Low key photography lighting tips for dramatic photos

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.

Maternity photo with low key lighting

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. You’ll see that most of the information is bunched up on the left side of the your camera’s 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’ll be minimal.

Dramatic portrait lighting with flash

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.


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:

  • Boudoir
  • Maternity
  • Fine art nude photography

The contrast of shadow and light defines form and accentuates the body’s curves beautifully.

Maternity with dark shadows and highlights

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, use backlight for added drama or side lighting 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

Natural light low key image

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:

  1. Indoors with natural light
  2. Outdoors with natural light
  3. At night with available light

1. Using natural light indoors for low key photos

Photographing 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 how much light comes in:

  • Allow just slivers of light in to light part of your subject
  • Look for pools of direct sunlight in your home and photograph on the edge of light, without including the light source in the image

In this respect you’re using window light 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 to create low key photos.

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.

Low key photography with natural light

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 tonal contrast for 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

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 favorite type of light for low key portrait photography.

Low key lighting for fine art photography

I lit this newborn image with one studio light set up to camera right, fitted with a large softbox to create soft light with soft shadows

How do you create dark moody pictures?

We can’t talk about low key photography without discussing 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 photos is the lack of highlights.

So, as the name suggests, with dark and moody photos, you have to keep tonal contrast muted. This includes:

  • Location
  • Clothing
  • Lighting
  • Time of day
  • Post processing

Location and clothing for dark and moody photos

Background and what your subject is wearing makes a big difference with dark and moody. You can’t do dark and moody in a light, bright, colorful setting with your subject wearing 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 also adds to the dark and moody vibe.

Natural light tips for dark and moody photos

When considering low key lighting for dark and moody photos with natural light, time of day is important, especially if you’re out in the open. Golden hour lighting 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.

Lastly, how you process photos has a huge impact on achieving the dark and moody effect. So shoot in RAW and not JPEG 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.

How do you edit low key portraits?

The emphasis when editing low key portraits is on deepening shadows and increasing contrast. To do this you need to:

  1. Set the black and white points to extend the dynamic range of the image
  2. Adjust highlights and shadows
  3. Add contrast, preferably by using the tone curve tool
  4. Reduce saturation of some colors, if necessary
  5. Reduce luminance on some colors, if necessary
  6. Use noise reduction to remove noise created by using a low ISO and/or underexposing an image, if necessary

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If you have any questions about low key portrait lighting, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my low key photography tips have helped you to understand how to light low key portraits, share that too.

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