Shooting Low-Key in the Studio

Today was one of those days where it was just better to be inside than out so I decided to go down to my little man case and practice my guitar. After an hour or so of practice, I got the itch to do some studio work, probably because mystudio is also in my man cave space. I usually have my studio set up to shoot high-key, with a white table top and white seamless paper. Today however, I was in the mood for some low-key shooting. For those who don’t know, low-key is when the overall look of the image is dark, whereas high-key is usually very bright.

To get the low-key effect I was looking for, I pulled out my black cloth and covered the table and then pulled out a large flexi-background made of black velvet and hung it behind the table. I also decided to limit myself to just one flash instead of the two or three I usually use for studio work. This time I would be using a single strip bank on one of my Elinchrom BRX 250 monolights. I could have used more but I wanted to limit the lights as much as possible but also challenge myself.

Fender 1

I had the background and the light, now I just needed some subjects. I usually shoot cameras for my books but today I went to something a little larger in scale and grabbed one of my guitars off the wall. Starting with the Fender Stratocaster was a challenge. If you have ever photographed anything that is reflective and multi-surfaced, you know what a challenge it can be to light. The glossy curves were definitely a hurdle and I had to move the light and myself so that I could get the illumination and reflections just right. Here’s a simple shot of the studio layout that I was using.


You probably noticed that my actual shooting surface was not that large, but that’s the beauty of shooting low-key. As long as the actual instrument was in front of black, it didn’t matter about the surrounding area because anything else could be easily fixed in Photoshop. The biggest concern I had was that the reflections were complementary to the shape of the guitar and that it the composition was good. One thing that I quickly realized is that I needed to adjust the tuning heads so that they were uniform. Check out the shot below where I completely forgot to adjust the tuners.


It’s not a bad shot but having the tuners misaligned just looks bad. Now look at the next shot where they were adjusted so that they were equally reflective and aligned. It just makes for a better and more balanced looking image. Here’s a few more from my little photo shoot.








Of course you can use low-key lighting for any number of subjects, including cameras. All it takes is a flash, a black background, a lot of trial and error, and most of all, a little patience. But when it all comes together, it’s pretty satisfying.


Check back in a few days for a little bit of a technical rundown on how I actually made some of the shots above.

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