In this article, I provide some photography tips and show you how to create low-key lighting photographs with little financial investment. Even if you are a photography beginner, you can make these types of shadowy pictures with only a few standard photography techniques. I’ll explain the lighting gear you need, but you’ll also want a camera that can shoot in a non-automatic mode, which is pretty much every DSLR nowadays and most new smartphones.
If you want to see all the products I’m recommending in this article, click this link to see the collection.
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What is low key photography?
If you say to a young person, “let’s do a low-key shoot,” you’ll get a funny look. But in photography, a low-key photo is an image that uses low lighting from the key light source – thus “low key.”
Low-key photography takes on the look of an underexposed photo or night photography, but is intentionally shot to exaggerate the shadows. You may have heard this style called Rembrandt Lighting, but that style is generally thought of as a portrait-only style. Low key is a technique and style with a high lighting ratio, allowing the photographer to play with lighting and shadows more creatively. In my opinion, this style lends itself best to the concept of “painting with light.”
But, in low-key photography, the subject is intentionally underexposed for dramatic effect and predominantly darker tones. In this case, you deliberately remove some of the traditional three-point lighting options customary in studio photography (key light, fill light, and backlight).
You see this lighting style in portrait, street, landscape, and so on. It is an abstract, suspenseful style because the shadows wrap around the subject in an often unusual way. This style is used in film noir and German Expressionism quite a bit. Not to mention many, many horror movies. If you want to impress people with your photography, show them your mastery of this low key style.
To produce these photos, you probably assume you’ll shoot in the dark with a bright spotlight. Sure, that works quite well. But for beginners, and cameras without optimized focus abilities, it is challenging to focus and dial in the light exactly as you see it. So I prefer a different method for beginners, where the subject is completely lit. You leave the lights on in your studio. You can even shoot this style in broad daylight. It’s simply a camera trick that makes the image look like it was taken in the dark, making it much easier to work with your subject and focus appropriately. Plus, seeing the interesting poses is easier when your model is fully lit.
The image you saw above is an example of low key photo lighting. But here (below) is my original image. It’s not nearly as abstract as my final photo, but it’s a lighter degree of low-key. The shadows that are placed on the model are perfectly placed and allow easy exposure adjustments in your photo editor. Nothing looks worse than painting a shadow onto your model in Photoshop, but deepening an already existing shadow is far simpler.
For this style, it’s as much about the setup and composition as the final editing. It would help if you thought about light in a new, liquefied way, a bit like the fluidity of water.
By the way, while we are on the topic of low key, you may like to know there’s an inverse to this style. Aptly called high key, this style has attributes of an overexposed image. I’ll write an article on that another time.
“You Don’t Take A Picture, You Make It”
Before we dig in, let’s talk about this quote. The quote is often attributed to Ansel Adams, and it’s the way I approach photography. As I compose the shot, I think about the end result. I’m considering the additions I will add in post-production (Photoshop, Lightroom, and other tools I favor). Photography is inherently an abstract art. Your eye is different than others’ eyes. Your lens will inherently abstract the actual subject, if not slightly. Your camera technology will abstract the image. Even if you’re shooting with film, there’s a considerable abstraction to reality. In my book, there’s no issue with further abstraction through post-processing (editing on a computer). It’s a chance to use our imagination and make the image that we can otherwise only imagine.
When Taylor, my model from the above photo, arrived for this photo shoot with this flowy dress, the first thing I noticed was the fluid nature of the outfit. One of the best ways to enhance the lines of any subject is with shadows. I knew that I wanted the light to dissipate behind her naturally. I already knew it would be black on the right side, so I didn’t even worry about getting the whole dress in the frame (thus excluding a helper who was holding an electric fan, adding body to Taylor’s hair). I created a loose image in my head, then posed Taylor to make it.
How To Take Low Key Photos
Your model is ready. The lights are on standby. At this stage, consider the characteristics you want to capture. But now it’s time to start setting up your lights. A great light source is fundamental. In flash photography, we usually suppress shadows while obtaining a balanced exposure. However, with low key lighting, we’re trying to wrap shadows around the subject in fluid ways.
Don’t think of it as capturing the subject. Think of it as painting over the subject with dramatic shadows.
I like to keep my lighting very simple. Photographers sometimes collect all types of different lighting rigs. Some with grates and shutters to create different designs and patterns. It gets expensive. But many photographers eventually whittle down to just a few personal favorites. While I own a few powerful strobes and continuous lights, it’s a simple speedlight setup that works wonders. Most of my expensive lighting gear sits in a closet these days.
Here’s the exact speedlight I own for a Canon (don’t worry, there are versions for all the main camera brands).
Yongnuo is a brand from China, and works as well as premium brands. I also bought this kit from Godox, which is more complete You can’t go wrong with either brand or speed light.
At only around $50 (depending on when you read this article), it has the power and durability to work anywhere, including outside with a natural light mix. For non-low key photography, If you find yourself fighting with a harsh sun creating shadows, set this up to blow out some of those shadows. It’s versatile as a fill light and a must-have for any photographer. It can save the day often.
It’s a powerful light blast that recharges fast on four AA batteries, but you may prefer a speedlight that runs on a stronger rechargeable battery. You have options.
You can plug this directly into your camera’s hot shoe, but putting this somewhere to the side of your subject is much more dramatic. I like to mount mine on a light stand. Sometimes I’ll set up two of these at different powers to create more complex shadows. For example, in this shot, I had two separate speedlights (wrapped with colored gels) to create a soft blue and red tone:
You will want to buy a remote trigger to plug into your camera’s hot shoe. The trigger allows the speedlight to fire remotely and perfectly in sync with your shutter. It is much less restrictive than having a cable tethering your camera to your speedlight.
This is the wireless flash controller I own for the Yongnuo speedlight ($35). It easily allows me to control the power of the speedlight(s) with the LED screen. Attach this to your camera, follow the sync instructions, and you are ready to go.
A black backdrop is an optional component of these low-key photos. You can use a black wall if you’re lucky to have one in your studio. But a cheap black bed sheet works just fine.
Or, for $15, you can pick up a muslin photo backdrop. Muslin works great because it is lightweight cotton. Tack it up to the wall or buy a simple stand. Here is the portable stand I own — it’s only $35. You can spend more on brand names, but you certainly don’t have to.
You could pick up a speedlight reflector. This light modifier is something I recommend, as it helps you get creative with your light control for virtually no money or electricity. With this, you can create sharp cuts like a crescent moon in your shadows. See below:
Positioning Your Light
Here is our original photo again for reference:
Some people shoot low-key photos in the dark with a modeling light to show where the burst will ultimately be when the flash fires. I prefer to shoot in low ambient/available light (like my image above). It is far simpler for everyone in the room.
I set my camera to allow less light in (using manual mode) to compensate and make it look like a darker and shadowy image. I’m setting the camera so only the brightest light gets in, turning the softer light into blackness. In the above photo, the raised foot looks very dark. But if you were in the room, her foot was very visible. It’s a camera trick of sorts.
Usually, an F-stop of 9, a shutter of 1/100 and an ISO of 100 works fine for most situations. Sometimes I will raise the shutter speed to make it a little darker.
The speedlight was directly in front of my model in the photo above. You can see the hottest spot hits her right in the stomach. Also, some of the backdrop shows as well. But I wasn’t concerned. It can all be easily fixed in Photoshop (or your image editor of choice).
With your model in their spot and your light where you like it, it’s your job to pivot and find the best shot. Take a few photos, adjust your position, and change your shutter speed as needed. You should have something you’re pretty happy with in a few tries. If not, move the light differently and try another round.
This is a trial-and-error exercise. Since you don’t see the final result until the shot is taken, you must guess how the light will ultimately look. But study your shots as you take them to fine-tune your image. I commonly delete 80% of these photos, thus keeping about 20% as possible candidates for publishing.
Once you have a shot you want, it’s time to fire up your image editor.
What If You Don’t Have A Speedlight?
The best thing about a speedlight is its strong burst of light. Without going into the technical details, a speedlight can be dialed up to be a more potent blast than ambient light (that is, the default light in your studio, either by windows, lamps, skylights, etc.). This allows you to be able to shoot in full light, instead of trying to focus on your subjects in the dark.
But if you have a continuous light, it can also work. (A continuous light is simply an ‘always-on’ light source balanced for photography.) Just make sure it’s a powerful one that can equal the blast of a speedlight. I own a few of these, including this pack by Emart. I love using the boom arm.
Low Key Photography In Daylight
If you don’t have a speedlight and don’t want to invest in continuous lights, the strongest light source available is absolutely free. It’s the sun.
If you understand how to set the camera, and can scout a proper outdoor location, you can create this effect in the daylight without artificial light. The same rules apply. I recommend practicing with controlled light first. Once you understand how to set the camera and take the shot in a studio, it becomes infinitely easier to recreate the effect with natural daylight.
Post Production Work
A note about post-production: some photographers only do a little in post. Every photographer has a different view on how much post-production should be done. You can certainly get great images without any post-production. But eight times out of ten, I lean heavily on an image editor to give me that subtle control to make a good photo great.
I tend to start all my edits in Adobe Lightroom, then move them into Adobe Photoshop (with Photoshop’s Camera Raw filter, you may not need Lightroom). Lightroom is an application that allows you to catalog all your images, but its editing controls are all in Camera Raw these days.
Here’s a screenshot showing my settings in Lightroom:
I wholly recommend you shoot in RAW (instead of JPG or TIF), which gives you much more latitude for refinements and image detail. For this shot, I converted the color image into black and white. I brought the blacks way down and pushed the whites up. This created a really harsh (but beautiful) result. Then for fine-tuning, I adjust the contrast and highlights to taste.
While you don’t need Lightroom to replicate my settings, I should mention that Lightroom has a really great adjustment called Clarity. It adds a specific gritty effect when cranked all the way up. Sometimes this gritty look can be too much, but in black and white, it helps make it look more “cold.” Lightroom has also recently released a texture control with its May 2019 update. I love this for smoothing skin that can sometimes look a little rough under this harsh flash.
Also available to edit are the different grey tones, which are represented by the image’s original colors. It gives you superb, subtle controls. Here are my settings:
For my personal workflow, I’ll take this image into Photoshop to remove any blemishes (with the clone or healing stamp or something more powerful like frequency separation). I also may slightly bend any lines I think can be more attractive (with the Liquify tool in Photoshop). Usually, the work I do in Photoshop is very, very subtle.
I hope you found this to be a helpful article. The rest is up to you — it’s pure experimentation. It really is not a very difficult style to master technically but it takes a little longer for your eye/brain to see the light the way your camera sees it. This type of shadow photography can create amazing one-of-a-kind visuals, but it can also create a lot of duds until you get better at understanding how lights will bounce. Be prepared to delete many poor attempts — just don’t let that discourage you. Practice, practice, practice.
In fact, when learning this style, I practiced with my 14-year-old son while he played video games. Lights were on, and while the speed light was flashing, he was none the wiser that he was my guinea pig for my first-ever low-key shot:
Low-key photography is a genre of photography that involves shooting dark-colored scenes by lowering or dimming the “key” or front light illuminating the subject. This style of photography is known for creating a dramatic contrast and mood. Here are some tips and tricks for beginners:
- Keep your ISO levels low to avoid noise.
- Open the aperture.
- Use hard light for texture.
A low-key image is one that contains predominantly dark tones and colors. Like high-key images, low-key photography conveys atmosphere and mood. On the other hand, low-key photography uses only a key light, which is optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector. This means that shadows are a significant component of the image.
If you’re a novice photographer looking to explore this style, underlit images that feature dramatic contrast and dark colors are a good starting point. Shooting by a window that only lets through minimal ambient light is recommended when lighting low-key with natural light.
Low-key portraiture replaces a light, airy feel with a more moody, dramatic look. The histogram of a low-key image will be bunched up on the left-hand side. This style of photography is very adept at accentuating the shape of a subject. When picking out your subject matter, think about the edges of your subject and its form.
Here are some related searches you might find interesting:
- Important things to know about photography – link
- Low Key food photography – link
- Niche in photography – link
- Famous high key photographers – link
- High key photography – link
- Low key portrait photographers – link
- Low key portrait photography settings – link
- Low key portraits – link
- Famous low key portrait photographers – link
- Low key landscape photography – link
- Low key color photography – link
I hope this information helps you understand low-key photography better. If you have any more questions or need further clarification, feel free to ask!