3 Steps for a Suspenseful Portrait

Have you seen those a suspenseful portrait, with a dark background and only a portion of the subject is exposed? Let’s create an image like that! Keep reading to learn how.

One of my preferred kinds of lighting is called Low Key lighting, or low key photography. You can easily identify it because most or all of the background is dark, but the subject, or a portion of it, is lit. In this post you’ll learn how to create this kind of lighting.

This is a style that was used in film-noir and some other film genres, in order to create a bit of suspense in the image, and make the viewer a little tense. That’s why I like it so much, it’s an effective way to create emotions on the viewer. I recently practiced low key lighting with Jessica, so come along to create similar images.

In order to create this lighting you can follow 3 simple steps.

Under-expose by 2 or 3 stops

You need to start with a dark frame, so let’s get to the scene, place our subject in front of the camera and meter so the image is under-exposed. Keep an eye on your shutter speed and don’t go beyond the sync-speed.

Take a Test Shot

Taking a test shot should tell you if you’re under-exposing enough. If you can see the subject clearly, keep close the diaphragm or go for a lower ISO and repeat this step.

Add Flash, Under-exposing by 1 Stop

You can now add flash, setting the power by using manual calculations based on the distance to the subject and your current diaphragm aperture (f-stop). Once you come up with a flash power setting, reduce it by 1 additional stop. In my case, I used a Godox TT600 inside a 90 cm (36 in.) octabox, with an XPro transmitter on camera.

And now, you can shoot your image. There you have it! A suspenseful portrait with a mostly dark frame, with a subject that is barely lit.

ISO 100, f/2, 1/250 s, flash inside octabox at 1/16 power

Bonus Tip

When you try this technique, look for an open wide space and keep away from any walls that may reflect the light from your flash, This way you’ll make sure the flash barely touches your subject and it’s under control.

I really hope you found this post interesting, informative but also entertaining. If that is the case, please leave a comment below and share this post with your friends! But most of all, please remember to Stay Safe, Keep Learning and Keep Creating.

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