Would you love to add drama and mystery to your portrait photography? Low key lighting could bring a whole new depth to your images.
Let’s shed some light on this technique and investigate the different ways you could add atmosphere to your portrait photography.
Understanding Portrait Lighting
If you are new to portrait photography, the lighting terminology can be overwhelming.
Broad light, short light, high key light, low key light, and split light, are just a few of the terms you will encounter.
To make things easy, let’s think about light as something that works across several different levels in your images:
- Ambient light;
- Model light;
- Broad light; and
- Short light.
Ambient light or background light determines the overall brightness of the scene and stages the mood of the image. A dark image creates a sense of mystery, while a bright image works better for playful images.
Model light is used to model/preview the effect of the flash on your model. Using a model light makes it possible for you to evaluate your shadows and highlights before taking the shot with flash.
Broad light is the way you balance light and shadow in the image. The best way to do this is to light your model sideways. Then if you photograph from the side of the main light, most of your model’s face will be in the light–thus giving more importance to the highlights.
The broad light setup is illustrated in the image on the right side below.
In Short light, you photograph from the opposite side of the main light (illustrated on the left above).
When using short light, most of your model’s face is in shadow. This style is more moody, as it favors shadows over highlights.
What Is Low Key Lighting?
Low Key lighting enhances shadows in your scene. In a low key image, the majority of the tones and colors are dark.
A more practical reason to use low key lighting would be to hide the environment you are shooting in. The subject’s surroundings will get lost in low ambient light, so you can easily get rid of distractions or anything that would spoil the feeling of the shot.
The strength of low key lighting is in the shadows. As most of the image is dark, the viewer is forced to use their imagination to interpret the scene.
For this reason, the low key light is the perfect style for nudes and bodyscapes.
How to Create Low Key Lighting?
To shoot low key images you need to suppress, or greatly reduce, the ambient light in a scene.
As most of the image is dark in a low-key setup, you do not need many lights: you could even start with a single Speedlight.
If you want to create an image with high contrast or deep shadows, don’t light the background. If you have space and the background is large enough, you can do this by increasing its distance from the model.
When working in tight spaces, use flags and softboxes to help you control/diffuse your light. Flags are black elements (backdrops, cardboard, clothes, etc) that better control the light by stopping it from bouncing around.
If you are going for a more subtle low key image, use a dark backdrop and light it with a low power light source. This will make the backdrop slightly visible and provide a nice background/contrast to the model.
Camera Settings for Low Key Lighting
When it comes to camera settings, low key lighting is not that different from any other type of lighting set-up:
- If you shoot with studio lights or speedlights, begin by setting the ISO value and aperture on your camera.
- Then manually set the shutter speed depending on the power of your light. This way, you expose your image for the studio lights only, thus suppressing all ambient light.
Here are the other camera settings I use for my low key lighting:
- Shootin in RAW image format;
- Set ISO to lowest;
- Set the aperture to f5.6 or f8 to ensure a good depth of field;
- Change white balance to flash (not so important if you shoot in RAW);
- Have face and eye detection on to help autofocus lock onto the model’s face.
Related Article: Ultimate Guide to Flash Photography
The result is that I can usually shoot at 1/125th of a second. Remember not to go below 1/60th of a second or motion blur will creep into your images.
How to use natural light in low key photography?
If you want to use natural light, the best way to start is to place your model next to a large window. Make sure to pick a window that is not under direct sunlight, so the light is softer.
Steps for natural light low key photography:
- Keep your shutter speed as fast as possible to avoid blur and to darken the scene–suppressing as much as ambient light as you can.
- Use the spot metering mode to correctly expose the model
- Modify the ISO and aperture to further reduce the exposure.
The best way to learn low key photography for beginners is to try it indoors. Shooting outdoors with ambient light is far more challenging.
Different Lighting Setups for Low Key Portraits
You can apply low key lighting to almost every kind of lighting set-up for your model. And you can create most of them using a single light.
The position of the light is always relative to the model’s nose. This defines the lighting scheme you are using. On the other hand, the camera position will determine whether you are using short or broad lighting.
How to read this image: camera and flash position is identified in the upper left corner of each sample image to the left side. Use that to identify the lighting setup.
As you can see from the sample images shown to the right of the image above, a single Speedlight with no modifiers gives a hard light. You can add light modifiers to soften it, or use multiple lights to reduce the contrast in the scene.
Let’s look at a few simple examples more in detail.
1. Use Rim Light for Silhouette Lines
A powerful and simple lighting set-up for low key images is rim light.
To create rim light, the light is hidden behind the model. By lighting the model from behind, a thin, bright, line will outline the contour of his/her figure.
Be careful not to have light spilling over the edges of the model: if you see you don’t have a line of light, reduce the light power.
2. Split Light vs Hero Light Set-Ups
You light the model from the side with one light to create split light–so that only half of the face is visible.
Hero light, on the other hand, uses two lights–lighting the model from both sides. This light set-up creates a shadow in the middle of the face of the model.
When the model is in line, or slightly behind the lights, the shadow gets narrower.
To create an alternate version, move the model in front of the lights so that the shadow grows and you can create ‘faceless’ portraits.
3. Butterfly Light
Butterfly light is one of the most iconic lighting set-ups. To do this, place the main light in front and above the model.
Butterfly lighting evenly lights the model’s face, making it suitable for both female and male subjects. Using this lighting, a short shadow appears under the nose, resembling a butterfly, hence the name.
Finally, if you want to be a bit more creative, you can light the model from above–with the aid of an umbrella to modify the light.
In the image above, I also used a second light pointed at the guy’s back, to help separate him from the background.
Get Creative with Low Key Lighting
Learn to Love Low Key Lighting
Low key lighting is a versatile technique to master and creates compelling images.
So if you want to add more mood or drama to your shots, give these techniques a go: they are guaranteed to add atmosphere to your images.
Now that you’ve learned these tips for stunning photos, you’re a better photographer.
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