How to Take Low Key Photos of Small Animals

As a wildlife photographer, there are occasions when you come across small wildlife subjects that just speak to a part of your brain which relays the message: “this needs to be put on a pedestal and shown off for all to see.” The simple answer to this urge is low key photography.

Low key photography allows you to achieve this vision by putting your subject centre stage, shining a light on it and taking the surrounding habitat out of view. This works to remove any distractions which may detract from your chosen focal point. Whether it’s an insect, spider, snake, or even a small mammal, this effective – yet rather simple – style will produce stand out results that leave busy, frame-filled competitors in your dust.

Beautiful Pit Vipe
Beautiful Pit Viper (Trimeresurus venustus) – 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/100 – f/16

Read on to find out how to achieve this appealing look in your work. We’ll cover everything from the gear you need to the technique necessary to achieve the look, and the ethical elements you need to consider when you’re in the field.

Recommended photography equipment

To achieve this subject-on-black look, there are two important elements you’re going to need. These are the right kind of lens and an additional source of light.

Island Pit Viper
Island Pit Viper (Trimeresurus albolabris insularis) – 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/18

Because you are aiming to shoot small subjects, low key photography is best achieved using a macro lens. These small-subject-matter-specific lenses allow you to focus on subjects which are closer to your lens compared to non-macro options. And, while it is technically possible to shoot across a subject with any lens, the practicality of holding your camera and the accompanying external flash (see below) is best served if you’re within reach of your subject, which is only really possible with a macro lens.

Read more: What’s the Best Macro Photography Lens?

As mentioned, low key photography also requires using an external, handheld flash. Handholding your light source provides a freedom to quickly adjust, manipulate, and direct it where it’s needed to achieve the correct input.

This is especially handy in situations with particularly fidgety creatures who aren’t interested in staying still, meaning you and your flash have to move instead.

Tennent's leaf-nosed lizard
Tennent’s leaf-nosed lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/200 – f/16

Finally, the last piece of gear you’ll want is a diffuser for your flash. No matter whether you purchase a built-for-purpose softbox to fit your flash or create a homemade option out of a material lying around your home (like packing foam), it’s important to diffuse the harsh light coming from your flash unit.

While not make or break, when diffusing the flash is done right, this seemingly minimal addition helps prevent ugly hot spots on your subject and delivers well spread, even light for a far more appealing look.

Techniques to use

After you have the correct gear in hand and you’re ready to start shooting, the first thing to do is choose a subject.

Gecko 100mm – ISO 250 – 1/160 – f/14

Once identified, the second step is to elevate your subject if possible. For ground-dwelling species, it’s often preferable to use a rock or tree stump to raise the animal’s position, while branches and other natural perches work well for creatures who are accustomed to life off the ground. You should also try to pick an area which doesn’t have other branches, grass, and other items which may show up in the frame.

Read more: A Guide to Using Flash with Wildlife

Next, arrange yourself so you’re shooting at near eye-level with your subject. If you were unable to move the animal or prefer not to, it’s still possible to partially achieve the same low-key outcome, even if your subject is sitting on the ground — it just requires a little more discomfort on your part.

Mock Viper
Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/200 – f/16

Working with your camera in one hand and the handheld flash unit in the other, the aim is to find a position which illuminates your subject – with a slight emphasis on the head end.

To achieve this, aim the flash at your subject and position it almost directly above the subject. Then, tilt your hand and bring it back towards the camera slightly while still maintaining the height of the unit, so that the flash points toward the subject but doesn’t fire onto your camera. Finally, offset the flash slightly to the right or the left (depending on where you want the most light to fall) of your camera.

It’s also important to keep your flash as close to the subject as you can without getting it in the frame. This way, you maximise the amount of light falling on the subject with a slight emphasis on the animal’s face (if it’s in shot) in order to ensure a clean and crisp edge. And, hopefully, you won’t be illuminating any surrounding matter while doing so.

Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) 100mm - ISO 400 - 1/125 - f/16
Corn Snake

When it comes to camera settings, the set-up is certainly open to interpretation and personal preference. However, an aperture of f/14 is a good starting point for a balance of detail and beauty, with a 1/200th of a second shutter speed to ensure your image is sharp.

Preparing for the shoot

Because low key photography attempts to eliminate the background from the image, this is a versatile style of photography which can be achieved both at home in a studio, or out in the field.

Malabar Pit Viper
Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/200 – f/18

This means, for those who prefer to shoot in the field, it’s feasible (and a good idea) to hone your skills with a dummy subject like a toy, in order to get your technique down in the comfort of your home before heading outside for the real thing.

Borneo Tree Hole Frog
Borneo Tree Hole Frog (Metaphrynella sundana) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/160 – f/16

Additionally, if you do happen to have live animals in the home, such as a pet snake, spider or other miniature-sized creature, this represents a convenient opportunity to take a portrait of your beloved critter that most dog and cat owners can only dream of.

Ethical considerations

If you are working with live animals, it’s important that the animal’s welfare always comes first. As mentioned above, low key photography is more successful when your subject is elevated off the ground. However, if you attempt to move an animal, and it shows any kind of distress or resistance to being moved, stop.

Poisonous rock frog
Poisonous rock frog (Odorrana hosii) 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/125 – f/18

Furthermore, as the technique also uses artificial light, it’s possible this will further disturb your subject. If you see that your flash is upsetting your subject, again, stop. While there may be no conclusive evidence that flash is harmful to animals, it’s the best practice to take a common sense attitude which put’s the animal first.

Read more: Does Flash Photography Harm Animals?

In conclusion

There are few better ways to show off a wildlife subject than with a low key photograph. The style is ideal for putting your whole subject, or a targeted part, in full focus with a literal light shining right on it. This makes sure the viewers of your photographs take in the complexities and beauty of the animal with no other distractions in frame.

Spider Low Key Photo
Spider 100mm – ISO 400 – 1/250 – f/1

This technique is also incredibly versatile and can be used on a whole range of different subjects. From reptiles and amphibians to birds and mammals; if you can elevate your subject and light it in the correct way, it’s possible to achieve an attractive result.

Visit Elliot's website

Elliot Pelling is a published wildlife photographer and passionate conservationist. Working as he travels, Elliot spends his time seeking out the very best the natural world has to offer. By producing images of animals in their natural environment, he hopes to educate and inspire others to protect the world around them. You can follow his journey on Instagram and Flickr.

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