This is a simple low key portrait at home tutorial focussing on how to shoot a simple low key portrait, at home, with the minimum of equipment.
A Decent Low Key Portrait Room
We don’t all have the luxury of our own studio. I still miss mine but when we moved home over 5 years ago to a bigger house the garden just wasn’t big enough to support one. Like most now I have to make do with whatever space I can find. The good news is with modern cameras capable of crazy ISO’s you don’t need a huge studio lighting setup anymore. You can do a lot whole with a couple of regular flashguns and so while a big space to work in is often helpful, its not essential.
For a low key portrait room we are looking for any room that you can control the light in. For example, by using curtains and ideally isn’t too light coloured as the light will bounce around everywhere spoiling the effect. My living room as it turned out fits the bill nicely. It’s a decent size but not a huge room at 4.6m x 3.1m. What it does have are dark curtains along one length and a large dark Brown corner sofa which soaks up a lot of stray light. If your room is lighter you may have to improvise by putting a ‘Black Flag’ up, more on that later.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to shoot a low key portrait. If you can control the light completely to make the room dark you can theoretically do it with a single lamp. That said its a whole lot easier with some basic equipment, for this portrait I used the following:
- 2 flash guns of the type you would normally fit on the hot shoe of your camera.
- 2 basic light stands
- A 30cm lastolite hot shoe Ezybox softbox, but any small softbox you can get that will allow you to control the direction of the light will do.
- A tripod
- Radio triggers, I used the fantastic Yongnuo ones, but anything that will fire your flash when its not on your camera will work.
- A white reflector, I used a round lastolite style one, but anything would have worked including hanging a White towel of sheet of a clothes horse nearby.
The setup for the low key portrait was very simple. In this case 1 flash gun, mounted in the softbox on the stand, set to head height whilst sitting down on my coffee table and placed 90 degrees to my left at a distance of about a foot and half. The distance is important, with such a small box you need it to be close in order to give a soft enough light. Move it further away and the light becomes harder with less of a feathered edge, the converse if you move it closer.
Controlling the Light
In a low key portrait it is important to be able to control the light. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, but some basic equipment definitely helps.
The first thing you need to understand is that light travels in a straight line. Understanding that you are able to control where it goes through either masking it (blocking it with something). In the studio I used barn doors which gives a lot of control. Now I use a softbox which give some direction, more if its fitted with a grid. You can also use any object to physically block the light, such as a piece of cardboard. Just make sure our light source doesn’t get too hot or it may cause a fire risk!
Most photographers are familiar with the concept of reflectors to bounce light back from a light source on to a subject. Less understood are the concept of Black flags to absorb light and stop it falling on to one side a subject. A Black flag or reflector doesn’t need to be anything special. Even when I had my portrait studio my most used tools were a huge polystyrene sheet, with one side painted matt black. I think it cost about £10 and acted as a Black flag or reflector depending on which side I used. You can also use a sheets, curtains, towels or walls, just about anything will do. In my room I made use of the dark coloured sofa and curtains to limit the amount of light that reflected back. If your room is lighter, you can use a Black flag to control the reflection.
another tool you can use is distance, light behaves according to the inverse square law. That means every time you double the distance between the light source and the subject, only a quarter of the light reaches it. This is why I set myself up near to a wall with the light against that wall. The light then has to travel further to hit the opposite wall and reflect back off it. This reduces the light that is reflected back and falls back on he other side of my face.
A rule to be aware of is that the bigger the light source is relative to the closeness of the subject, the softer the light will be. This is why the sun can be so harsh in summer, while its massive, its so far away it seems like a tiny object. As a result light is harsh and shadows are hard edged. On an overcast day the clouds become the light source, diffusing it. Clouds appear to be much larger than the sun and so the the light is softer with a feather edge to shadows. Using the little 30 cm softbox I needed to be close for the light source to be nice and soft.
The final tool you can use to control the light it your aperture and shutter settings. The aperture controls how big the hole is in your lens that lets light through to the sensor, by using a large ‘F’ number you make the hole smaller. By using a small hole and turning your flash up, you can control how much ambient light is recorded. In a low key portrait we want to overpower the ambient light with flash so it does not record at all.
While the aperture will affect both the ambient light and the flash, the shutter speed will affect only the ambient light. Because the flash burst is so fast it doesn’t matter if your shutter is open for 1/60th or 1/250th. The same amount of flash light will be recorded but at 1/250th your camera will record 4 times less ambient light than at 1/60th. You can use this to control how much ambient light relevant to flash is recorded.
I set the tripod up so the camera would be above my eye line looking slightly down at where my face will be sitting on the coffee table. This is a flattering angle for me, in my 40’s I’ve got more chins than a Chinese telephone directory!
Next I setup the key light. 90 degrees to my left when sitting down. its not my best side but it made best use of the room as there is a wall very close to me on my left hand side and if I had shot from the right, too much light would have reflected back and spoilt the effect. I’m positioned just under a metre from the nearest wall with just over 2 metres clear on my right. Lessening the chance of too much light bouncing back and filling the shadows too much.
Next I check the exposure, sitting where I will be and make adjustments using my screen and the histogram as a guide. I have a light meter but this approach is fine for low key portrait work.
Now I set up the 2nd flash behind me pointing directly at me from the rear to give a rim effect. I should have turned this up higher in hindsight.
Finally is the hard bit, getting the camera to focus on where I will sit! This took a bit of trial and error, in the end I settled for finding something I could place where I would be sitting at head height and focussing on that, then switching off AF to lock that focus down. Note I had set the aperture to F8 in order to give me a decent margin of error on the focus. Its always going to be hard to judge when you have to jump into the picture afterwards.
Finally I just had to engage the cameras timer and try out a couple of different poses until I got one that worked. For me that was back 45 degrees to the key light, head square on to camera (90 degrees from key light) and learning slightly forward. You have to judge the focal point if its a self portrait. When leaning forward I had to sit further back in order to keep my head at the same distance from the camera.
I also tried some shots without a reflector on the opposite side to the key light and some with. Remember the nearer the reflector, the stronger the effect, the further the lesser allowing you to turn he fill light ‘up or down’ to get the effect you are looking for.
The results where post processed in lightroom with just a little bit of tidy up and fine control added. This was mainly around adding some detail back into my blazer on the shoulder. Its Black corduroy and tends to soak up the light, but I wanted a little bit of texture in there to avoid a ‘floating head’ in the final image. I also shot quite close in camera to give me more options afterwards. I added space around me by increasing the canvas side, easily done when the background is pure Black!
I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. At 43 and on the heavy side I’m never going to be a swimwear model, but by choosing my angles and lighting carefully I’ve created a portrait I’m happy enough for the world to see. Low Key portrait photography is quite easy and only requires a few basic items of equipment. It makes for a nice little project when its cold outside and you have some time on your hands.