How I Shoot: Lowkey Portrait

Long time coming right? Yeah, but it’s here now so shush your mouth! I want to start fairly simple, something that anyone getting into the strobist side of photography could achieve with some pretty basic kit. Lowkey sprung to mind straight away — It’s easy to do with a single light & you can use just about any lens, especially since we don’t need to take advantage of a wide (low) aperture for a shallow depth of field. Oh also — I’ve done a video of the whole thing. It’s at the end of this post, it’s very amateur but maybe it will help you out… if not you can at least laugh at me!

Setup Preview

Equipment List

  • Camera: Canon 50D

Any dSLR will be fine.

  • Lens: Canon 50mm F/1.4

But we aren’t taking advantage of the wide aperture so any lens with a similar focal length will work, even your kit lens.

  • Flashes: Canon 580ex

Any flash that you can fire wirelessly will work.

  • Accessories: 1 light stand, 1 light bracket, 1 umbrella & a tripod.

You don’t need a umbrella or any light modifier this shot could be done with a bare flash.

A Bit Of Planning

A bit of planning goes a long way! It’s always good to have a fair idea of what you want to achieve before you go out to do a shot, it’ll save you time when you are out in the wild. Sometimes I’ll even do child like drawings of the sort of thing I want to end up with, or very sketchy lighting diagrams, or even save similarly styled/lit shots to my iPhone so I can flick through them when I am out.

Also if possible grab a friend/spouse/co-worker/stranger in the street to pose for you, it’s a lot easier & quicker than doing it as a self portrait.

The Shoot

The first thing you need to know about a Lowkey shot like this is it does not need to be done at night, in fact doing it at night is a hell of a lot harder… how do you focus on something you can’t see!? I’m not saying you can do it in brilliant sunshine, but as long as the sun is setting or you are indoors you should be fine. I did this shoot at about 9:00pm & shot at a narrower (higher number) aperture to cut out the ambient light which, in this case, was the sun.

Finding a suitable location was easy for this one, I just needed somewhere with a bit of space. I could have found a giant car park with nothing in the backdrop, but I thought picking somewhere with walls behind my subject would give me a chance to talk a little bit about light to subject to backdrop ratios without going into the inverse square law.

The first thing I like to do when I get to a location is set up my kit roughly how I think I am going to use it. Then I start framing up my shot but I am not thinking about the lighting from my strobes just yet.

The light I want to focus on first is ambient light, which I want to completely eliminate. This is the easy part. First thing I do is make sure my ISO is set as low as it will go, then I set my shutter speed to the very fastest it will go with the triggers I am using. With my current triggers (RF-602′s) I can sync up to 1/200th of a second (FYI unless you can sync really fast shutter speed will not effect the strength of your flash). The fast shutter speed does a great job of getting rid of a lot of the sun light.

Then it’s all down to the aperture, starting with my aperture as wide as it will go, I progressively narrow it until I cut out all of the ambient light. This is where the histogram is particularly useful, if you aren’t familiar with histograms I recently did a small post explaining them. Every time I narrow my aperture I check the histogram until it tells me that all the light from the photo is gone. Kinda exactly like this:

The benefit of working like this is that you aren’t making your aperture any smaller than you absolutely have to, which means you won’t have to work your flash quite so hard. I started with my flash at 1/4 power for this shot, which left my subject a little underexposed & my backdrop was getting some light.


Boo! But don’t panic — this is pretty easy to fix. You have three options, the first & easiest is to turn the flash up & move the light out to the side of the subject so less light is pointing at the backdrop. Second, again turn your flash up & move everything further away from the backdrop, your subject, your lights, your camera, all of it. Third — hold on I need a new paragraph for this…

Unfortunately it’s not always possible to move away from your backdrop or you don’t want your lights out on the side; lucky for us there is something else we can do. If you move the light closer to your subject, lets say half the distance, you can actually then bring the power down by two stops while retaining the same level of exposure on your subject. Because your light is on a lower power the amount that gets to the back drop will be dramatically reduced. In fact if you started off with your light, subject & backdrop with even spacing in between them, your backdrop will be under exposed by about eight stops which should stop it from showing up all together!

If you aren’t getting it don’t worry, the best thing to do is just get out & try it out, it’s much easier to learn when you can see the results first hand. I’m also going to do a post about this sort of stuff soon to try & break it down a little more, do some funky diagrams, you know — all that good stuff.

After a little setup tweaking & turning my flash up to 1/2 power, I got exactly the sort of light I was looking for. I used an umbrella box for my light modifier on this shoot because I like the softness that comes with it. But you could have used a snoot for a bit more control or even done it with a bare flash. From that point I just rattled off a whole bunch of shots, getting Mikee to pull some shapes for me — what a pro. So this is my final image, which has had pretty much zero editing done to it, just a crop & tiny bit of desaturation.

You can check this shot out on my Flickr where you’ll be able to check out the large version & see all the EXIF data… if that’s your kinda thing.

The Video

Yep… video’d the whole thing! I thought it might be helpful. Errr please note — this is the first time I have ever done anything like this, so it’s a little on the amateur side & the audio is a little quiet in places — sorry.




Rick Nunn

I’m living in Lincoln, an hour from the sea, two from London & minutes from the woods. I’m happy here. I like interesting emails, so send them my way — These are my constants, everything else is a work in progress: I’m a beard […]

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