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Low Key Images

Original article:  Low Key Images

Updated: Feb 4, 2009

For the longest time, I would look at this photograph - a silhouette of a surfer dropping into the curl - and wonder if I should post it. From the start - when evaluating the day’s shots - I was drawn to this picture. I remembered shooting it... turning into the sun and seeing this surfer drop into this wave.

Break the Rules - Go on, break them
Technically speaking it's under exposed. Well, the surfer is under exposed. After all if you would ask a photographer what the primary subject of this photograph is, the answer would be the guy surfing. Even if you asked a non-photographer, the answer would most likely be the surfer. The high contrast dark silhouette of the surfer really draws the eye; it in fact screams "look at me!" Think back to when you looked at the image, what was the first thing you looked at in the photograph? If I were to ask a surfer the same question, the answer might be the wave. Surfers are just like that, there could be a video with bikini models standing in front of the beach and a surfer would be scanning the waves in the background - "that looks surfable, get out the way Gidget so I can see how it breaks."

Low Key Image
I finally realized it was the surfer in me that drew me to the picture; and it was the photographer in me that was hesitant to post an under exposed picture. This image could actually be considered a low-key image. A low-key image is dominated by dark shadow, contrasted by bright highlights. It is typically emotive, dramatic, and sometimes sets a darker contemplative mood. Typically to shoot a low-key image the photographer picks a composition with a very low light value. Metering on the highlights (bright areas), the photographer would render the shadows dark and without definition. The experienced photographer would also bracket a few shots; under exposing up to a stop and a half or so. The resulting photograph would be dark and moody - a low-key image.

Now that I think about it, I could have just said "low-key is what I planned to do". The truth is the action was fast a furious. I turned, faced directly into the sun and saw this guy dropping in. I took the shot without metering, without thinking really, just pointed and shot. But the meter was confused by the sun, by the light reflecting off the water, and the light reflecting off the salty spray. I'm rather impressed that the camera exposed the wave face perfectly.

Feeling It?
I'm still practicing on doing this technique on purpose. The really important thing is that the picture reminds me of a day on the beach. The sun, salty air, and pounding waves are harsh. This low-key image reminds me of the harshness of the lighting. The bright over exposed (another topic) salt spray coming off the wave gives the wave some life; a motion blur effect that shows the power and movement. Like I said I’m still practicing on producing low-key images, so I can add it to my bag of story telling techniques. For now I’ll take the accidents that work out.

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