My previous attempts at low key images had either been taken on a darkened theatre stage or, long after the sun had dipped below the horizon. Both situations providing an almost pitch black environment making it relatively easy for me to create the desired lighting effect. This time I was shooting around 1 o’clock on a bright summer’s day & so I needed to re-think my methods.
I selected ISO 100 & set the shutter speed to 1/200 which is my maximum flash sync speed. With the speedlight turned off (mounted on a stand & firing through a white flash umbrella), I took a shot with aperture f/11. However, the resulting image wasn’t completely black. I couldn’t increase my shutter speed to make the image darker because I was already at my maximum sync speed, so I would have to reduce the aperture size (f/16 did the trick). Now I could take shots knowing the only thing illuminating the object, in this case a cymbal, was the light from my flash.
Once I had the the image loaded onto my computer the only things to do were a black & white conversion, apply minimal sharpening & that was it. Well, that was going to be it but as I continued to play around with the image I discovered I really liked this pin hole camera style effect achieved by adding a vignette.
Settings: f/8, 1/200 second, ISO 100, 44mm focal length
Set up. Choose a reasonably sized, poorly lit room. Don’t worry too much about clutter in the background as hopefully this won’t appear in the final shot. In manual mode set a low ISO (100 is ideal) & the shutter speed to the maximum flash sync speed (in my case 1/200 second). Begin with a wide aperture & take a test shot (without the flash). The result should be a completely black image (if you use the histogram there should be just a couple of pixels pushed up against the far left edge). If not, narrow the aperture & try again. It goes without saying to shoot in RAW too (to help with adjustments later if needed).
Set the external flash to one side of the item being photographed & take a photo. If the background is being illuminated you can either, bring the subject further away from the backdrop or, move the flash closer to the subject but reduce the power so it doesn’t reach the background.
Opinion. I’ve always liked looking at other photographer’s low-key portraits. There’s something about the element of mystery in the parts of the image you can’t see that appeals to me. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good monochrome shot. So this was a fun little project. The time I spent messing with the flash settings & positioning though meant I was glad to be taking photos of an inanimate object as few people would have had the patience to stick with me! In the end I was quite happy with the results. As for post production work, a black & white conversion, a few touches of “burn” to darken certain areas & finally, a slight sharpen was all it took.