How To Shoot Low Key Photography: A Beginner's Guide

Brandon LazovicFebruary 16, 2020

Wondering how to shoot low key photography? In this beginner's guide we'll be offering tips on how to shoot photos using low key lighting.

What Is Low Key Photography?

Low key photography involves intensifying the contrast in the subject of an image through reduced lighting.

The aim of most photographers is to avoid casting dark shadows on the faces of their subjects; using low-key lighting can add a dramatic flair to the subject and overall composition of the photo through dark shadows and a strong contrast.

low key photography black backdrop portrait lighting example

In a previous post I used the Rembrandt Portrait Lighting Technique with low key lighting to cast strong shadows on the face of my subject and create the distinctive triangle that’s associated with the technique. This was accomplished with studio lights but painters in the Renaissance and Baroque periods achieved this effect without artificial lighting.

These painters created what is known as the “chiaroscuro” technique, which produced three-dimensional depth in their portraits and evoked drama/realism in the paintings from this period. Chiaroscuro is derived from the Italian “chiaro,” or clear/light, and “scuro,” or obscure/dark.

What's The Difference Between Low Key And High Key Photography?

Attribution: Iphotography.com

A low key image typically involves the use of dark tones and colors. While the tone of high key images may feel airy and light, low key photos are used to convey mood and drama.

In contrast, high key lighting aims to reduce the amount of contrast by casting a large amount of light on a subject. High key photography typically uses unnaturally bright light as a solution to screens unable to display high contrast photos. The use of this unnaturally bright light creates a blown out effect, removing most harsh shadows in an image.

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Low Key Photography Lighting Setup

For shooting indoor portrait photography you’ll need to set up a black backdrop with a studio light placed of to the side of the subject at a 45-degree angle that’s above the eye level of your subject. The face of the subject should be turned away from the main light source.

Your light source should also never reach your background. Be sure to move the model and the light source away from the background. The light and the model will stay the same as far as illumination, but the background will get darker, which is desired for low key photography.

You'll also want to block off all other light sources from the room that you're shooting in, such as doors, windows, and even electronics.

Camera Gear

As far as gear is concerned, you'll want to have the following pieces of equipment:

  • Umbrella or softbox
  • Dark background (if shooting in a studio)
  • Camera flash or light source
  • Fast lens with a f/stop of f/1.4 or f/1.8
  • Tripod

Having a fast lens with a low f/stop is ideal because it lets in significantly more light. The more light you have, the lower you can set your exposure, which will reduce the amount of noise captured in the photo when shooting in low light.

Performing Low Key Photography Without Flash

If you don’t have low key studio lighting that you would otherwise use in product photography, you can use the flash from a cell phone or an extraneous source such as a window, although one problem that occurs is the light source illuminating too much of your subject’s face. To correct this, simply cover up the bottom of the light source and adjust to get the perfect amount of lighting.

You can also a secondary source of light on the opposite side, in which case your supplement lighting should be at half the intensity as your main source.

Another thing to watch out for is making sure you’re capturing the light in at least one of your subject’s eyes to bring life to the photo and add that dramatic flair.

Candles and torches are also great for casting harsh shadows and eliciting a gothic or romantic tone in your shot.

Outdoor Low Key Photography Ideas

Outdoors low key photography lighting example

Shooting outdoors in the evening is a free way to get the right amount of low key lighting without using studio equipment. The biggest challenge is finding the perfect spot for your composition; natural light from the moon and streetlights are great places to start when pinpointing locations that have a good light source at night. An urban setting can also be ideal if you’re shooting in a parking lot or an alleyway, especially when leading lines in photography.

The cool thing with low key photography is that you can also shoot at any time of the day, whether you're shooting at noon or during an overcast day.

Side Lighting

Side lighting example for low key photography

If you're looking to create high contrast in your subject, a common technique is to keep one side dark through side lighting, or split lighting, placement.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt Lighting Technique for low key photography lighting

Like I mentioned earlier, you can also use Rembrandt Lighting to create unique shades and moods. The goal is to have a triangle of light illuminated on the cheek of your subject, under the ridge of their eye and the nose.

Low Key Photography Photography Settings

As far as camera settings go, here’s what you’ll want to do:

Low ISO

Set your ISO as low as your camera body allows.

Low F/stop and fast shutter speed

Adjust your shutter speed to go as fast as it will go to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. Have your aperture as wide open as possible (the lower the number the better).

The trick is to minimize the amount of light that’s entering your camera without under-exposing the subject in the photo. Here are my settings for the photo below:

  • F-Stop: f/4.5
  • Exposure Time: 1/160 seconds
  • ISO-800
Outdoor Low Key Photography Lighting With Fire As Light Source

The ISO was higher than I wanted, but the only source of lighting that I had was the fire so I had to adjust the ISO in order to decrease the exposure time and lower the F-Stop, but the main takeaway is to minimize the amount of noise produced in the photo.

For most cases though, you'll want to set your ISO starting at 100, and have your F/Stop starting at the smallest number.

Dark Photography Editing

If you haven’t checked out my editing video already, below are the edits I made in Adobe Lightroom:

  • Highlights: +30
  • Shadows: -30
  • Whites: +30
  • Blacks: -30
  • Clarity: +100
  • Vibrance: +30
  • Saturation: +30
  • Red Saturation: +100
  • Orange Saturation: -64

If you’re wondering why I decreased the orange saturation, I felt as though it made the reds stand out more with the centers of the flame producing a more white/yellowish tone.

Here are few other considerations to keep in mind:

Brighten Your Subject

Like I did in the photo editing video, you may need to play with the exposure, highlights and whites of your subject.

White Balance

If you're using flash or indoor lighting, the white balance might be off, which requires a bit of tweaking during post-processing.

Noise Reduction

Because we're often shooting in darker conditions, your exposure may be raised higher than 100, creating noise in the photo. While we can reduce noise post-processing, you should perform minimal edits because the photo blurs.

Adjust Colors

Depending on the tones in your photo, you can play with warm and tone colors, or even opt for a black and white composition.

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