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Low-Key Wildlife Portraits – Part 1


When I bought my first dSLR camera I got completely sucked into wildlife photography – specifically the natural history / NatGeo style of wildlife photography. At that time, my ultimate ambition would have been to see my photo on the front cover of National Geographic or BBC Wildlife Magazine. But given the millions of photos taken like that every year, how would mine be noteworthy or stand out from the crowd? And more importantly does that really satisfy my creative side? I just don’t see the point in taking the same photos as everybody else. Not to mention the time and money required to trek the few remaining wildernesses and wait for the perfect shot. At this point in time, it doesn’t seem like a realistic proposition. So I decided to return to my roots in more conventional art, and try to mix my artistic and creative eye with my desire for original wildlife photography. These days, my ambition is to see my work hanging in galleries, speaking for itself alongside more traditional art.

Like most people, I've often pondered what must be going through the mind of the other creatures around us. We'll never really know, but I find it a fascinating philosophical question all the same. I wanted to plant that question in the minds of viewers by creating portraits of animals in a style often used by portrait photographers, for photos of people.

A dark and moody photo of a moose in the black.
Low Key Moose Portrait


At the end of last year, I was reviewing my portfolio to see which photos appear to be my strongest work, and which styles are most original and unique to me. Good photographers take years to develop their own style, and I’m starting to find mine now. It’s an exciting time, and I want to keep following my creativity to see where it takes me. One such avenue is my fondness for low-key wildlife portraits or portraits on black. The term “low-key” refers to the lighting used for the shot; with a soft, angled light on the subject, and large areas of shadow in the photo. I think what draws me to the style is that it leaves the viewer with questions. You’re crediting the viewer with the intelligence to ponder what’s in the black. You’re not spoon-feeding them with every detail in the scene. It can add drama, tension, and poignancy to an image. On a practical level, I can also use it to hide distracting background elements, keeping the attention on the subject. In general, I’ve found it an effective style of producing original, striking images, that work really well as art in their own right.

Low-key side angle profile portrait of a Bengal tiger, on a black background.
Bengal Tiger - Profile

My aim here is not to show behaviour, environment, or interaction, as you would in traditional natural history wildlife photography. I want to capture a portrait of a character, as a portrait photographer tries to capture a client in a studio sitting. I almost want to imply that the subject is sitting for a portrait, and sharing their perspective with the viewer. If that sounds pretentious, I don’t blame you. This is an approach that I’ve come to naturally, and it’s not easy to put the mindset into words – as when I do, it comes out sounding like that!

a cow in low light, and black and white
cow on black


In this blog entry, I’ve compiled a few of my favourite low-key wildlife portraits. In the next entry, I’ll talk more about the workflow involved to produce such an image, as that’s a question I’ve been asked my many other photographers. I’m seeing a slow & steady increase in photos of this style from other photographers now, so I can’t expect to keep it to myself. My aim is simply to stay ahead of the curve and keep producing the highest standard of work. My method is one I’ve developed completely on my own, and that has been shaped by my background in art and drawing meshing with the availability of various pieces of graphics software and hardware. I started off using layers in Photoshop to paint in black, but I was never really happy with that. I’m now processing the images entirely in Lightroom from RAW files, which produces a much more natural result. Anyway, more on these technical points next time.

dark, low-key portrait of a male lion
Low-Key Lion

See more low key portraits

I now have a collection of low-key portraits on black,

and high-key portraits on white on this website.

For the best of my fine art nature photography,

have a look through my Fine Art Nature collection.


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