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Home > Photography Technique > How to Shoot Low-Key, Close-Up Photos

How to Shoot Low-Key, Close-Up Photos


I am a great fan of close-up photography, and the recent lockdown situation has given me a great excuse to dig out my macro lens and start exploring my garden for photographic opportunities. As luck should happen, the lockdown has been perfectly timed with the start of spring meaning that my garden is starting to become a blanket of colour – perfect for floral portraits. Of course the problem with shooting in your garden is that you often find that flowers are planted quite closely together and it can be sometimes hard to photograph a flower with a non distracting backdrop. There is a solution to this problem however – shoot your close-up images in a low-key style.

So, what exactly is low-key photography? Wikipedia describes it as “a genre of photography consisting of shooting dark-colored scenes, and emphasizing natural or artificial light only on specific areas in the frame”. Another way to describe it would be simply to photography your subject isolated against a black backdrop, which ensures maximum impact.

There are a few ways you can achieve this effect with the easiest one being to simply place a piece of black board behind your subject. However this method does have some disadvantages. First of all, to ensure that your board is not in focus and does not distract from your subject, you will have to either move it quite a distance behind (so falling out of the plane of focus) which could be quite impossible in a small garden; or you will need to use a relatively large aperture to reduce your depth of field thus keeping the board out of focus. The problem with the latter method is that it makes it hard for you to use a suitable aperture to ensure adequate depth of field for your subject.

Another problem with the black board method is keeping the backdrop black. It is highly likely that your board will be receiving the same amount of light as your actual subject which means that although your backdrop will be darker, it may not actually be black. Using black, light absorbing fabric glued onto your board may assist with this problem or I am sure that a Photoshop wizard could easily remove the backdrop entirely and just paste in a pure black backdrop. However, the first option is something of a faff and, personally, I don’t find the second option very appealing.

Autumn is also another great season for low-key, close-up photography.

Luckily, there is a fairly simple technique which will allow you to isolate your subject against a pure black back drop whilst also allowing you to shoot at a suitably small enough aperture to ensure adequate depth of field for your subject. Furthermore, there is no risk of your light source illuminating you backdrop as there is not a black board in sight. All you need is your camera, tripod, off-camera flash (with a means to trigger it) and a little imagination.

To achieve the low-key look without using a black board, you need to work out how you are going to achieve the pure. black, backdrop – and this is actually really simple. First of all, try and find a suitable subject which is growing in a small, open space. You ideally need about there to be a clearing of about 30cm’s behind the subject as this will create the black backdrop. Once you have composed your shot, switch your camera to fully manual and then set your iso to the lowest number possible, followed by setting your shutter speed to the suggested flash-sync speed (probably around 1/200 second) and then set your aperture to a high f-stop number (f22 is a good starting point) and then, before turning the power on of the off-camera flash, take a test shot and review the resulting image and histogram. If everything has gone to plan, you will be rewarded with an image which is almost entirely black with a histogram that is heavily weighted to the left hand side. If not, consider either using an even smaller aperture (i.e. higher f-stop number) or using a neutral density filter.

Once you have achieved a virtually black image, it is time to power up the flash! You will need to operate your flash in fully manual mode, to ensure that you can select the desired level of power required to illuminate your subject. This process is something of an experiment – the amount of power required will depend on how close your flash is to the subject and also how much light is spilling onto surrounding objects. However frustrating this may sound, it is actually the part where you can be really creative. Don’t just keep you flash in front of your camera, try moving it to the side of the subject or even behind to create a backlit effect. I have included a video below which talks you through the whole process.

Taking low-key style images is a great way to be really creative with your close-up photography. You will find that not all subjects will benefit from this style of photography, but when they do I guarantee that you will be delighted with the results. And perhaps the best thing (considering the current pandemic situation) is that there are numerous subjects for you to photograph within the confines of your own home or garden.

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