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How to Take Better Low Key Monochrome Photos

Updated on May 24, 2020
Photography Focus profile image

I am passionate about photography and love to teach what I've learned during my 30+ years of working as a professional photographer.

Photographers often struggle to think how a photo will turn out in black and white. Being able to pre-visualize how your photos look without color will help you take better low key monochrome photos.

In this article I will teach you how to take low key monochrome photos and how to pre-visualize each image.

First I must answer two questions:

  1. What is low key photography?
  2. What is monochrome photography?


What is Low Key Photography?

Low key photographs are maid using one main light source when there is little or no other light affecting your subject.

This style of photography is typically high contrast. There is not much visible tone range between the darkest and lightest parts of a composition.

With modern cameras, low key photography require some post-processing of images. In the past this was no so necessary because early digital camera and film was not so capable of capturing such a wide range of tone in a photo.

We use the term ‘low key’ because it refers to the main light used in movie making as the key light. This is where low key monochrome photography became popular because the light made the film look more dramatic.


What is Monochrome Photography?

A monochrome photo is composed of only one color, or black and white.

Monochrome photos are not necessarily only gray tones, but black and white is the main way we see monochrome photographs.


What Subjects Photograph Well With Low Key Monochrome Photography?

Subjects that have strong shapes and lines often work well as low key monochrome photos.

Think about the old school black and white movies. So often mood was created by directors with the use of low key lighting. This adds drama and creates a certain mood. When you want your subject to look more dramatic using low key lighting is a good choice.

Dramatic portraits are made using low key lighting. Making a portrait black and white also adds a particular feel to the image. It becomes somewhat timeless.

You can photograph anything you want using low key lighting and making it black and white. The main thing to think about when choosing your subject to photograph in this way is the mood you want to convey with your photos of it.


Creating Mood with Low Key Monochrome Photography

Low key black and white photography always has a lot of dark shadow areas.

You can use these to inspire a sense of mystery and intrigue in your photos. Rendering the shadow areas very dark means no detail is seen in these parts of your composition. This inspires the view to imagine what may be lurking in these shadows.

Tension and a sense of secrecy are other aspects of low key monochrome photography. How you use your key light and frame your subject are main aspects of this style of photography.

When you have a light that you can adjust and move around, using it as the key light you have more control. You can manipulate how the bright areas and shadows look depending on where you place your light.

The larger you light is and the closer it is to your subject, the softer the shadows will be. Use a smaller light and have if further from your subject to create photos with hard-edged shadows.


Setting Your Exposure for Low Key Black and White Photography

How you set your camera’s exposure is one of the most important aspects of low key black and white photography.

The most popular way to set the exposure is so there is no detail in the shadow areas. To do this, you must expose for the highlights.

Set your light meter to the spot metering setting. With this option your light meter will make a reading only from a very small area of your composition.

Position the spot and take a reading from part of your subject that is well lit by the key light. When there is sufficient contrast caused by your key light, the shadow areas in your composition will become very dark.

Another way to do this is to use live view. Look at how the image looks on your camera monitor and adjust the exposure settings until you like what you see. I find this is best done in manual mode. Not all cameras have a monitor that changes when you adjust manual mode settings. You’ll need to check that yours does to be able to use this feature.

When there’s not enough contrast you’ll have to boost it during post-production. Setting your exposure well helps you to get better results when you manipulate your photos on your computer.

Squint Your Eyes to Help You See Contrast

When you’re not sure if the level of contrast if high enough, squint your eyes and look at your subject.

Doing this you’ll see a less of the dynamic range. This is the visible tone range. Our eyes naturally see more tone range than our cameras do. So by squinting you can get a better idea of what the tone range in your photo might look like.

Look at the brightest and darkest areas of your composition and compare them.

Learn to Think In Black and White

Monochrome photography is a lot about the tone range in an image. If you can learn to think in black and white you’ll have a better idea when a monochrome photo will work.

Think about how the tones in your compositions will look without color. How will the gray tones appear? How much of the photo will be in dark shadow? Having some understanding of how different colors look as gray tones is good to learn.

With many digital cameras you can set the monitor so it displays in grayscale. This is a bit of a cheat, but it’s a great way to learn to see in black and white.


Getting the Best Low Key Black and White Photographs

To make the best looking black and white low key photos you’ll need to do some work on your computer.

Simply desaturating a photo on your computer is not the most effective way to make a monochrome photo look good. There are many ways to control the look and feel of a black and white photo during post-processing.

About the easiest way to achieve a good looking low key black and white photo is to use filters when you are post-processing. There are various apps and plugins available online that will make a better black and white conversion than you can by desaturating.


How To Create the Best Low Key Black and White Photos

Pre-visualize the style of photo you want to take. Low key monochrome lighting tends to add drama to photos. If you’re wanting a nice soft or warm feeling, use another style of lighting. For photos with some tension and intrigue, try low key photography.

Learn to set your exposure for the highlights. Doing this means the shadow areas will go nice and dark. This adds to the dramatic feel of the photos.

Control the light when you can. Experiment by bringing it in closer and taking it further away from your subject. Using a continuous light is much easier than using a flash for low key photographs. With continuous light, you can see where the shadows fall and so can control them better.

Switch your camera’s monitor to black and white so you’ll get an idea of how your photo will look. Doing this will also help you learn to think in black and white.

Post-processing well brings out the best look for your low key photography. Use the contrast, blacks, and highlights controls. Manipulate them to find the balance in each photo for the most desirable effect.

I hope this article inspires you to try some low key photography. I love this style when combined with black and white because it can be so dramatic.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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