HOW TO SHOOT LOW KEY PHOTOGRAPHY: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
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 is simply low lighting. A low key photo is typically dark, moody and low lit. It’s often used in film noir style photos or in fashion shoots to convey a certain type of mood or tone.
Normally when people think about low light photography they think about using flash, but you can shoot low key without the use of flash. The problem with using strobes in low light conditions is that your subject will be washed out with the bright light coming from the flash causing them to appear white/washed out in your photo (this is called “blown out”) Additionally, it doesn’t give off any of the desired low key affect since all parts of your photo – not just part of it – are low lit .
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.
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?
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.
How low is low?
In low light, you can use a low f-stop to get more of your image in focus. For low key photography you typically want to shoot with low f-stops, somewhere around 2.0 or lower if possible so that you have an entire photo from foreground to background in focus.
An exception would be a situation where you’re photographing a person and the background behind them has a very specific design/feature that’s important for the story of your photo – in this case it might make sense to choose a higher f-stop to blur out the rest of the scene. This will separate your subject from their surroundings and add some drama.
Shooting Low Key Photos
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.
Low Key Photography Settings
As far as camera settings go, here’s what you’ll want to do:
When it comes to low-key photo settings, keep your ISO low and the aperture wide open. Start by adjusting your ISO on your camera to 100 or as low as possible. Because high ISO results in a picture that is dark and noiseless, this is very essential. You may now adjust the shutter speed and aperture to produce the desired result based on the light you’ve chosen.
For most cases though, you’ll want to set your ISO starting at 100, and have your F/Stop starting at the smallest number.
Low F/stop and fast shutter speed
To adjust the aperture, start with the smallest f-number, such as f/1.4 or f/1.8. You’ll be able to capture the most light this way and proceed from there. If you keep to the widest aperture, you may use a relatively quick shutter speed; however, depending on the light source you’re dealing with, you will undoubtedly have to modify your 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.
You can also use an auto-exposure mode and negative exposure compensation to take low-key photographs. If you pick an auto-exposure mode with exposure compensation, be sure to switch the camera’s metering mode to spot metering. Spot metering simply calculates the exposure in a small region, leaving out the dark background while calculating the exposure, which is exactly what you want.
Low Key Lighting Example:
Here are my settings for the photo below:
- F-Stop: f/4.5
- Exposure Time: 1/160 seconds
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.
Low Key Photography Camera Equipment
Below we’ll walk through some of the equipment you’ll need to shoot low key photography.
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
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.
Recommended Camera Lenses
Here are a few commonly used prime lenses that are perfect for low key photography:
- Canon 50mm f/1.8
- Canon 85mm f/1.8
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4
- Tamron 45mm f/1.8
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8
- Sony 35mm f/1.4
- Sony 55mm f/1.8
It’s also useful to know that using a full-frame camera will result in less noise when capturing photos in low light. This means you’ll be able to increase the ISO without risking image quality by capturing more light. Check out our camera lens comparison tool to find the right lens for your needs.
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.
Ideal Lighting 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.
The use of low-key lighting is perfect for portraiture. It may provide depth and intrigue to the subject and composition. Dark shadows and a large degree of contrast might easily alter the entire atmosphere, making it more appealing.
The light’s strength and direction are both user-defined. The only guideline you should follow when shooting low key is to avoid letting light reach your backdrop. In addition, most photographers strive to prevent casting dark shadows on their subjects’ faces. Low key portraiture is dramatic, but it should be flattering for your subject.
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.
Maintaining A Dark Background
The background should be dark enough no matter what lighting design you try out. If your backdrop looks too bright and distracting, move the model and the light source equally away from the wall. When you do that, the light on the figure will stay constant, but the background will become darker — which is precisely what you want!
Moving the light to the side is another approach to make the background darker. In this case, the background will darken even more, and your portrait will appear more dramatic, which is ideal if you want to create something really striking.
In a studio, you may control the light even more by utilizing this helpful light modifier. Because the grid only allows light to pass into whatever is in front of it, the light will not spread onto the backdrop. Even if you don’t have a studio, you can still create amazing low-key photographs. Two separate rooms are a popular approach to achieve this goal. Close off all lighting in one room so that when the door is shut, you’ll see nothing. Use the adjacent space as your source of illumination.
Different Types Of Low Key Photos
Below we’ll walk through the different types of photos you can shoot in low key lighting situations:
Capturing Low Key Photos Outdoors
The flexibility of low-key photography is what makes it so appealing. You may make low-key pictures at any time of day, which means you can produce them in the middle of the day or on a gloomy, overcast day if you’re indoors. Dusk isn’t required! On an overcast day with an industrial, urban environment as a backdrop, for example, capturing something dark and foreboding is simple.
Low key landscaping isn’t as popular as low key portraiture, but you should give it a shot especially if you enjoy offbeat landscape photography. Make sure to capture clouds; they reduce the brightness of the sky, but they also create complex light patterns on the ground. In order to shoot low key landscapes without a tripod, you’ll need a fast shutter speed and a wide aperture (a bigger depth of field!).
Low-key shots of nature are also possible, and you may use this technique to capture animals in low light. Such photos are quite unusual, but they can appear very beautiful and painterly, like if they were taken on a studio set. A low-key method for photographing wildlife and bird photography provides a unique viewpoint that is ideal for creatures with barely colored fur or feathers. Reflections may be used to enhance such photographs even further – for instance, swan ponds might be shot in low light.
Macro Low Key Photography
Macro photography is another kind of photography that may be stunning in low light. With a simple setup consisting of a camera mounted on a tripod with a single flashgun, you can create lovely close-ups that appear to be studio shots. Small enough to be illuminated by a single flash are typical subjects for low-key close-up photography, which is fantastic since you don’t have to use an elaborate arrangement!
If you want to make a photo look more natural, you should underexpose it (remove all natural light!) and then use your flash to light up your subject. Switching your camera to manual mode and selecting the lowest ISO and narrow aperture is the best approach to do this (such as f/18 or f/22). When it comes to shutter speed, slow down for flash synchronization using the regular rate (1/180 – 1/250 sec).
Low Key Product Photos
You’ve certainly seen many stunning product images with a perfectly black background and a well-lit product itself. In product photography, low key lighting is very popular since it gives the impression of luxury – it looks amazing with jewelry, watches, and other gadgets like cell phones and tablets.
A low-key top lighting and a dimly lit perimeter around it are excellent alternatives for creating a strong appearance—a bright core of the picture with a dimly illuminated space all around! You’ll need two lights to get this kind of effect.
Low Key Photo Post-Processing
When it comes to editing your shots, here are few 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.
If you’re using flash or indoor lighting, the white balance might be off, which requires a bit of tweaking during post-processing.
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.
Depending on the tones in your photo, you can play with warm and tone colors, or even opt for a black and white composition.
Experiment with vignettes by using low-key photos, particularly photographs. In Lightroom, you may use the Radial Filter to create vignettes – it works better than the Vignette Tool since this filter allows you to easily control where your vignette should be positioned.
Fix Wrinkles Or Pleats In Your Backdrop
If you’re working in a studio, you’ll probably want a wrinkle-free black backdrop. To get such a uniform background, adjust the Shadows and Blacks sliders until you achieve a wrinkle-free black background. Keep in mind that these two are global adjustments; they will also impact the subject – perhaps the Adjustment Brush is required to bring back some details.
Shooting low key, while a bit more challenging than regular photography, is a lot of fun once you have the hang of it.
Give low key photography a try and let us know which low-key photos are your favorites!