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 (

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!

49 thoughts on “Imagecraft Bootcamp — Low-Key Images

    1. Indeed. I’d say about 1 percent or less of my shots are to that level — if I’m lucky.

      How about yourself? Are you able to create images that are perfect in-camera? 😉

      So what I’m trying to do here is help people make their photos — whatever skill level they may be — look the best that they can make them. There is no substitute for a decent image, but many times they can be improved with some adjustments in post-production.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I’m working on this and my changes are not much visible. In the case of this image – the in-camera version was very beautiful. You can wait for a minute and to take it without the car in the frame. But for the noir like image you can always reduce the ability of light with exposure compensation or just to remember the current exposure and to move to M mode and to shoot again with less ISO or faster shutter. But of course all ways are great and everyone love his “the best” way.


  1. Low.key can be fun and there’s a lot of nice examples in the link. I don’t know if you have Photoshop, but I think it would have been quicker to use the dust& scrathes filter in Photoshop rather than the spot removal in Lightroom.


    1. Undoubtedly there are a ton of different tools out there for photographers to use — some are automated and others are close to it. However, I think that most readers here are trying to simply do the best they can for as little effort, time, and money as they can manage — I suspect a number of them may not even have Lightroom and may try to use Picasa, Gimp, Elements, or iPhoto instead.

      I plan to eventually post about using Photoshop, but that’s still a long way into the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a haunting image. I can just imagine a character walking down that lonely road, into the fog… the perfect opening. 🙂


  3. OK…this is what happened today. I read this, and you said something like select your photo and open it in Adobe LightRoom. One of those ah-ha moments. At least now I know how to get the photo INTO LightRoom. I opened one in LR to see what was what. Then got lost. And it seemed difficult to control what I was applying with those little arrows. I need a guidebook, maybe. Plus…do I have that many hours to spend on a photo? Hmmmm…


    1. It doesn’t have to be Lightroom; it can be another photo editing package of your choosing, but I don’t have in-depth knowledge of other packages.

      If I made the posts inclusive of all the photo editors out there, it would make each post of the series too large and unwieldy to deal with.

      Admittedly, a lot of people don’t like doing a lot of post-processing, but your photos can really sing if you do so.


  4. you succeeded in this it looks super scary the black and white, my mind boggled, suddenly thinking up stories of who was in the car or not! Had they gone running through the woods, who was chasing them? Sheesh I have not even had coffee yet lol x


    1. Too funny. 😀

      That’s our minivan, and the two of us are out of it and behind the camera, where we were just strolling through the area enjoying the moody dampness of the foggy morning. See? Nothing to be charged up about!

      Now go have your coffee… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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