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Experiment with low-key black and white photography

The post Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It was written by Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Think of dark, moody shadows. Scarce lighting and a gloomy atmosphere. No colour. This is low-key black and white photography.

Experiment with dark black-and-white photography dark male portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

A main light usually falls, or ' key ' light on your subject and the background fades to black. It's all about the highlights and shadows and how they define the shapes in your composition.

Subject selection for shape

Low-key lighting does not suit every subject. You will find bold subjects and a bold composition of subjects the best for calm photography.

Busy scenes with great detail ultimately look confused and are best avoided. Or at least composed so that the content of your photo is minimal.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography Novice Monk Portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

A novice monk in a shrine was central to my attention. It was messy around him. Bright sunlight shone through an aperture with a grid, making the light directional.

By selecting my exposure based on the highlight on his face, I made the scene work in low-key black and white. The candles, people, Buddha image and other distractions in the background are trivial. Had I included them in my composition, the impact of the simple outline of his face would be lost.

The choice of exposure is essential

Low-key lighting is just as much about the shadows as it is about the light.

Let the darkness enclose everything except your main subject. Let it consume the majority of your subject. As long as it improves what you want to show.

If you read an exposure measurement from the highlight area, when the light is harsh and the background darker, you create a moodiness.

Experimenting with Low-Key Black and White Photography High structure Hard in Silver Efex Pro

Small Buddha statue photographed on a clear, sunny afternoon

Set your ISO for the total amount of light. Outside on a sunny day you have to keep your ISO value low. Indoors, or in other situations where there is not much light, you choose a higher ISO.

Balancing your aperture and shutter speed to the brightest parts of your composition comes out well.

This exposure method gives you highlights with details and shadows that display black (or almost black).

Experimenting with your institutions will help you understand this principle. If you have not tried this, do not make one exposure, make much of the same subject in different settings. If you view them on your computer, look at the metadata for the settings that you have used and compare them. Which settings give you the most pleasant results?

See in black and white

How do the tones of what you see in color translate into black and white?

Complementary colors help provide contrast in your black and white photos. Blue, violet and red convert to darker tones. Green, yellow and orange are converted into lighter tones.

Experimenting with black and white photography with low keys Muddy Ceramin Artist

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

If you set the display of your camera monitor in shades of gray, you can see how black and white is displayed. When you first try this, look at the colors in your composition and see how they are displayed in shades of gray.

Color contrast is more important when the light is softer. When the light is soft, it is more challenging to take low-key photos because the overall tonal values ​​are more even.

Peering into your eyes to help you see

If you are not sure if there is sufficient contrast in a scene for a quiet black-and-white photo, look into your eyes. When you do this, what you see becomes less and the contrast becomes clearer.

Compare the brightest and darkest areas in what you see. Train your eyes to understand when there is sufficient contrast.

Experimenting with Low Key black and white photography Low Key bottles

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

With your eyes open, you see a wider tonal range than your camera can record. By looking your eyes in the eyes, you effectively narrow the tonal range that is visible to you.

The importance of post-processing for low-key digital photography

Although your camera registers a smaller tonal range compared to what you see, it still records more than you want for a quiet photo. Certainly more than photography with black and white film.

The post-processing of your photos to achieve contrast and the minimum tonal range requires a different technique than with images with a wide range of tones.

Once you've taken photos where you expose the highlights, you can easily darken the shadows during post-processing.

Experimenting with Low Key Black-White Photography Low Key Eyes

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

These are the tools I use most often when processing truncated photos to reduce the shadow detail:

  • Contrast
  • Blacks
  • Shadows
  • Highlights and whites
  • The Burn tool (or similar)

Improving the overall contrast enhances the highlights and reduces shadow details. By increasing the blacks and reducing the shadows, you can also achieve the desired effect.

By manipulating the whites and highlights, you can retain some detail in the brightest parts of your image. If the detail has been completely removed, low-key photos will still look good, but it is good to be aware of this and make sure that it is a conscious choice.

As with all post-processing, there are many different ways to achieve the same or comparable results. Experiment and find what works best for you with every photo you work on. The more you try out different methods, the more competent and faster you will become.

Plug-ins and apps can make post-processing easier

I love using the Silver Efex Pro plug-in with Photoshop. There is a good selection of presets that can also be adjusted after you have applied them.

Do not get stuck on the assumption that you should use the Low-Key presets. If you have your light and exposure right, other options will be more effective.

Experimenting with Low Key Black and white photography Fine Art process with extra burn-in

I have the Silver Efex Pro preset ' Fine Art Process ' used and added extra focal points. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

Photography is very subjective. Like any form of creative expression, I believe there is no real right or wrong way to express yourself.

The most important thing is that you deliberately take your photos & post process; If you know what you want before you press your shutter button, you get the look and feel you want.

These few techniques described here are by no means exhaustive or complete. I want to encourage you to experiment. I hope these points give you some basis to work on when experimenting with low-key black and white photography.

Once you've had the chance to try something out yourself, you can post your photos below and leave your comments.

The post Experimenting with Low Key Black and White Photography first appeared at Digital Photography School. It was written by Kevin Landwer-Johan.

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