How to Photograph Coins with Dramatic Low Key Lighting

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Shooting with low-key lighting creates a final photograph with dramatic darks and a rich, velvety appearance. Your subject, whether it’s an expensive bottle of wine or a valuable coin, looks luxurious and seductive against a black background. However, shooting with low-key lighting requires a few techniques and in this tutorial I’ll show you how to modify your light to create a rich, formal picture.
Prominent dark areas characterize low-key lighting. To create the dark areas, the subject must be lit more from the sides than from the front. In this tutorial I will show you how to create a flag that not only blocks light from the subject but also allows you to take a photo through it. This way you don’t have to compromise on the composition of the image or the lighting.
I use a bellows lens designed for macro photography for this tutorial but any macro lens setup will work equally well. If you would like some help getting set up to shoot close up images, I recommend reading through this article on macro photo equipment.
First, set up a dark background. You can use either black paper or black mat board laid flat on a table. Place your subject on top of the black surface. The surface doesn't have to be perfectly level, but having a level surface makes the next part easier.
Then, using your tripod, position your camera above your subject so that it is directly above the object, looking down at it. Try to keep the back of the camera as close to parallel with the work surface as possible to avoid optical distortions.

Copy board lighting setup for macro photography

Lighting is key to making a well-exposed image that needs minimal post-production work. For this set up, you will use a pair of lights positioned at equal distances from the subject. First place them at equal distances from the work table. Then adjust the height and angle until they evenly illuminate the work surface.
For this tutorial, it’s best to keep the lights low in height so you don’t block out too much light in the next steps.
To accomplish our low-key lighting, we need to block light from reaching the front of our subject. To block out the light, we will use an opaque flag or gobo which will go between the subject and light and prevent light from reaching the front of the subject. Then we will cut a hole in the center of the flag that will allow the camera lens to stick through so we can take the photo.
Flags work great because they dramatically change light qualities. Best of all, they are not seen in the final photo so they can be made cheaply, allowing easy experimentation with positions,  sizes, and shapes. For this tutorial, a simple rectangle will work fine.
One tip before you start cutting: whenever I cut mat board, I make multiple passes and never try to go all the way through on the first cut. This practice helps me keep cuts neat and prevents accidents.

Cutting a circle opening in black mat board to create shoot-through flag

To create your flag: 
  1. Cut black mat board to a rectangle that will fit in front of your camera without getting in the way of the tripod.
  2. Draw lines corner to corner to find the center of the rectangle.
  3. Draw a circle. I like to use use a lens cap or camera body cap to trace around.
  4. Make relief cuts across the circle. This act is sort of like cutting a pizza.
  5. Cut the arcs of the circle and remove the pie-shaped sections.

Black mat board made into a shoot-through flag

That’s it: your flag is ready to go.
Now we need to position the flag above our subject. Place the flag so that it blocks light coming from above the subject but still allows light to reach it from the sides. Look for a shadow form on the background with lighter spots to the right and left.

Copy board lighting setup for macro photography with a shoot through flag in place

Holding the flag in place always presents a challenge. You can use your hands, extra stands, or tape it to your lens as I have done here.
Once you've got the flag in place you may need to adjust your lights. The idea with this example is to skim the light across the top of our coin so that the light catches the edges of the face, creating a three-dimensional look for an object that is nearly flat.
To set exposure for the camera, I use the manual mode (M) and a reading from my light meter. I use an incident light meter to help me measure exposure readings. It records how much light is falling on the subject, unlike the meter in a camera which records the light reflected from the subject. A camera’s built-in meter can easily be fooled by all of the black and cause you to over-expose your photo.

Taking an exposure reading with an incident light meter

If you don’t have an incident light meter at your disposal, you can use a gray card and record exposure readings using your camera.
Once everything is in place, you are ready to take your photos.
Now we have to make a couple of basic adjustments to enhance the dark areas that should be prominent in a low-key photo. First we will make an adjustment to the Levels. Find the Adjustment panel and click on the  Levels button. This tool will adjust the tones in the image so that the final image looks rich. The levels adjustment shows a histogram that has three sliders under it.
We will begin by adjusting the slider for the dark areas of the image. It is found on the left side. Take that slider and slide it to the right until it meets the histogram graph. This will darken the dark areas of the image.

Making an initial levels adjustment in Adobe Photoshop

Next, take the slider found on the right side and slide it to the left until it meets the histogram graph. This will brighten the highlights in the image.
The third slider lies under the center of the histogram and adjusts the overall brightness of the image. If your image looks too light or dark, try adjusting the center slider slightly left or right until the image looks good overall.
With a low-key image such as this, I like to go back for another round of adjusting. The first round gets me close and the second round gets me exactly where I want to be with a rich, dark image that has a few highlights which provide the essential details about the subject.

Making a final levels adjustment in Adobe Photoshop

Thats is it! You just created a low-key, macro photo by using a shoot-through flag. Here is a look at my final image.

An old coin shot with low-key lighting

The key parts of this tutorial are keeping the camera and focal plane perpendicular and using a flag to block out extraneous light. Setting up the camera and table so that they're level will let you move multiple objects in and out of the setup and recompose without worry. The flag keeps reflective objects, like coins, looking great.


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