Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips

March 14

13 min. to read

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Low key lighting creates mood, mystery and incredible images. Here are some simple tricks to help you experiment with this neat technique.

With low key lighting, you can create incredibly sensual images, full of mysterious atmosphere and drama. In this article, we go over the basics of low key photography to help you experiment with this neat technique.

Low key lighting creates stunning contrasts in your images, along with mood and mystery. It gives depth, feeling, and emotion — and is an invigorating challenge for novice and professional photographers alike. Though the technique itself is simple, mastering the art of low key photography can take some time.

That’s why the Skylum team has put together this list of tips to help you get the most out of your session.

Low key lighting gear

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image1

Low key lighting doesn’t require any special gear. In fact, you’ll only need the following:

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Light source (either natural or artificial)
  • Black or dark grey background
  • Good editing software

Once you’ve learned the basics of low key lighting, you might also invest in a large soft lighting source like a softbox. Another great addition is a fast lens that reduces problems with camera noise.

After you’ve taken your low key photos, you always need to retouch them in great editing software. Luminar can help you do the job quickly and easily: retouch the skin of your models and add depth and sharpness to your photos.

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Low key lighting meaning

What is low key lighting? Traditional photography lighting is called three-point lighting: it uses a key light, a fill light, and a backlight to illuminate the subject. Low key photography, on the other hand, uses only a key light, which is optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector. This means that shadows remain in the dark and only the subject is highlighted. The thing about low key lighting is that it tends to heighten the sense of alienation and suspense, and hence is commonly used in the film noir and horror genres.

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image2

The lighting is up to you as the photographer and artist. You have the power to choose its direction and strength. The main tip is to keep your subject close and avoid lighting the background. Manipulate your lighting until your shadows fall where you want them.

High key and low key differences

To sum up the basic difference, low key photos are dark, having little light. On the other hand, high key shots are bright, having lots of light.

High key lighting is bright and leaves almost no blacks and mid-tones. High key images are optimistic, youthful, simple, and upbeat, which means they’re perfect for wedding, newborn, and fashion photography where you want to convey happy feelings.

Deep blacks, darker tones, and shadows define low key photographs. They have almost no whites and mid-tones. The light is reduced, making these images dramatic and mysterious, with lots of shadows. Low key photography is perfect for portraits, commercial shoots, and any shots that are meant to evoke sensuality and mystery.

Choose black and white

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When you think about a low key portrait, the first thought that springs to mind is likely a dramatic black and white portrait. Black and white is a popular choice, as black and white images bring light to the shadows — one of the most important aspects of composition for low key images. Low key lighting eliminates all distractions from the background to highlight the subject. To achieve this, you can set up a black background using a cloth or cover all the windows in the room to reduce unwanted light sources.

Experiment with lighting

Light can make or break your photograph. A light directly in front of your subject’s face is not low key. You can try to experiment with side lighting, Rembrandt lighting, or any other type of lighting to add depth and drama to your photos.

Side lighting

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High contrast in your image will be easier to achieve if you side light your subject, keeping one side dark and contributing to the characteristic drama of a low key portrait. If one side of your subject remains dark, this is referred to as split lighting. There’s no correct side to shoot from; it’s down to you as the photographer to choose which side of your subject works more effectively.

Tip: Remember that you don’t need to use artificial lighting to achieve beautiful low key images. Try experimenting with light streaming through an open window, using curtains to control its intensity.

Rembrandt lighting

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Named after the Dutch painter who used this type of lighting in his portraits, Rembrandt lighting is achieved when a triangle of light falls onto the dark side of the subject, creating unique shapes and moods. There are certain composition rules to follow when you want to achieve Rembrandt lighting, but of course you’re welcome to experiment.

Camera settings

There are certain camera settings that will let you achieve the best low key portraits.

Low ISO

Set your ISO to 100 or as low as it will go on your camera. This will keep your image dark and free from noise. Then adjust your shutter speed and aperture from there.

Low f-number and fast shutter speed

If you start with a low f-number, you’ll take in the most light and be able to adjust from there. A fast shutter speed is generally recommended, though you may need to adjust depending on the light source you’re experimenting with.

Start with an object

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Low key lighting shouldn’t be limited to portraits. You can also highlight an object in your shots. This technique works well for elegant commercials where the subject is the most important part of the image. You can practice with a stationary object first, like a vegetable or a potted plant. This will help you become more comfortable before you dive into the world of low key portrait shots.

Remember textures

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Low key lighting offers an incredible way to experiment with textures and lines. Think of the wrinkles near the eyes or in the forehead, the dip in someone’s chin, the way the hair falls over the subject’s face. It’s also a creative way to celebrate the curves and shape of the human body. You can use low key lighting to emphasize the wrinkles of aged skin, add drama to a shot of an old man, or draw attention to detail within roughly textured fabrics.

Tip: Clothing with patterns can draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject’s face. Opt for dark and plain clothing.

Editing in Photoshop

Photoshop is one of the most famous tools for photo editing, and you can achieve a lot by using it in post-production. For example, if you’re not satisfied with the background in your low key shot and some unnecessary light shines through the darkness, you can easily adjust this by using the brush tool and darkening the levels. Photoshop gives you a lot of options to edit the contrast and shadows to add even more drama to your shots.

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image8Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev

By increasing the contrast, your subject will pop. Using Photoshop, you can even transform a common portrait into a low key portrait just by following simple instructions.

Editing in Luminar

Luminar can be a great helper for your low key photography, adding drama, depth, and contrast to your photos. Let’s see how you can improve your photos in Luminar:

  • Use the portrait Workspace to enhance your model’s look and the overall image with the Develop, Soft Glow, Image Radiance, Grain, and Dodge & Burn sliders.
  • Use Looks to create beautiful black and white photos with a single click.
  • Use the crop and stamp tools to eliminate any imperfections on the model’s face, such as pimples or black dots.
  • Sync your edits across all the photos in your photo shoot using a simple copy/paste action to save time.

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image9Photo by Evgeny Tcherotarev

Luminar has a lot of features to enhance your low key lighting photography. It’s easy to master and can help you store, organize, and edit your photos quickly and easily.

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image10
Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image11


Photo by Evgeny Tchevotarev

Low key photography recap

So, what does low key mean? Here’s a quick recap for you to brush up on the basics of low key photography.

Illuminating Low Key Lighting Photography Tips Image12Set your camera to manual mode. Set your ISO as low as it will go and your shutter speed as fast as you’d like. Once you’ve set up the shot, adjust your aperture to a low f-number. After you take a practice shot, narrow the aperture down until there’s no light in your frame. Then experiment. Play with the direction and intensity of your lighting. Move your subject around.

The beauty of low key images is that they capture drama. The main idea is to control the light and darken the environment. Once you begin to experiment with this technique, you’ll realize the creative world is yours — and offers the opportunity for endless moody captures.

Not only that, you have a variety of choices in post-production, where you can eliminate the imperfections of your photographs and highlight the best parts with specially designed tools, creating your own low key look. You can try it in Luminar right now for free by clicking the button below.

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