Low Key Lighting Photography Tips

Low key lighting creates stunning contrasts in your images, as well as mood and mystery. It gives depth, feeling and emotion — and is an invigorating challenge for both novice photographers and professional photographers alike.

Though the technique itself is simple, mastering the art of low key lighting can take some time.

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

1. What You Need

  • Camera and a tripod 
  • Light source (it can be either natural or artificial)
  • Dark environment or a dark grey / black background 

2. Try Black and White

When it comes to low key lighting photography, black and white images are a popular choice. Why? They bring light to the shadows — one of the most important aspects of composition in these types of images.

3. Play with the Light

The choice of light is up to you as the photographer and artist. You have the power to choose the direction and the strength. But the low key lighting tip? Keep your subject close and avoid lighting the background. Manipulate your lighting until your shadows fall where you want them.

Additional Tip: If your background does shine through, that’s okay. You can edit it in post-processing with a program like Luminar

4. Try Side Lighting 

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 lighting shot. If one side of your subject remains dark, this referred to as split lighting.

Additional Tip: Remember, you don’t need to use artificial lighting to achieve beautiful low key images. Try experimenting with light that streams through an open window, using curtains as your way to control the light.

5. Or Rembrandt Lighting 

Named after a Dutch painter, Rembrandt lighting happens when a triangle of light falls onto the dark side of the subject — creating unique shapes and moods. 

6. Keep a Constant 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.

7. Go for a Low F Number & High Shutter Speed 

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

8. Start with an Object

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 lighting and portrait shots.

9. Remember Textures 

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. 

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

10. So, Let’s Recap the Basics 

Set your camera to manual mode. Set your ISO as low as it will go and your shutter speed as fast as you’d like it. Once you set up the shot, set your aperture to a low number. After you take a practice shot, narrow the aperture down until there is no light in your frame. Then, experiment depending upon your particular scene. Play with the direction and intensity of your lighting. Move your subject around. 

The beauty of low key images is that they will capture the essence of 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.

From all of us at Skylum, have fun!

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