Toecabulary is the comprehensive glossary of photography terminology and techniques. Every week, you get to learn a new term defined and depicted in stunning photographs and videos. Click here if you wish to refer to this Dictionary of Photography in its entirety, or, click here to read all our weekly Toecabulary posts that discuss various concepts of photography in great detail.

Among the many emotions darkness can evoke in us is an enigmatic awe. With an effect that can accentuate the form of the subject of a photograph (especially its contours), if an image is created predominantly with dark tones, if shadows are the vital element of the composition, it is a low-key image.

A low-key image is dramatic and moody in its dark colours. Making a low-key photograph not only involves illumination but also elimination of light. Today’s Toecabulary depicts low-key photography. Watch this space today for some evocative images!

Spotty, one of the most-loved tigresses of Bandhavgarh, is captured into this low-key image. A classic instance of timing being a vital element of this art-form, photographer Santosh Saligram ensured to remain at an appropriate distance, while on the safari, to create this stunning imagery that slowly unraveled before his eyes. Waiting patiently until Spotty walked into the glorious morning light – gold and graceful as the light itself – he underexposed the background into obscurity while keeping more light on the feline beauty.

Low-key images can be incredibly intense even in their simplest best. This sarus crane portrait is one such dramatic capture. While the tigress Spotty in our previous post was captured with the background partly visible, the background here is completely underexposed, using the spot-metering technique, to a blackness to intensify the contrast between the sarus crane and the background completely.

Our previous two low-key images showed how natural light itself can be used to achieve the desired result. In this photograph of a young Varanasi priest with the Ganga Aarti, the light from the Aarti – an artificial source – is used to create the stark contrast between the boy and the background, to make the latter absolutely dark.

So, to sum up how to make low-key images:

1. Align brightly-lit subject against a dark background
2. Underexpose generously
3. Use spot metering or significant underexposure with evaluative/matrix metering

The next time you aspire to create more dramatic images that speak in stark contrasts, making low-key photographs can be a great option. So have fun! Good light!

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