Old School Film Hack

Imagecraft Bootcamp — Low-Key Images

Sugarloaf Mountain in the fog -- Dickerson, Maryland (September 2014)Olympus Stylus Epic + Kodak Portra 400 + 35/2.8

Sugarloaf Mountain in the fog — Dickerson, Maryland (September 2014)
Olympus Stylus Epic + Kodak Portra 400 + 35/2.8

Last week we showcased high-key photography, therefore it makes sense to showcase low-key photography this week, an example of which you can see above.

For low-key imagery, we’re basically reversing the process that we had the last week.  Instead of boosting the highlights to make a light, ethereal looking photograph — we emphasize the shadow tones to make a dark, moody, and very dramatic looking photograph.  More specific descriptions of low-key photography can be found here, and thumbnails of other low-key images can be found here.  The biggest takeaway is that the light source should be very directional and from a single source; however, low-key images can be captured in the great outdoors as well, provided that the lighting conditions are suitable.

Here’s how I created this image.  Select your target file and open it within Adobe Lightroom.  In this case, it’s a shot I took mid-morning this past Sunday using a point-and-shoot film camera:

As you can see, it’s a far cry from looking like a low-key image — but that’s okay, because the lighting is perfect for this challenge.  The image has tremendous depth to it due to the fog, and the lighting is very flat — which will help us paint the canvas as we want it to look.

First we process the image to normal parameters:

Then — in the Basic panel — go to the top of the Treatment section and convert the image to Black & White:

And now we play with the settings of the Tone Curve.  The end results will vary from image to image (I played with the Tone Curve on this shot for about an hour), but in this case my final Tone Curve settings were as follows:

  • Highlights: -7
  • Lights: -80
  • Darks: -84
  • Shadows: -100

Since source file is in full color, I can emphasize the monochrome tones in certain areas by simply adjusting the various colors under the Black & White Mix, like so:

This is looking pretty decent, so I’ll do the retouching now.  The white circles represent all the areas that I touched up with the Spot Removal (on some images this can add another hour or two of work to the image, even if it’s a digital shot):

Now it just needs a little Clarity from the Presence section of the Basic panel, and — voilà! — this image is completed.

As you can see, creating a low-key image is even easier than creating one in high-key — and far more versatile and less trendy looking.  So here’s the challenge: find or create a low-key image of your own, and go through the same step-by-step process I outlined here to produce your own dramatic photograph.

Once you’ve finished, be sure to include “#photo101rehab”, “#photorehab”, and “#imagecraftbootcamp” with your normal tags — and if you wish to submit it to the Flickr group (we’ve already got seven people who have joined us), you’ll need to post it there as well (https://www.flickr.com/groups/imagecraft_bootcamp/).

Here are the pioneers of the Image Bootcamp:

Julie Powel at Photographer and Graphic Artist

Lisa at Gray Days and Coffee

Andy at Andy Townend

Terri Duncan at Beespeak

Carlo Matriano at the Digital Painter

Good luck, and see you next Wednesday!

47 thoughts on “Imagecraft Bootcamp — Low-Key Images

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Thank you.

      Most of the giants in photography have stated that the real effort in their images is in the post-production work — whether it’s in the traditional wet darkroom or the newer digital darkroom.

      For my own photography, I devote as much time and effort as it takes to get the image looking the way I want it to. This can translate into multiple re-shoots over days or weeks — though sometimes it’s over the course of years because of specific lighting conditions that only happen once or twice each turning of the seasons — and that’s if I’m lucky. Sometimes the shot is a once-in-a-lifetime event and I just have to make do with what I have.

      Once I have the image recorded that I want, I’ll dig into the post-processing of it. Sometimes the image is almost perfect straight out of the camera (a rarity), for many others I can finish it up with fairly quick editing, and still other times my skills haven’t yet caught up to the finished product I have in my head and I’ll have to put the photo aside for a long time (months, years, or even decades in some cases).

      On occasion an image will require so much work (hours and hours and hours) that I can only tolerate dealing with it for one day, then I’ll put it aside to work on other things for awhile.


  1. Pingback: Imagecraft Bootcamp – Low Key | Julie Powell – Photographer & Graphic Artist

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      I’m glad that you liked it, Julie.

      Some people don’t care for darker images for a variety of reasons, which is perfectly fine. Of the two images you submitted, the second is more low-key than the first and is a fine attempt.

      The key to not losing detail in any image is to make certain that both ends of the spectrum (blacks and whites) don’t exceed either edge of the histogram. You can also use dodging and burning of the highlight and shadow details in order to keep those areas from blocking up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: low keyed horse | andy townend

    1. andy townend

      Thanks Mitch, no it was a single shot which I shot in strong sunlight with a very high shutter speed, I then processed it in Lightroom and DXO Film Pack 4, so I wasn’t really playing fair as I didn’t make all the same kind of tweaks in the prompt, the photo was finished by applying a grainy effect with the tears. Maybe I should include the original in the post too as you did?


  3. Pingback: Image Craft Boot Camp: Low-Key Images | The New 3 Rs: Retire, Recharge, Reconnect

  4. Pingback: low keyed tree | andy townend

  5. Pingback: Stairs in Low Key | Drawing with Light

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