Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Low-key Photography

Low-key lighting is my favorite look for portraits. It is a style of lighting in photography that uses dark tones and shadows to create a dramatic looking image. It is similar to high-key lighting in that it produces atmospheric moody images. But they have important differences.

Comparison Between High-key and Low-key Lighting

High-Key Lighting

Low-Key Lighting

Light and airy

Dramatic and mysterious

Over lighting reduces contrast

Reduced light intensifies contrast

Lighting ratio as low as 1:1

Lighting ratio of about 8:1

The most common lighting setup is three point lighting—a key light, a back light, and a fill light—for even illumination without harsh shadows.  But low-key lighting usually only uses a single key light, creating deep shadows that define the mood of the photograph which are an essential element of the composition. Manipulating the position of the lighting and lighting selectively are essential to ensure that only specific parts of your subject are lit and the shadows fall where you want.

Lighting Setup for Low-key

Even illumination is not the goal with low-key lighting—You want a lightly colored subject to stand out in front of a dark background.

You will need a large black backdrop. You can light it any way you like, as long as you avoid light spilling onto the backdrop and showing texture, wrinkles, etc. If the light is spilling onto the background, change the direction of the light or move your subject further away from the background.

When shooting on black, I like to add a hairlight, too. The hairlight or backlight is usually a snooted flash behind the subject on the opposite side of the key light and aimed at the back of the subject's head. This halo effect separates your subject from the background.
Example of light falling on the background and distracting the eye. See how it shows the texture of the backdrop?

Positioning and Styling


Position your subject away from the backdrop and use a single flash on one side. A good place to start is setting up your key light slightly above your subject's head at a 45 degree angle. This should give you a dramatic-looking image as the lighting is concentrated towards one side of the image.

The goal of low-key lighting is to emphasize your subject's face or a body part, so the clothing is not important and can often be distracting. Dark clothing works best. 

Camera Settings

For low-key shots, when the exposure is correct for the subject, the background should still be black. Camera settings will vary.

I suggest:

·         Set your ISO to 100, as noise will be apparent on the black surface.

·         Set your shutter speed at the maximum sync speed allowed by your camera, as this will make it easier to keep the background dark.

  • Start with a wide open aperture wide open and bring it up until there is no ambient light in the frame.

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