Low key (from the Eng­lish low key) is a shoot­ing tech­nique when the entire pho­to is tak­en in dark col­ors. The frame is immersed in shad­ows, with the excep­tion of cer­tain details on which the pho­tog­ra­ph­er specif­i­cal­ly empha­sized. For exam­ple, a com­plete­ly black back­ground and a por­trait, where only the eyes of the mod­el are vis­i­ble in a thin strip of light. Such pho­tographs are usu­al­ly tak­en against a black back­ground with objects of dark col­ors or with a mod­el dressed in dark clothes.

We tell you what and how to pho­to­graph in a low key, and also share sim­ple work­ing schemes of light.

A fea­ture of low key pho­tog­ra­phy is the use of nar­row­ly focused hard light, which gives a strong con­trast of light and shade, dark and deep shad­ows / Source: unsplash.com

Low key photography — what to shoot

  • Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy. Low key pho­tos with sharp tex­tured shad­ows, bright high­lights allow you to make spec­tac­u­lar and dynam­ic “glossy” shots. In addi­tion, the dot­ted back­light­ing, char­ac­ter­is­tic of low key, gives room for exper­i­men­ta­tion.
  • Prod­uct and food pho­tog­ra­phy.
Con­trast­ing and “juicy” pho­tos in a low key empha­size the tex­ture of the mate­r­i­al and allow you to focus on the object, which draws the view­er’s atten­tion to it / Source: unsplash.com
  • Sil­hou­ette. We can say that the sil­hou­ette is a clas­sic man­i­fes­ta­tion of the low key tech­nique. A thin strip of light that empha­sizes the shape is suit­able for prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy, and for a min­i­mal­ist still life, and for shoot­ing peo­ple.
  • Female and male por­traits. Low key in pho­tog­ra­phy allows you to get high-con­trast shots filled with ener­gy, as well as dra­mat­ic psy­cho­log­i­cal por­traits.

How to shoot in low key — 9 tips

Shoot­ing in low key seems eas­i­er than shoot­ing in high key. Indeed, under­light­ing the scene seems eas­i­er than strong­ly and at the same time gen­tly bright­en the frame. Also, the dark key is eas­i­er to “twist” in post-pro­cess­ing.

The biggest dif­fi­cul­ty of a low key is to arrange the light accents in such a way that they shine point­wise, but at the same time high­light the com­po­si­tion­al cen­ters. Below we share the secrets of how to make shoot­ing in low key eas­i­er for your­self.

– For pho­tog­ra­phy in a low key, choose dark, and prefer­ably black, back­grounds. In an apart­ment, such a back­ground can be a room with the lights off, in which you put the mod­el. In this case, the light should enter through an open door from anoth­er illu­mi­nat­ed room.

– Ask the mod­el or styl­ist to choose black or dark cloth­ing and acces­sories for the shoot. At the same time, do not for­get that it is not nec­es­sary to go into black and white in terms of col­ors — leave room for a bright col­or accent. For exam­ple, you can take a noir retro por­trait, where the mod­el will focus on bright lips.

– Give pref­er­ence to light-shap­ing attach­ments that give hard light — reflec­tors, tubes, beau­ty dish­es. With them, the shad­ows in the pho­to will turn out dark and deep, and the direc­tion­al light will illu­mi­nate only those parts of the com­po­si­tion that are need­ed.

High­light the shad­ow half of the mod­el’s face with a reflec­tor / Source: unsplash.com

– To nar­row the beam of light and direct it more accu­rate­ly, put a hon­ey­comb on the light shap­ing attach­ments. This is a grat­ing that will fur­ther reduce light scat­ter­ing. By the way, for reflec­tors you can ask not only hon­ey­combs, but also cur­tains.

- Use gobo masks to cre­ate pat­terned shad­ows, or let light through nar­row holes. For exam­ple, cut a thin strip in a sheet of card­board and attach it to the reflec­tor with tape. So you get a pat­terned strip of light, and every­thing else will be immersed in dark­ness.

- Place the key light on the side at an angle of 45 and even 90 degrees from the cam­era, and also do not for­get about the back­light to empha­size the shape.

– Make sure that the light falling on the mod­el does not illu­mi­nate the back­ground. To do this, place the sub­ject at least 1.5 meters from the back­ground.

– Shoot at or near ISO 100. To fur­ther dark­en the frame, slow down the shut­ter speed and close the aper­ture.

Small bright accents enliv­en the pic­ture and add juici­ness to it / Source: unsplash.com

Also remem­ber that fast shut­ter speeds freeze move­ment, which is use­ful when shoot­ing peo­ple in dynam­ic pos­es (jump­ing, danc­ing, etc.), loose mate­ri­als, liq­uids. A closed aper­ture not only dark­ens the frame, but also allows you to cap­ture more objects in the field of sharp­ness.

- Shoot in RAW to dark­en the shad­ows in post-pro­cess­ing with­out los­ing qual­i­ty, even out the light parts of the frame and increase the con­trast. To do this, use the slid­ers in Light­room or Adobe Cam­era Raw Con­trast / Con­trast, Shad­ows / Shad­ows, Blacks / Blacks, Lights / Lights, Whites / Whitesas well as Curves.

Low Key Circuit Light

Due to the fact that the goal when shoot­ing in low key is to get a dark frame, the light­ing schemes for this tech­nique are sim­ple and require a min­i­mum of light sources. More­over, all or almost all of them can be repeat­ed even at home, with­out spend­ing mon­ey on a pho­to stu­dio.

Universal lighting scheme: shooting in low key in the studio

A sim­ple light scheme with a sin­gle monoblock is suit­able for any genre — from por­trait to min­i­mal­ist still life. Instead of stu­dio light, you can use an ordi­nary exter­nal flash and eas­i­ly repeat the scheme at home — as long as there is a dark back­ground.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • beau­ty dish or reflec­tor to get hard con­trast light. To enhance the effect, ask a pho­to stu­dio employ­ee to bring the small­est hon­ey­combs;
  • a reflec­tor on the side and slight­ly behind the mod­el will give a neat back­light that will sep­a­rate the fig­ure from the back­ground. If you want to add more mys­tery to the frame, remove the reflec­tor. Instead of a reflec­tor at home, you can use a sheet of paper, what­man paper or white cloth.

Contrast light scheme low key

The light direct­ed exact­ly from the side on the mod­el will give an inter­est­ing and con­trast­ing light and shade pat­tern. If you pho­to­graph a per­son from the front, half of the face may be in a hard shad­ow, and the reflec­tor on the side will give a light back­light. If full face cov­er­age is impor­tant, take a pro­file pic­ture of the client.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • monoblock with a beau­ty dish or reflec­tor with hon­ey­combs, set at an angle of 90 degrees;
  • a reflec­tor that is direct­ly oppo­site the light source on the oth­er side of the mod­el.

Light scheme: low key photography at home for product photography

A sim­ple light­ing scheme that is easy to imple­ment at home. The main thing in it is to make sure that the light from the win­dow illu­mi­nates the sub­ject, but does not fall on the back­ground. This scheme is suit­able for still life, prod­uct and food pho­tog­ra­phy.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

– a black back­ground and the sur­face on which the object will stand. Even plain ironed black fab­ric will do. The main thing is to clean it of wool — it’s much faster than “vac­u­um­ing” dozens of frames in post-pro­cess­ing;

- the win­dow next to which the object will stand. If it is sun­ny at the time of shoot­ing, soft­en the light with tulle;

- a black flag, a reflec­tor with a black sur­face, or any oth­er dense dark object that can qual­i­ta­tive­ly pro­tect the back­ground from the light falling from the win­dow.

Light scheme low key for portrait photography at home

Quite dif­fi­cult for a begin­ner to light in a low key. Suit­able for cre­ative por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy. The door through which the flash will “beat” can play a key role here. By open­ing or clos­ing the door, you will get a wider or nar­row­er strip of light.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • dark room. A room with thick black­out cur­tains or a bath­room is suit­able, where there are usu­al­ly no win­dows and it is easy to achieve com­plete dark­ness;
  • monoblock with a reflec­tor or beau­ty dish or a con­ven­tion­al exter­nal flash;
  • a black flag or reflec­tor that will block the light reflect­ed from the walls and falling from the win­dow in a bright room.

Scheme light silhouette in low key

A sim­ple light­ing scheme that can be imple­ment­ed both at home and in a pho­to stu­dio. Suit­able for cre­ative por­traits, still life and min­i­mal­is­tic still life pho­tog­ra­phy.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

- Black back­ground. The far­ther you place your mod­el from the back­ground, the less like­ly it is to be hit by the flash;

– monoblock with one of the noz­zles: beau­ty dish; reflec­tor with hon­ey­combs; strip­box. The lat­ter is good for sub­ject pho­tog­ra­phy — it gives elon­gat­ed spec­tac­u­lar high­lights. At home, you can get by with an ordi­nary stan­dard exter­nal flash.

Read also:

What is a strip­box and how to use it

Noz­zles for stu­dio light: what are and how to use. Detailed guide

Bad light­ing on set: what to avoid, how to fix


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