48 : Low Key


Low Key Lighting

This week we are practicing another classic lighting style called Low Key. This style, which is associated with film noir, is characterized by three things:

  1. A single, direct light source

  2. A high ratio between dark and light (the brightest parts of the picture are very bright and the darkest parts are very dark)

  3. The predominance of shadow (most of the picture is dark)

Low Key lighting is often used for portraits in which a single main light illuminates the side of the face, or when the face is turned away from the camera. To make an image that conveys a moody, dramatic atmosphere, concentrate on the shadows. Rather than avoiding intense shadows, use the shadows to tell your story. Choosing a calm, introspective moment will match the tone of the image.

It is not necessary to have expensive studio lights to create a Low Key image. You can easily use a flashlight, a single light bulb from a lamp, or a sliver of sunlight coming in between two curtains. The most important thing about your light is that it is carefully aimed at the part of your picture that you want to showcase.

In the picture above, the ballet shoes are the brightest because they are the main idea of the image, with the girl's face looking down on the shoes getting the second-most amount of light.



Expose for the highlights. Normally, photographers must raise their exposures to maintain detail in the shadows. Instead, aim for an exposure that maintains detail in the bright areas without blowing out the whites. You may need to turn your exposure down and sacrifice detail in the shadows.

Creative Prompts

Your subject can be lit from the side or slightly from the back, allowing light to wrap around to the front of your subject. Look for moments that naturally match the lighting:

  • a baby in a crib early in the morning

  • a child reading next to a lamp

  • kids playing a board game near a window on a sunny afternoon

Finally, Use Photoshop or another photo-editing program to increase the contrast and lower the exposure to accentuate the drama!

Share your images!

As always, we look forward to seeing your images in the Facebook group! If you have never posted a picture, it's fine to start any time. The Facebook group is a positive, no-judgement zone. We also hope that reach out for advice or help if you need it!