the low key look would be to isolate part of the subject or group and let the rest of the scene fall off. For this image of three sisters, I used a beauty bowl with a 25 degree grid with a piece of thin, white cloth stretched over it. The cloth diffused the light while spreading it beyond its typical boundaries. The result is a soft spot of light in the center that falls off, still illuminating detail, to points beyond.

I knew that the subjects’ dark hair would merge with the background, so I hung a strip light from a boom above them and allowed a little of its spill to fall onto the black paper. The hair light was powered 1/3 stop less than the main light as measured at the shoulder. The slightly stronger light at the top of their heads was about equal to the output of the main light, creating visual interest, while the light falling on their shoulders and below became a simple accent. See image 11.5.

The histogram shows this image to be perfectly exposed with the majority of tones below middle gray. It is a perfect example of low key lighting. See image 11.6.

perfect example of low key lighting

You can use the concept of lighting to isolate for other images as well. If you photograph couples for engagement photos, you may wish to extend the shoot from the usual newspaper announcement or standard portrait style and spend a little extra time exploring the romantic aspect of your client’s relationship.

Think about it: They may never be more deeply in love. You’ve probably had them hugging each other already, although they were focusing their attention on the camera. Now, you’ll want them to focus on each other.

 

You can use this same simple scenario to create equally sensuous images of body lines. This is one time when lack of shadow detail works in your favor.

Softer light, with less contrast, works great and looks great in a low key situation when it’s controlled to the nth degree. I wanted a soft rim of light on my model, but simply aiming the light toward her face sprayed too much light on the background. I used a strip light but turned it away from the model, aiming it into a black bookend, to get just the edge of the light on her with only a hint of spray onto the background. The bookend also served as a gobo, keeping the light from flaring few frames and minimal direction to get this beautiful image (image 11.7).

few frames and minimal direction

I sent the woman into the dressing room to change into a strapless top. While she was gone, I set up another light, a strip light, at camera right. My intention was to keep the skimmed beauty bowl light scenario while adding a strong (+1/3 stop) accent to the man’s face. I planned to crop more loosely this time, but I wanted to have the images composed tightly enough to avoid a highlight on the side of her head, something I felt would be a distraction. I also feathered the light a bit, aiming it more at the background than at him, because I wanted a little more definition on the cloth behind him. The light on the man was powered to 1/3 stop over the light on the woman.

The result (image 11.8) is an image that’s both strong and tender. The two lights individually accent two distinct personalities, but the composition clearly shows them as a couple.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this chapter explaining how to avoid tonal merger. Personally, I think it should be avoided most of the time but, like every “rule” of photography, it can be used as an attentiongetting element when properly implemented.

I wanted a soft but contrasty light source for this next image, so I set an extra-small (14×20-inch) softbox about 3 feet from my model. By my calculations, the sum of the length and width of a softbox will indicate its optimum working distance, where it will produce a soft light with a minimum of specularity. I put a black bookend behind the model to soak up any stray bounce. There was no light falling on the black background. The net effect is an image that’s compelling, mysterious, and sensual. See image 11.9.

The two lights individually accent two distinct personalities

Softer light, with less contrast, works great and looks great in a low key situation when it’s controlled to the nth degree. I wanted a soft rim of light on my model, but simply aiming the light toward her face sprayed too much light on the background. I used a strip light but turned it away from the model, aiming it into a black bookend, to get just the edge of the light on her with only a hint of spray onto the background. The bookend also served as a gobo, keeping the light from flaring into the lens. A second softbox was set behind me and aimed at the ceiling. It was powered 2 stops below the main light, as measured at her shoulder—just enough to give me some shadow detail and avoid tonal merger.

lack of shadow detail works in your favor

some shadow detail and avoid tonal merger

Since I wanted the least influence possible from the main light on her face, I aimed the meter’s dome at the light. This ensured that I’d only be metering the specular highlight, the brightest part of the scene, not getting a reading of the average of the highlight-to-shadow ratio. This is one of the very few times when you can use the light meter in this manner to creatively skew the exposure.