low key photography and black and white conversion


In todays photographic tip I am going to discuss photographing "low key" or "dark" images as some people might know them, and a bit about black and white conversion.


The image in this photographic tip is the following one taken of Maxabeni.


low key photography


To capture this type of image you first need a few things in your favor…mainly light, vehicle positioning and quick reactions to see the opportunity coming. The reason this image works is because the light is coming from behind the subject and is a good 3 or 4 stops brighter than the rest of the picture. This is because the late afternoon sun coming from a low angle leaves the rest of the composition in shadow, however the angle of the light means the leopard has beautiful light hitting it.


The hardest part of this image is having the right settings, or the quick thinking to know what to do. If your metering mode is on a setting that takes the whole frame into account and you try for a "correctly exposed" image according to the camera, you will end up with an image that is far too bright and not very nice to look at. This is because the camera always assumes what you are aiming at is a neutral grey, thus it is going to try and even out the darks and the lights and expose in the middle (as per the below photo).


low key photography


However we know better than our cameras and can do something about this. I knew that I wanted the photo to be dark, with only the brightest part of the leopard to be shown brightly. To get around this I knew that in evaluative metering I would need to underexpose the image by a good 3-4 stops below what the camera was suggesting.


The image came out nicely, however I felt it would do better in black and white due to the subject matter and mood. To convert this to black and white I used Lightroom to do some general and localized adjustments.


My style of photography involves very dark and bold black and whites so the following is aimed towards my liking. I began with the obvious….taking the saturation down to zero.


low key photography


We now have a basic black and white image and this may be where you would like to stop. However for me this is just the start. I then moved the "black" slider right down to 100% as I wanted the dark parts of the image to be black or close to. I then increased the "shadows" slider to +60 to bring some detail back into the dark side of the leopard. I also added a little contrast to have less graduation between the black and white areas. This essentially means that the picture has less grey areas and has more black or white.


low key photography


Now we have an image that looks a little plain because we haven't got any interest except for the leopards outline….in other words there's too much black. This is when I want to bring some detail back in, in specific areas of the image which I think will lead the eye around the picture nicely. I did this by taking the brush tool in Lightroom and "painting back in" the few areas that I want to be a bit brighter. I do this by setting the paintbrush sliders to slightly positive, around +0.5 in exposure and +65 in highlights. All this does is simply "undo" the dark adjustments I have already made.


low key photography


I hope you enjoyed this photographic tip and I look forward to bringing you more in the future.


Camera Gear and Settings


  • Canon 1dmk3
  • Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm
  • ISO 800
  • Shutter 1/400
  • Aperture 5.6
  • Evaluative Metering

Bring your creativity to life.


Lance van de Vyver




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