Low key photography is often confused with low light photography, but they are two very different photography lighting concepts.
- Low key describes how light is used in a photo for drama and the dynamic range of a photo.
- Low light is purely about the amount of light available to take a photo.
You can use low key lighting for dramatic photos in all types of photography.
What is low key portrait photography?
The standout feature of low key photography is the dominance of dark colors and shadow, contrasting with the highlighted focal point.
So, a low key portrait has a lot of shadows.
Unlike the light and airy feel of high key photos, low key photos are moody and dramatic. Although low key photos are often converted to black and white to add to the contrast and darkness of the image, it’s just as possible to have color low key photos.
The dominance of darks in low key portraits is easy to spot when you look at the histogram as you’ll see that most of the information is bunched up on the left side of the histogram.
That’s not to say that there won’t be any peaks over on the right of the histogram (the highlights) or in the middle (the midtones), but it will be minimal.
How do you light low key photos?
Low key photography takes advantage of the fact that our eyes are drawn to the lightest part of an image. So, by making the subject, and specifically a part of the subject, the lightest part of the image, the viewer’s eyes will go straight to it.
Because of this, the most important feature of low key photography is the lighting. No surprises there – that’s what all of photography is about.
You can use flash or natural light, but I feel it’s easier with flash, because you can manipulate the light more easily than with natural light.
You need to think of your lighting differently with low key photography.
Think about light not as a way to illuminate your subject, but as a way to create shadows. It sounds obvious when you read it, but the first thing photographers want to do is light up our subjects so that we can see them and eliminate shadows.
Instead, with low key photography, you have to light your subjects to create shadows and hide part of them.
Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere
Lighting direction in low key photos
The direction of light for creating shadows is crucial in low key photos.
Whilst you can light your subject from the front, you’ll miss out on the one of the main features of low key photography, which is shadows. Positioning lighting so that shadows are cast across your subject is what makes this style of photography dramatic and engaging.
The best lighting portrait patterns to use for low key portrait photography are:
Concentrate on lighting only the part of the subject you want to draw attention to, rather than the whole subject.
Because using deep shadows when photographing the body as a landscape accentuates form, low key lighting is well suited to:
- Fine art nude photography
The contrast of shadow and light defines form and accentuates the body’s curves beautifully.
Further reading: How form in photography brings subjects to life
Low key colors
The next essential aspect of a low key image is a dark background. It doesn’t have to be black, although black backgrounds are the most common in low key images.
For low key portraits, your subject should also be dressed predominantly in dark clothing. Again, this is not essential, as you can see from the maternity image above.
How to take low key photos without flash
It’s perfectly possible to use natural light for low key photography, and the same principles apply as with flash photography:
- Subject – dark clothes
- Background – dark
- Lighting – minimal, from the back or side and on the part of the subject you want to highlight
- Expose for the highlights and let the shadow areas go dark (use spot metering)
- ISO – keep it low to avoid noise
Further reading: When to use spot metering?
Lit using natural light from a window to camera left.
Available light low key locations
Flash isn’t the only way to light a low key portrait. Use whatever light is available. Let’s look at low key photography:
- Indoors with natural light
- Outdoors with natural light
- At night with available light
1. Using natural light indoors for low key photos
Shooting indoors with natural light is perfect for low key photography!
Because light is allowed inside through openings in walls (ie doors and windows), you can control how much light comes in during the day. More importantly, by opening and closing doors and curtains, you can control the shape of the gap the light comes in:
- Allow just slivers of light in to light part of your subject
- Look for pools of light in your home and photograph on the edge of light, without including the light source in the image
In this respect you’re using windows and doorways in exactly the same way a studio photographer uses flash.
Stretch your imagination, embrace the shadows – the results can be stunning!
But you don’t have to be indoors.
2. Low key photos with natural light on location
When outdoors, using natural light only, you just have to plan where you photograph, so that the light is restricted and directional:
A thick forest with the occasional gap in the canopy is the first place that springs to mind
In an urban environment, narrow alleys and tunnels would be ideal
Photographing when the sun is low in the sky is ideal, so that you can use it to light your subject from behind or the side.
This location is ideal for low key photography with natural light, because it channels through the narrow gaps between the walls of these black sheds.
3. Low key photos at night
Another ideal way to create low key photos without using flash is to photograph in the evening, once street lights and shop lights have come on. Then use these lights to illuminate your subject.
Again, the possibilities are endless, especially for:
- Backlighting silhouettes with street lighting
- Using side lighting from either street lights, shop lights or neon signs
Further reading: How to use tonal contrast in photography
Quality of light for low key photography
When we talk about quality of light, we’re not referring to whether it’s good or bad, but whether it’s hard or soft light.
- Hard light creates hard shadows – like your shadow at midday on a sunny day
- Soft light creates soft shadows – like your shadow when the weather is overcast
It’s easier to create a low key image with hard light, because the transition from light to dark is sudden, so you can easily have more shadow than light in an image.
However, the slow transition of soft light from light to shadow creates soft, intriguing shadows that define form. Because I photograph women mainly, soft light is my favourite for low key portrait photography.
Further reading: Light quality and quantity of light – essential knowledge
Lit using one studio light to camera right, fitted with a large softbox to create soft light.
How do you create dark moody pictures?
We can’t talk about low key photography without getting into a discussion of the dark and moody style of photography. However, don’t think that all low key photos are dark and moody, although they are dramatic. The thing about dark and moody is the lack of highlights.
So, as the name suggests, with dark and moody photos, you have to think about keeping everything muted. This includes:
- Time of day
- Post processing
Location and clothing for dark and moody photos
You need to think about background and what your subject is wearing. You can’t do dark and moody in a light, bright, colorful setting with your subject wearing white or pastels. So, location and clothing is the first priority.
It helps to use a location where light is partially blocked.
Even photographing on the shadow side of a hill in the golden hour can work for dark and moody low key photos. Dark green vegetation or dark rocks in the background would add to the dark and moody vibe.
Further reading: Dark and moody photography style – how to light, shoot & edit it
Natural light tips for dark and moody photos
Next, you need to think about light. If you’re shooting with natural light, you need to think about time of day, especially if you’re out in the open. Golden hour is ideal for two reasons:
- The low angle of the light is great for backlight and side light, so you can work shadows into the image
- The deep colors of golden hour are ideal for low key photography
But for dark and moody photos with natural light, it’s best not to light your subject directly, to avoid highlights. So position them in the shade.
Further reading: Golden hour photography – when is it and why is it so amazing?
Lastly, how you process photos has a huge impact on achieving the dark and moody effect. So shoot in RAW to retain as much data as possible in the image, because you’ll want to adjust darks and lights in post processing and fade your blacks.
Further reading: Shooting RAW vs JPEG image quality pros and cons
How do you edit low key portraits?
The emphasis in processing low key portraits is on deepening shadows and increasing contrast. To do this you need to:
- Set the black and white points to extend the dynamic range of the image
- Adjust highlights and shadows
- Add contrast, preferably by using the tone curve
- Reduce saturation of some colors, if necessary
- Reduce luminance on some colors, if necessary
- Use noise reduction to remove noise created by using a low ISO, if necessary
Further reading: Master the Lightroom tone curve for much better photos
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