Just as high-key images are predominantly made up of light tones, so low-key images comprise primarily of dark tones. The mood is sombre and forbidding.
And as with high-key images, contrast varies depending on the subject and the effect you’re looking to achieve. Stormy landscapes often make for powerful low-key images, and while it’s fine to have areas of rich detail-free black, this type of low-key image has greater impact if shadow detail is still clearly de ned. Having said that, however, in some circumstances allowing areas of unwanted detail—such as street signs or markings, billboards, and so on—to become black is an effective way of disguising such elements and creating a simplified, clutter-free image.
For successful low-key portraits you need dark clothing, a dark setting, and few, ideally well-organised, highlights. Whether lighting is soft and diffused or harsh and direct depends on the final look, but it should ideally be side lighting rather than frontal.
This portrait is dominated by dark tones, including the black walls, the dark suit and bench, and the guitar case, offset by the lighter tones of the white shirt, pale skin, and peeling paint. The default black-and-white conversion creates no surprises. The tones are much as we would expect them to be, but the image lacks real drama.
Reducing the brightness of the mid-tones, while holding the highlights using the relevant Raw conversion sliders or a Curves adjustment, creates an effective low-key portrait. The overall tone is dark, with a good distribution of pale tones, with light-toned facial features that appear out of a black ground.
Michael Freeman’s Photo School: Black and White is where Michael Freeman and Steve Luck show you how to harness the unmistakable power of black-and-white, from timeless, elegant portraits to gritty, graphic street shots. Get motivated by numerous and specific shooting challenges, and be inspired by sample work from fellow photography students, with critical evaluations of the results to improve your understanding of the core concepts.