Moody portrait using low key lighting

How To Use Low Key Lighting To Get Beautiful Portraits

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.

A low key lighting portrait of a man's face
You too could create stunning low key lighting portraits like this one, for which I was inspired by the movie poster for Game Of Thrones season 7. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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:

  1. Ambient light;
  2. Model light;
  3. Broad light; and
  4. 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.

A moody portrait of a singer shot using low key lighting
I recreated the feeling of a concert in my living room. As you can see, low key lighting is perfect to hide the background. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

Model light allows you to evaluate your shadows and highlights before the actual flash burst. Photo credit Alexander Krivitskiy

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.

An example of broad light used in a studio portrait. Photo credit: Jorge Fernández

The broad light setup is illustrated in the image on the right side below.

A diagram of how short lighting and broad lighting in photography differ
This illustration shows how the set-up of short lighting and broad lighting differ. Diagram by Andrea Minoia

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.

A man's face shot using the short light technique
I used a split light set-up with a single Speedlight and no light modifiers. By photographing the model from his dark side (short light), the image became more powerful and interesting. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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 low key portrait of a man looking up.
A low key image is where most of the colors and tones are dark. Image by Mihai Paraschiv

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.

A low key lighting portrait of a man in a red shirt
I chose a dark red shirt to fit the style of the low key self-portrait I was after in this shot. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A black and white low key lighting bodyscape shot
A low Key bodyscape with a single Speedlight in a softbox. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

How to Create Low Key Lighting?

To shoot low key images you need to suppress, or greatly reduce, the ambient light in a scene.

A low key lighting portrait showing a man lighting a cigarette
I used low key lighting here to reproduce a film noir mood. You can barely see the white wall behind the model. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A low key lighting shot of a man's face with a black background
I used a single Speedlight and no modifiers in this low key lighting set-up. By removing background distractions, the model’s face became the focal point. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A low key lighting portrait of a man dressed as a French soldier from the Napoleonic era
The subtle low key light and desaturation in this image help the model’s pose and expression to convey a grave feeling. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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:

  1. Shootin in RAW image format;
  2. Set ISO to lowest;
  3. Set the aperture to f5.6 or f8 to ensure a good depth of field;
  4. Change white balance to flash (not so important if you shoot in RAW);
  5. 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?

A low key portrait of a man looking out of a window
A low key portrait using ambient light. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A model facing a window for a low key lighting portrait
A natural light low-key image using a window. Photo credit Vin Stratton

Steps for natural light low key photography:

  1. 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.
  2. Use the spot metering mode to correctly expose the model
  3. 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.

A low key lighting taken in outdoors usings natural light
Shooting low key lighting outdoors can be challenging due to ample ambient lighting availability. Photo credit Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay 

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.

A diagram demonstrating the most common portraiture photography lighting set-ups
A diagram showing the most common lighting set-ups used in portraiture photography. The inner-circle shows the position of the light, while the outer one shows the camera position. Illustration and diagram by Andrea Minoia

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.

A rim light portrait showing only the outline of the model's body
A rim light self-portrait: note only the edge of my body is highlighted. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A black and white image of a man's face shot using split light
A self-portrait I shot using split lighting. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A black and white image of a man's face using hero lighting
Use 3 lights to create the hero lighting set-up. Photo by Andrea Minoia.
A diagram showing a typical photography studio set-up for hero lighting
This is a typical photography studio set-up for hero light. Diagram by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A black and white image of 'faceless' man totally in shadow, shot using hero light
To create ‘faceless’ portraits, use hero light and place your model in front of the lights. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

A black and white image of a man's face shot using butterfly lighting
A self-portrait shot using butterfly light from a single speed light housed in a softbox. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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.

An image of a man stood underneath an umbrella, shot with
Be creative, use light modifiers when shooting with butterfly light. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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

A low key lighting image of a garlic still life image.
A still life photograph using the low key method. Image by Alison Innes

Low key light is not used exclusively in portraiture. Food photography or still life photography lends itself well to low key lighting.

A low key lighting image split into four: still life boots, an old camera, an apple and blueberries
Still life and food photography lend themselves well to low key lighting. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

You can also take advantage of the low key style in night photography and architectural photography.

A low key black and white image of a lighthouse at night
Architectural night photography is a great way to apply low key lighting outside the studio. Photo by Andrea Minoia.

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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