photoshop creative

How to light low-key still life in 3 steps

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Tips from Digital Photographer, by Mark White
March 11, 2015

Create mood by using a single flashgun to illuminate your subjects

A great way to concentrate on form, dark tones and shadows in your still-life scenes is to use low-key lighting. This style can be achieved without tonnes of specialist gear, by using one flashgun positioned to the side of your setup, and a dark backdrop. Follow the three simple steps below, and tweak your flash power and camera settings until you reach the desired exposure.

1. Set the scene

Arrange a dark material behind and underneath your subjects. Black velvet is easy to find in craft shops, and is great at absorbing light. Eliminate as much of the ambient light as possible, by shutting curtains and turning off non-essential room lights.

2. Position speedlight

Attach an external flashgun to a stand and position it to the side of your setup. Mount a wireless trigger to the camera’s hotshoe if it doesn’t have an integrated transmitter. Set the flashgun to manual, selecting a low power to begin with.

3. Choose settings

Select a low ISO of around 100 for smooth, noise-free images. Set the shutter speed to your maximum flash sync speed, and begin by taking a test shot with a narrow aperture. Ideally, the histogram should be skewed heavily to the left-hand side.

In the final image, we darkened the reflections that were on the apple from the flashgun. Otherwise, it’s very true to the in-camera shot, with great mood and atmosphere. Unlike high-key photography, which requires plenty of natural or artificial light, a low-key lighting shoot requires very little, and it’s really easy to have a go at. It might take some subtle tweaking to the flash power and camera settings until you get a result you’re happy with, but the final results are worth the experimentation.