Shooting low-key images

A low-key image is one where the background is much darker than the subject. When that happens, in the normal matrix-metering mode, the camera will tend to overexpose the frame.  How much it over-exposes will depend on the amount of space that the subject occupies? In such situations, in order to get the exposure on the subject right, one would need to under-expose the frame (in the matrix-metering mode). If (and when) you manage to nail this, the subject would pop-out of the frame and look quite stunning. This is the basic understanding one needs to have when you are trying to make low-key images. Of course, there is another way using spot-metering that one can adopt to get the same results – but I have not been a big fan of that metering mode. Let me present a few pictures shot a couple of weeks back to illustrate this.

Puff-throated Babbler, Nikon D500 | 600f/4 | f/5.6 | ISO 3200 | EV -1 | 1/500
Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher, Nikon D500 | 600f/4 | f/5.6 | ISO 2500 | EV -2/3 | 1/250
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Nikon D500 | 600f/4 | f/5.6 | ISO 2500 | EV -1/3 | 1/800
Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Nikon D500 | 600f/4 | f/5.6 | ISO 3200 | EV -1 | 1/320
White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Nikon D500 | 600f/4 | f/5.6 | ISO 3200 | EV -1/3 | 1/320

My personal favourite, however, is the following image of the Southern Coucal. I thought that it is interesting for a couple of reasons. One – as I just explained, I was getting the hang of making low-key images (I had a nice dark back-ground of the forest where I was sitting). And two – as you can see from the preceding images, I was equipped with my big bazooka (the 600mm FL lens) and knew, when the Coucal decided to pay a visit, that there was no way I could fit the big bird in the frame. So I had to think differently. With such a big prime at this close a distance on a large subject I had to try and focus on the most distinctive feature of the bird – which to me were the eyes. They were stunning to look at through the viewfinder and I knew instinctively that this needs to grab the attention in the picture.

The Southern Coucal, Thattekkad, Kerala, India. Nikon D500 | 600 f/4 | EV -2 1/3 | ISO 3200 | f/4 | 1/60

I felt that the end result is quite a show-stopper. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Shooting low-key images

    1. samyukth says:

      Important to keep an eye on the shutter-speed, if the birds are twitchy, and ensure that you have a setting combination that delivers a high-enough speed for the frame that you have visualised


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