9 min read

How to Use Low Key Lighting for Stunning Black and White Photos

9 min read

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face with low key lighting

Low key lighting is great for infusing mood into black and white photos. It can create a mysterious, dramatic, or sometimes sensual mood. This is a photography lighting technique using one light source, the key light. Using a low key light, with little or no fill light, results in images with deep shadows.

A low key setup is high contrast and relies on the careful positioning of the key light for the lighting style to look best. In movies, this dark lighting style is often called ‘film noir.’ It was made popular in Europe with black and white films in the 1940s and 1950s. In painting, it’s traditionally known as chiaroscuro or Rembrandt lighting.

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Working to achieve an effective low lighting look, the use of shadows is as important as the use of the light itself. When used in films, the contrast was natural, because the dynamic range of the film is narrow. With modern digital sensors, some post-processing is needed to create sufficient contrast.

How To Achieve a Low Key Lighting Look

Using one key light and controlling any reflection or spill is necessary. This differs from using high key lighting where lights are brighter, and there are few shadow areas.

You can use many kinds of lighting, both artificial and natural, as a light source. Controlling the position of the light and the density of the shadows is vital. 

Where you place the light governs where the shadows fall. You can control the look of your image by hiding parts of your subject in the shadow areas or by revealing them in the light. You can also position your subject so the shadows will fall where you want them to.

dslr camera back minimal.

Working with a light source, you cannot move a fixed subject, and you have fewer options for manipulating the shadow areas. You must use more imagination or return at another time when the light is more favorable.

Studio lighting, flash, or continuous electric light make low key photography more straightforward. Being able to position the key light means you have control over how the shadows affect your subject. You can also control how much light falls on the background.

A continuous key light is the most convenient to work with. With this type of light, you can see the shadows. Using flash or studio strobes, you must make many test exposures before you know how the light and shadow areas will look.

Experimentation is important. As you compose your photo, move the light around and look at how the shadows are falling on your subject. Remember that what you see with your eyes is not the same as the end result is going to look once you have post-processed your photos.

portrait in black and white.

Think in Black and White

Imagine how you want your finished photo to look. While you are preparing to take your photos, you’ll see more detail in the shadows than will appear in your end photos. Even looking at the pictures you take on the camera’s LCD screen, you’ll see more in the shadows.

Think in high contrast black and white. Imagine the shadow areas being black and the high key areas being white. There’s usually very little gray tone with a low key light. Using your imagination to pre-visualize your low key lighting effect helps you to get better results. 

Pro-Tip for using a Low Key Light

As you’re setting up your key light, squint your eyes at your subject. Doing this cuts out a lot of light and accentuates the contrast. This can give you a clear idea of how your photos will look once you have boosted the contrast when you post-process them

Disregard any color in your subject and the background. Ultimately it will have little or no effect. Think about the tones. What’s very light or very dark within your composition?

If you have bright lights or light-colored elements in the background, you may need to move them or cover them. Most often with a low key light, the background is entirely black because it falls into shadow.

photographer in the dark.

The Inverse Square Law

The inverse square law is a very critical law and an important piece of information to keep in mind when using artificial lights for your photography. In the context of low-key photography, it is even more important because understanding the law will allow you to maximize the effect of light fall-off. It basically states that the intensity of light drops by the inverse of the square of the distance between the source of light and the subject being photographed.

As per the inverse square law, the light fall-off is more dramatic (and significant) over the initial distance. This means the difference in light from the illuminated side and the one away from the light source is more. As the distance increases, the difference in light becomes less dramatic from one side to the other. This should give you a hint as to what distance you should set your subjects from the light source. Ideally, your subjects should be closer to the light source for maximum contrast.

Choose Your Subject Carefully

Not all subjects or situations will lend themselves well to using this technique. Dark shadows invoke a dramatic mood. If you want a light and happy image, a high key lighting setup is often used.

Black and white portraits using low key lighting are popular when a certain dark mood is desired. Dark shadow areas and black backgrounds accentuate the shape of a face and body. Mid tones are missing from this style of portrait, so the shape of your model becomes more pronounced.

Contrast is key. To shoot low key you must be in control of the dark tones and the highlights in your image. With low lighting, the amount of contrast you need can be challenging. It’s all about where you place the light and the tone of your subject and background.

High-key lighting tends to affect all areas of a composition, so there’s little contrast. With low-key lighting, shadows are as important as what you are photographing. Fill light needs to be controlled, so the dark tones feature strongly in your images. If there is too much fill light, keeping the key lighting low will be more of a challenge. 

‘Flags’ are often used with low key lighting. These are usually black cards or boards that are positioned outside the frame to help keep the lighting low. With high key images, reflectors are more commonly used because the key lighting is used to eliminate most shadow areas. Correct use of flags in low key lighting photography helps to protect the dark tones in images.

glass of water in black and white with low light.

Manage Your Camera’s Exposure Settings Well

Low key lighting is best managed with manual exposure and spot metering. You want to expose for the highlights to the shadow areas will be rendered dark. Low key images are best when the highlights are bright, but not blown out. 

By using your spot meter, you can more accurately set your exposure, so the low key lighting effect has maximum impact. With your camera on any of the auto or semi-auto exposure modes, it will balance the dark and bright areas of your composition. When your intention is for low key images, the contrast level must be controlled.

You are not wanting to see a bell-shaped curve on your histogram when using low key lighting. You’ll see a spike to the left and to the right. This is because with this technique, the contrast is high, and there are few mid-tones. 

Hands close up in black and white.

Post-Processing for Low Key Lighting

Once you’ve captured your images, the next step is vital so your photographs will look their best.

The dynamic range of digital camera sensors is far greater than that of film. The low key effect came about in the film era when it was not possible to capture such a wide range of tones as you can with your modern camera. This means you need to do a little more work after taking your photos to achieve a powerful low key lighting look.

When you edit your photos, control the contrast and shadows in them. Also, look at the bright areas as you don’t want these to darken as you work on the shadow areas. Generally, I use the Black, Contrast, and Shadow sliders to darken up a low key photo to get the right look.

cat in black and white low key light.

What do you need to create low key lighting?

To use the low-key lighting technique, you need a DSLR, a lens, a tripod, a dark background – preferably black, and as little light as possible. The dark background will make the viewer search for something to focus on, and being unable to find anything in the darker areas comes back to the illuminated areas in the image. Thus, lowkey can also lead to an emphasis on the most important aspects of an image.

How to make low key lighting?

Low key lighting is created with one main source that illuminates carefully chosen parts of a composition. There are several lighting techniques that you can use with a single light – and a single light is all that you need. The basic thing that you need to remember is that you need a lot of contrast regardless of the lighting setup. Thus, side lighting is more suitable than illuminating the subject from the front.

What are the uses of low-key photography?

Apart from portrait imagery, low-key treatment is often used in high contrast fashion shoots, to highlight shapes and forms, such as in boudoir photography, in upmarket product images such as watches, wines, personal products, and a host of other areas. It is also used where textures are required to be highlighted.

What is the difference between low and high key lighting?

Low key lighting relies a lot on dark shadow areas to set a mood whereas high key lighting eliminates most of the shadow areas in a composition. High key lighting affects most of the image so there are few areas of shadow.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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