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How to Use Low Key Lighting for Dramatic Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

What Is Low Key Photography? Low key lighting photography is where you take a photo of a subject with everything (or almost everything) except the subject in black.
It’s not that hard to do. If you have a bright situation, it’s all about having the right settings on your camera. This is a cool technique. You can focus the viewer’s attention on a certain part of the photo, usually the subject.
Here’s how low key lighting is done.
A close up male portrait shot with low key lighting

Low Key Lighting Setup

The most important element to low key photography is the low key lighting setup. This is the exact opposite of high key lighting.
First of all, you need the ambient light as low as possible to make it easier for yourself. This isn’t essential though. Most of the work is done by the camera.
Here’s a photo of a model taken with my camera set to program mode. This is to give you an idea of what the camera considers the correct exposure for this situation.
It’s done a good job. But it overexposed parts of the face in an attempt to compensate for the background light.
This photo was shot at 1/60 of a second, at f/4 and ISO 250 with the flash turned up one third.
Shooting with low-key images in mind means emphasising dark tones and a high contrast. It is a lighting situation that often uses a single light source to keep dark areas in the image.

A male model posing for a photo, with low key lighting setup

Here’s the same photo again. This time I’ve put the camera into manual so that I can change to settings that I know will work.
In this photo, I am using an off-camera flash. This is not necessary to achieve low key photography, but I prefer how it looks.
Secondly, and this is very important, I have the flash set to high-speed sync so that I can shoot at speeds higher than 1/250 of a second.
I won’t go into detail about what this does right now but a quick look in the manual should explain how to do this.
You must have an external flash unit. I kept the ISO and flash compensation constant for this low key portrait.
To cut out the ambient light, I turned up my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second and narrowed my aperture to f/8. This allows 1/64 less light in than before.
Atmospheric low key portrait of a male model
I was still able to see the light from my flash because it was very bright and direct. The is a fundamental feature of what is low key lighting photography.
The dish hides the light in my photo but, in photos like the one below, I made sure that the flash was just out of frame. This boost in flash exposure allows the subject to be seen while I remove all the ambient light from the photo.
A good way to test if you’ve removed all the light is to keep taking photos without the flash until no light appears in the frame, then add the flash in. You can do this easily with a light meter.
Atmospheric low key portrait of a female model

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

If you want to make sure that the photo remains low key throughout, keep your subject away from any background which may interfere with the shots.
You’ll notice in my first low key portrait that the model is standing away from any walls. This is so that no excess light from the flash would be picked up by the camera.
Adding some (limited) background detail can look quite cool if you’re experimenting. But keep in mind it’s not technically low key photography. With high key images, the dark areas are instead, light.
With high-key images, this comes from having more than one light source, or including fill light. This lighting effect is the opposite of the one you would use for low-key images.
Black and white low key photography portrait
I like to use low key photography now and then. And when I do, I tend to experiment with other light. You can see this demonstrated in the photo above.
The beauty of it is that you can do it anywhere, in a hallway for example, which is where I shot some of my photos.
I used a similar technique to what I described previously for the photo below. But then I decided it would be a good idea to include the faint lights on the pier behind. This made the photo much more interesting.
Again, not technically low key lighting but that’s not important. Once you’ve grasped the technique, you can apply it to a lot of different situations.
Atmospheric low key portrait of a female model at night

Gig Photography

Gig photography is a prime example where you’ll come across a lot of low key photography, not only because you’re using a flash but because the lighting designer has decided it looked best with very little light.
Here’s a photo I shot a few months ago. I’ve left it in colour so you can see exactly the sort of light I was working with.
At a glance it looks black and white because they’re only using a white light on black and white clothing.
The beauty of shooting gigs is that you’re always working with controlled lighting – one less thing to worry about.
A low key photography shot of a concert
Lastly, here’s a photo submission from one of my readers, Alexander Perez, who shot this photo at a gig with a very simple camera by the looks of things.
It just goes to show that you don’t need expensive gear and external flash units to take a photo like this.
A low keylighting shot of a musician onstage
Before you go, check out this cool video on taking low key portraits.

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13 comments
    1. Sorry, It can not, you need to be able to set your flash to high speed sync. It has to be done on an external flash unit, my point was that this flash unit doesn’t have to be off the camera to make it work.

  1. hi…i’m beginning to love this low key photography….but i’m a bit confused,how can you make this 1/1000 of a shutter speed when the camera said that i only have the maximum of 1/320 speed sync?have you used flash triggers or something?very thanks in advance….

  2. Do you have a manual that can be purchased? Or is there class information. Also, what type and size is the light? Is it a snoot somehow, or softer light somehow. Is the light modified or softened somehow? And are you using only one light for most photos?

  3. hi…i’m beginning to love this low key photography….but i’m a bit confused,how can you make this 1/1000 of a shutter speed when the camera said that i only have the maximum of 1/320 speed sync?have you used flash triggers or something?very thanks in advance….

  4. Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group? Theres lots of people that I believe would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks fdbbecedeefk

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