Tips for Using Low key Lighting For Portraits Inside and Out

low key lighting

There seems to be a lot of confusion and different interpretations of what exactly low key lighting is;  you will find various interpretations floating around online.

Simply put,  low-key lighting is the use of one key light to create an image with a high contrast lighting ratio. The important aspect is the difference in lighting between your subject and other aspects of the scene.

What low-key photography is not, is an underexposed image; it’s about creating mood with bold shadows and injecting drama into your image – the very opposite of a flat, underexposed image – low key is all about contrast so you need good exposure within your image.


Low key Lighting Without Equipment

The great thing about low-key photography is that it’s completely achievable with the bare minimum of kit. For that classic low-key studio look, one light source and a dark background is all you need, in fact, as long as you have some space you don’t even need a dark background.

The trick is to position your subject far away from any walls where light could bounce back from, set your camera to pick up no ambient light whatsoever with a low ISO, small aperture and fast shutter speed – effectively taking a black picture.

Now introduce your light source – preferably an off camera flash with some form of modifier on it and get it in close to your subject. With this technique you can shoot pretty much anywhere giving yourself that black background look.

How you position the light source will of course make a huge difference to your final image, it’s definitely something to play around with as the results can be fantastic – or if you want to soften the contrast slightly you can always bring in a reflector to smooth out some of the shadows.
If you have no lighting kit then low-key portraits are still completely possible – you just need to get an area where you have some control over the light.

I have a favourite go to place where I know I can achieve low-key lighting with natural light. In my garage, I have a small window where light shines through and I can place a subject just inside the beam of light, I expose for my subject and the background is then black.

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The other option for low-key shots is with environmental lighting. Light spilling into a dark room or when a light overhead catches your subject just right – these can make for some stunning and dramatic shots that require no kit – just a careful eye, control over your camera settings and a bit of luck



The main thing is to get out and experiment, place your subjects in shafts of light, move your off camera flash around and see what you get – only through experimenting will you find your own unique style.

Alex Lagarejos

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