For low-key portrait photos, one requirement is a dark background which is not there during the day outside. I tried to shoot one, but it seems I do not know how to do it. I am using a Canon 7D, 430EXII, and YN600-EX-RT. All the shots that I took had a bright background and my settings were

F/33, 1/250, ISO100 lens: 50mm f/1.8

So in summary how can I shoot low-key during the daytime?


It's a common misconception that "low key" means "lack of light". This is not true. "Low key" means the vast majority of the tones in the scene are darker than middle gray and is independent of illumination. For instance a photograph of a dark skinned man in dark clothing against a black wall would be very low key even if photographed in broad daylight. I did not take this photo but it is low key and i doubt the hippo was in a cave. low key hippo pic. Underexposing a scene in an attempt to make it low key is a another common mistake. Low key is much more about choice of subject matter than illumination or exposure.

If you're trying to create a dark background in broad daylight use a high shutter speed with your flash but again it's not necessary to artificially remove light from the scene to make it low key. Think about the subject.

  • 2
    The term may be independent of illumination or exposure, but if you're shooting a low key image outside on a sunny day, you still need to expose for the effect you want. Being able to add and/or remove light is an important aspect of the process. – Caleb Jul 23 '15 at 18:20

All the shots that I took had a bright background

If you were shooting at f/33, 1/250s, ISO 100 and still getting a bright background then it's a good bet that it's your flash that's lighting up the background. To get a dark background, you need to arrange things so that the flash that's lighting your subject doesn't also light the background. You can do that by finding a place where there are no objects near to your subject for the flash to hit, or by positioning the flash so that the light hits the subject but misses other objects in the frame. In other words:

  • Move your subject away from background objects like walls, trees, etc. You want the flash<->background distance to be much greater than the flash<->subject distance. The power of the flash diminishes with the square of the distance, so if your flash is 1 meter from the subject and 5 meters from the background, the background will get 1/25 as much light as the subject.

  • Get your flash off the camera and onto some kind of stand. This makes it easy to angle the light so that it hits only what you want.


As others have alluded to here, one possibility is to underexpose the (bright) ambient light and then add enough fill flash to your subject to achieve a sort of day-to-night effect that may be what you are aiming for.

Try setting -3 stops of ambient exposure compensation and +1 stop of flash exposure compensation (or equivalent manual exposure settings) and see how that looks.

NB: You will need a powerful/close flash for this if working in bright sunlight. Off-camera flash makes this a lot easier.


Fire your flash into a reflective umbrella positioned behind you. Your flash needs to be in high sync mode with fast shutter speed 1/8000 start with about f5.6 iso 100. Camera will only ser the fall off light on the model.


If you are trying to underexpose to black a background during the day, then you have to severely underexpose the background and make up the light on the subject.

I got extremely lucky with the photo below in this regard, as the lion was coming out from a shaded area. Reflected noon sun was bright enough to properly expose the face while also severely underexposing the rest.

If I had to repeat this photo or do something similar, then I would:

  • Meter a proper exposure and plan on underexposing ambient by ~4-5 stops (more or less, it's up to you) Let's assume a cloudy 8 exposure - normal ambient is 1/125 at f/8 at ISO 100. Let's open the aperture to f/4 and then underexpose...this gives us a shutter speed of 1/8000. (Note that this is only 4 stops under)
  • Being at f/4 allows for some wiggle room. You can close the aperture and further underexpose the background. Additionally, this is pretty open - so you likely won't run into under-power flash issues.
  • The reason that you may want to keep the aperture more open is because light falls off following the inverse square law. If your subject is close to a background and you're at f/22 - your flash has to really pop to light your subject and it's likely going to light the background as well. If you can open the aperture and lower the power output of the flash then you can mitigate how much you expose a close background.

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