How To Create Low-Key Botanical Photos

Following my last post (Low-Key Botanical Photo Gallery 2023), a commenter asked me about the techniques I use to create these images. That got me thinking, and I realised that there are actually two aspects to the process which work alone or together: camera technique and editing. In this post I will outline these techniques so that you can start creating your own images in this style.

The Low-Key Aesthetic

Low-key photos are characterised by the subject being well lit, while the background is very dark or completely black. The three images above show the kind of creative variation that can be achieved within this aesthetic.

  1. The first shows the subject (a fern frond), uniformly lit. This photo was taken in the garden, with the frond in full sun (not ideal) and the soil behind in shadow.
  2. In the second image, the amaryllis appears to be caught in a shaft of light, with the leaves and stem fading into the background shadow. All parts are in focus. This was photographed indoors with the light coming from a window. I arranged the camera so that an unlit grey wall was behind the subject.
  3. In the third image of a white clematis flower, there is more background detail: a second clematis flower, foliage and stem contribute to the story, but by being in part shadow and out of focus, do not distract from the main subject. Some abstract blue bands have been left in purely for their atmospheric effect, hinting at the location (dark fence slats).

For people wanting to emulate this style of photography, the question is, how do you get the background to be so dark, while the subject is well lit? Many low-key photos are taken in a studio where the lighting can be controlled, but that’s not necessary and most of my low-key shots are taken in the garden natural light. In this article, I will share my techniques.

How to create the Low-Key look

There are two main techniques for producing images like these: in-camera and post-editing. Each can be used alone or together, but it is a mistake to think that you need to master both before getting good results. For this reason I will start with the editing technique as you may already have some suitable images you can practise on.

Equipment You Will Need

  • Digital camera capable of full Manual or Aperture Priority mode and exposure compensation control (any DSLR or mirrorless camera produced in the last fifteen years should do)
  • A lens that can render shallow depth of field (e.g. f2.8 or wider) is helpful
  • Basic Photo editing software (Apple Photos, Lightroom etc)

You do not need high-end equipment to achieve this look. Technique is more important than gear. My mirrorless camera is a nine year old 16 megapixel Lumix GX85. It’s a 2016 compact mirrorless camera with a micro four thirds sensor. Certainly not the latest or greatest, but perfectly adequate. I only have two lenses: Panasonic 20 mm f1.7 (40 mm full-frame equivalent) and Panasonic 42.5 mm f1.7 (85 mm full-frame equivalent). For plant portraits, the latter lens is all I really need.

PART 1
Creating A Low-Key Aesthetic
In Your Photo editor

To illustrate the technique, I’m going to transform this unedited photo of two Dahlias (left) into the low-key image (right)

For this example, I am using an old photo that I had rejected at the time, as it was underexposed. However, it is a good candidate for the low-key treatment, because the subject — the white dahlias — are significantly brighter than the background. The clear separation in luminance (brightness) between subject and background is what will make the following steps work.

To achieve the look we want, we need to darken the background until it is uniformly black while maintaining or improving the light on the subject.

1. Opening the photo In The Editor

Here is the unedited jpeg, straight out of camera, loaded in the editor:

Unedited jpeg straight out of camera, (40 mm equivalent, f2.2, -1.3 ev)

Notice that the shot was taken in overcast conditions, not in direct sun. This is important as it means the shadows within the flowers are soft and brighter than the background. This should make it possible to darken the background while maintaining the detail within the petals. If I had taken this shot in direct sunlight, there would be much deeper shadows within the petals, making it impossible to darken the background without also darkening parts of my subject.

2. Initial global adjustments

As a first step, I often autocorrect the lighting in the photo editor. Although not an essential step, I find doing this helps me see what I am dealing with. I am mainly looking at the main subject — the Dahlias — to see if they are pleasing when well lit. As you can see, this adjustment has made the background lighter, but that is not a problem at this stage.

3. Crushing the shadows

Next, we want to push the shadows in the image towards pure black so that all the background detail is lost. This may take several adjustments, and there is more than one way to achieve this. The basic idea here is to make the dark areas as dark as we can without making any part of the main subject too dark in the process. There are multiple controls we can employ to do help with this, particularly Contrast, Brilliance and Black Point.

Increasing the Black Point forces the darkest parts of our image to become pure black. A side effect is that the mid-tones (such as the shadows toward the bottom of the Dahlia) become darker too, so depending on your image, you may not be able to push Black Point to the maximum. In this image, however, I could:

Different images require different strategies, but for this image, I found increasing the Black Point dramatically got me most of the way there. See how the background has been reduced to several patchy artefacts? In a later step, we will remove these one by one, but before we do, it is worth playing around with the controls to see if we can minimise the background highlights further.

4. TOO FAR?

With a bit of playing around, I found that by reducing Brilliance I could remove all the background, but at the expense of my main subject that has lost too much detail. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and for some subjects having part of your image fall away into shadow will work perfectly well. Here, the Dahlias lose too much of their natural shape, so I’ll dial back the Brilliance.

5. Getting the balance Right

Having taken Brilliance back a little way, my Dahlia petals are restored, and I have fewer background artefacts than in step 3. To improve the look of my main subjects, I increased Brightness a little. What I am aiming for here, is to end up with just a few artefacts to remove by hand using the Retouch tool (AKA Spot Heal tool)

6. Manually Cleaning Up The Background

All the background artefacts could be removed from this image using the Retouch tool (AKA Heal / Spot Removal tool), leaving the image below looking pretty good.

However, it is not always so easy. Spot removal tools tend to work best when the offending item is isolated. If it touches the edge of your subject, it can be impossible to remove using such tools, without spoiling the outline of your subject. This situation can be avoided by framing your shot well in the first place so that your main subject falls in a nice clean area of background. However, in many cases this isn’t possible, so a final step may sometimes be needed, which is to use a Clone or Paint tool to tidy up the image. You can’t do this from within Apple Photos, so I use a free application (Photoscape X). It integrates with Apple Photos nicely, allowing me to take my image straight into it from the Photos edit screen.

To check you have removed all the artefacts, try turning up your monitor brightness, and/or temporarily increasing the Brightness slider in your editor.

7. Vignette tool

Another tool to consider when creating low-key images is the Vignette tool. Combined with the techniques above, it can help remove background distractions towards the edge of the frame. You can also use it when part of your subject such as stems or leaves appear rather abruptly cut-off. Adding a Vignette can help the stem or leaves fade into the shadows more gently. I used a vignette on the Amaryllis photo at the top of this post and on the image below:

Adding a vignette stopped the stem and leaves to the right cutting off suddenly

EXAMPLE 2

To check the above techniques are repeatable, I took another of my old unedited photos and applied the steps above: Auto Lighting, increased Black Point; decreased Brilliance; increased Contrast and added a Vignette. In this case, there was no need for Retouch!

I was a little surprised at how well it worked, producing a decent low-key image in a matter of seconds. It goes to show that even a reasonably well-lit background can be removed as long as it is darker than the subject.

EXAMPLE 3

Now, here is an example where I had to use different settings. The original image is a white wild onion flower head, which I had deliberately underexposed (perhaps a bit too much). When I took the photo, I had my eye on the stem which was silhouetted against a dark purple patch of light and I was pushing the exposure down to make this as subtle as possible.

When editing this photo, I didn’t want to make the background become entirely black, but keep some of the subtle background lighting. I found that in this image, any increase in the Black Point immediately crushed all the detail in the bottom half of the image, eradicating the stem and leaving the flowers hovering uncomfortably in an inky void. Instead, I used auto Lighting; decreased Brilliance; increased Brightness and applied a Vignette.

Original settings: ISO 200, 85 mm, f2.8, -3.0ev, 1/320s

To tidy up the image, I removed the intruding Hellebore petal (bottom left) using the Retouch tool. I also cropped the image slightly to better frame the subject. Finally, I used the Selective Colours tool (red, yellow, green and purple) to bring out the stamens and the lines down the centre of each petal, while subtly lifting the pool of light behind the stem. The result, I think, is quite nice. The subtle background lighting is an important and atmospheric element of the composition, yet it is still a low-key image.

A low-key image where subtle background lighting is retained to emphasise the stem.

PART 2
TAKING LOW-KEY PHOTOS
WITH YOUR CAMERA

“Expensive gear is less important than technique”


I shoot with a 2016 Lumix GX-85, a cheap but capable 16 Mp micro-four-thirds mirrorless camera. I only have two prime lenses: Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 and Panasonic 42.5 mm f/1.7, the latter I use extensively for my garden and flower photography.

In part 1, we have seen how photos can be edited to create a low-key look. However, it is also possible to produce such effects straight out of camera. I took the following unedited photos in my garden specially for this article to show what is possible:

ISO 200, 85 mm, f/4.5, -1.7 ev, 1/200 s
ISO 200, 85 mm, f/4.5, -1.7 ev, 1/320 s

Camera Settings for Low-Key Photography

For 99% of my garden photography — not just low-key shots — I use Aperture Priority mode (A). This semi-manual mode allows the aperture of the lens to be adjusted manually, while the camera automatically selects the shutter speed (and ISO if necessary) to ensure the image is properly exposed. Being able to control the aperture provides creative control over which parts of the image are in focus, and how blurry the background is. In this mode, aperture is typically selected using your forefinger via the top/front dial on your camera.

The second control required for low-key shots is exposure compensation. This is usually controlled via a button labelled . However, through my camera menu, I have set this function to the back dial as I tend to adjust it for almost every shot I take. Exposure compensation controls how much an image will be under or over exposed. Generally, it is used to improve the exposure selected by the camera. Remember, in Aperture Priority mode, the camera will attempt to set the shutter speed so that the image is correctly exposed, but in making these decisions, it will take an average meter reading from across the whole image. This is fine when your subject and background are equally well lit. However, when there is high contrast between parts of the image, the auto-exposure selected by your camera may leave your subject overexposed. Exposure compensation can correct this.

Photographing in High Contrast conditions.

The photo, below-left, illustrates the problem.

Using Aperture-priority, I have selected f/1.8 to blur the background (a Lonicera hedge) and isolate my subject (a sprig of snow-in-summer) the camera has chosen on ISO of 200 with a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second. Arguably, this is technically correct for the image as a whole, but not for my subject. As you can see, these automatically applied settings have led to the flower becoming overexposed and all the detail in the petals being lost. In the lexicon of photographers, the highlights have been clipped, or “blown-out”.

To correct the exposure for my subject, I dial down the exposure compensation to -1.7ev (judged by eye through the electronic viewfinder and/or using zebras*). This camera is now underexposing the image and has set the shutter speed to 1/3200th of a second. Now, my subject is perfectly exposed with all the details in the petals being visible (above-right). The side effect of lowering the exposure by nearly two stops is that the background is underexposed. In this case, as the background was already quite dark, it has become completely black. For low-key photography, this is exactly what we want. The shadows have been “crushed”, and all the background detail lost.

*Many digital cameras have a feature known as “zebras” which is usually available via the camera’s settings menu. When zebras are activated, the camera screen or viewfinder places moving diagonal stripes across any part of the image where the highlights are being clipped or “blown out”. It is then a simple matter of dialling down the exposure using , until the zebra stripes just disappear from your subject.

Choosing your subject

To take a low-key photo of plants, flower, ferns or mushrooms, you need to find a subject that is well lit compared to the background. It is the contrast between the two that is important: the background should be relatively dark compared to the subject, it does not need to be completely black. When looking for suitable subjects we must keep our attention on the background, moving around and adjusting our perspective so that our subject falls against a dark, uncluttered part of the background.

To get a suitable angle you might need to get down low, or lean over a flower bed so that the subject appears against a deep shadow, dark foliage, or a dark stained fence. White flowers are often easiest to work with as they are so bright. Sometimes, a bright green fern frond can be found above dark soil or mulch. If the background is too busy, consider placing a sheet of black card or black velvet cloth behind the subject.

Here is the location where I took the peony photos. The background is a black-stained shed.

Peony bush, in front of dark-stained shed

For this photo of four tulips, I used the dark foliage of a yew hedge to get the contrast.

White tulips photographed against a dark hedge

The examples above show that it is perfectly possible to shoot low-key photos in the garden when the conditions are optimal. In practise, however, these constraints can seriously limit the opportunities for creating low-key photos. This is where combining the two techniques above (photo editor and in-camera) comes in.

Combining In-Camera and Editor Techniques

There are a few downsides to creating low-key images entirely within the camera:

  1. Only a limited number of subjects and locations are suitable.
    In many cases, attempting to make the background completely black by reducing the exposure will make the subject (or parts of the subject) too dark. In other situations, you simply may not be able to remove all the distracting background elements.
  2. There is less flexibility to adjust shadow detail in post editing.
    Even where you can produce a good black background in camera, you may later regret it, especially where parts of your subject are in shadow (such as the stems of the tulips above). Having so heavily underexposed these parts can make it harder to recover them in the editor. In such cases, it would be better to increase the exposure in-camera, then darken the background in the editor.
  3. You can’t change your mind later
    Having crushed the shadows in camera, you will not be able to recover any detail, so going for a full low-key image is an all-or-nothing affair. Of course, if you are happy with your low-key shot, that’s no problem. Personally, I often prefer to preserve the shadow detail, especially where there are interesting elements present such as fern fronds, twigs or leaves that provide context. A dark, moody aesthetic is sometimes more interesting than full on background blackout. In the editor, I can play around with these background shadow areas, brightening or darkening them, or even crushing them completely. This allows for a wider range of creative options.

In many situations, therefore, it is prudent to only partially underexpose the image in camera, relying on post-editing to create the final low-key look. My rule of thumb, is to only push the exposure down moderately, so that all the parts of my subject that I might want to keep in my final image are sufficiently exposed. I don’t worry too much about the background, as I know I can make it darker in the editor later.

Understanding both low-key photography techniques (ion camera and editor) allows me to make creative decisions when I am taking photos in the garden. In the photos below, for example, I wanted to keep some of the background for context, while ensuring the emphasis remains on the main subject.

Slightly modifying the techniques outlined in this article enable a wide range of creative botanical images to be produced. Hopefully, his article will have given you some confidence to start creating your own Low-Key photographs.

WHAT ARE THE BEST LENSES FOR FLOWER PHOTOGRAPHY?
For general botanical photography (flowers, plants and fungi), it is helpful to have a lens that can throw the background out of focus to make your subject stand out from its surroundings. the ability to do this depends on the aperture range of your lens. The wider the maximum aperture (or f stop), the shallower the depth of field and the more your background becomes blurry. Consequently, it is helpful to have a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 (full frame) or f/2 (micro-four-thirds), or wider — remembering that the smaller the f-stop number the wider the aperture. Another thing that can help isolate your subject is using a longer focal-length lens. A medium-telephoto between 60-120 mm (full frame) or 30-60 mm (micro-four-thirds) is a good starting point. For example, I find I use my 42.5 mm lens (85 mm full frame equivalent) far more than my 20 mm lens (40 mm equivalent). A final feature of a good flower-photography lens, its ability to focus close up. It doesn’t need to be a macro-lens, but it is helpful if you can fill the frame with your subject when you want to. You can look up the maximum magnification of different lenses online. My Panasonic 42.5 mm f/1.7 lens has a maximum magnification of x0.2 which lets me capture all the detail of those peony stamens.

For the reasons above, camera-phones are rarely capable of this kind of creative photography.


Leave a Comment