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Comprehensive Guide to Low Key Lighting in Photography

Shooting in challenging low-light conditions is often overlooked but can unlock captivating visual opportunities. Many photographers and videographers avoid these scenarios, missing out on the beauty they can capture. Low-key lighting is a powerful technique that creates striking aesthetics and conveys compelling narratives.

Achieving stunning results in dimly lit environments requires more than hitting the record button after sunset. It demands meticulous setup to ensure proper exposure and avoid unwanted noise and graininess. Before setting up low-light scenes, let’s explore it and its significance in photography and videography.

What is low-key lighting?

Low-key lighting is a technique in cinema and photography that’s all about shadows. It’s achieved using intense, direct lighting sources tailored to fit the scene’s mood. Unlike its bright counterpart– high-key lighting, it dives deep into contrast, playing with shadows and dark tones. You’ll find a symphony of shadows, deep blacks, and moody hues in low-key lighting, with whites and mid-tones making rare appearances.

low key lighting
Photo by Marvin Zettl on Unsplash

While traditional lighting typically relies on a trio of lights – the key, fill, and backlight – low-key lighting often sticks to just one: the key light. However, for precise control and to illuminate shadowy areas while maintaining that captivating contrast, some may opt for a reflector or a fill light. It’s all about bringing those subject outlines to life while crafting a captivating visual narrative.

High-key lighting vs. Low-key lighting

Regarding studio lighting, the two lighting techniques bring about distinctly different vibes and aesthetics. High-key lighting, for instance, diminishes the lighting contrast within the scene, resulting in reduced disparities between the darker and brighter elements. In contrast, low-key lighting crafts a stark comparison of the darker and lighter aspects of the image, often shrouding many spots in shadows. Whether you’re producing corporate videos for training or avant-garde cinematic experiences, mastering their nuances, low-key lighting may empower you to convey your ideas with greater impact and creativity.

Purposes of low-key lighting

Low-key lighting, in the world of photography and cinematography, serves several distinct purposes. It’s a technique that uses stark contrast, harsh shadows, deep dark tones, and minimal highlights and mid-tones to create a specific mood and atmosphere. Let’s dive into these purposes with corresponding examples to illustrate their significance.

low key lighting
Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

1. High contrast

One of the primary purposes is to achieve high contrast in an image, indicating there is a significant difference between the darkest and lightest areas. This can be seen in film noir classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” where the stark contrast between light and shadow creates a sense of intrigue and suspense. The dramatic play of light and dark intensifies the narrative.

2. Harsh shadows

It deliberately creates harsh shadows. These shadows can be used to conceal specific details and add an element of mystery. In the movie “Sin City,” directed by Robert Rodriguez, the use of harsh shadows not only gives the film a unique visual style but also underscores the dark and gritty nature of the story.

3. Deep dark tones

It emphasizes deep, rich, and dark tones. This contributes to the creation of a brooding or ominous atmosphere. Consider “The Godfather” series, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The use of deep dark tones in various scenes heightens the tension and seriousness of the mafia-driven narrative.

low key lighting
Photo by Dennis Groom on Unsplash

4. Minimal highlights and mid-tones

This technique minimizes highlights and mid-tones, leaving more areas in deep shadow. This can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “Psycho.” The infamous shower scene’s low-key lighting adds to the suspense and conceals the violence in a way that allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

5. Ominous or dramatic mood

Perhaps the most well-known purpose of low-key lighting is to create an ominous or dramatic mood. Take, for example, the works of Tim Burton, such as “Edward Scissorhands.” The dark and gothic atmosphere created by such lighting perfectly complements his storytelling’s quirky and surreal elements.

How to set up low-key lighting

Light is pivotal in photography. Frontal lighting isn’t low-key. Experiment with side, Rembrandt, or other techniques to add depth and drama to your photos.

1. Low key flash lighting

Low key flash lighting involves using a flash unit with low power settings to provide a controlled burst of light, mainly focused on your subject.

In this shot from a photo session, notice how the low-key flash highlights the subject’s face while keeping the background in deep shadow, intensifying the dramatic effect.

backlit low key lighting
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2. Backlit low key lighting

Backlit low key lighting entails positioning your light source behind your subject, creating a silhouette effect. It emphasizes the facial side of the subject, giving the image an ethereal quality.

side lighting
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 3. Side lighting

Side lighting is achieved by placing the light source to the side of your subject, casting shadows that define the subject’s contours.

This portrait of this lady uses side lighting to accentuate the facial features and create a sense of depth, adding character to the photograph.

rembrandt lighting
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4. Rembrandt lighting

Rembrandt lighting is named after the famous painter and involves creating a small triangular area of light on one side of the subject’s face while keeping the rest in shadow.

In this classic portrait, Rembrandt lighting is employed, enhancing the subject’s facial structure and conveying a timeless elegance.

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Low key lighting gears

1. Camera

To embark on this journey, you must wield a camera capable of capturing high-quality video in low-light conditions, with the key to find a camera that allows you to set a low ISO, preferably around 100 or its lowest setting.

Photo by Dev Bhattacharjee on Unsplash

2. Lens

Your choice of lens plays a pivotal role. While various lenses can perform in low light, the standard kit lens with an aperture of around f/3.5 may not suffice as it restricts the amount of light entering. Instead, consider using a prime lens with a wider aperture, such as f/1.4 or f/1.8.

3. Key light

A fundamental component of low-key lighting is the key light, which can be natural or artificial. For starters, you don’t need an array of lights; one key light will suffice. Consider incorporating a reflector or a fill light to soften harsh shadows.

4. Backdrop

A background that is black or a deep shade of grey is of immense value in studio photography and videography. A dark backdrop simplifies isolating your subject, contributing to the low-key aesthetic. The absence of vibrant colors in this kind of lighting enhances the look and feel.

5. Tripod (Optional)

A tripod, while optional, proves invaluable in low-key lighting scenarios. Its stability ensures sharp, blur-free images during longer exposures, a common requirement in low-key photography. Precise framing and consistency across multiple shots become achievable with a tripod, allowing for meticulous composition and hands-free control over lighting adjustments and directing subjects.

Tips for great low key lighting

1. Monitor the levels

Histograms may look unusual in low-key conditions, but this is part of the aesthetic. Pay attention to pixel information to avoid underexposing or overexposing your subject, as adjusting color in the post can’t recover lost pixel data.

2. Utilize negative fills

In low-key lighting, control over incidental light is vital. Use black fabric or boards as unfavorable fills to absorb unwanted light, maintaining the captivating, low-key atmosphere.

low key lighting
Photo by Mahdi Aminrad on Unsplash

3. Use RAW to shoot

Shooting in RAW format allows for maximum flexibility during post-processing. RAW files retain unprocessed data, enabling precise adjustments for achieving the desired low-key look with greater control and detail.

4. Keep ISO as low

Maintaining low ISO settings is crucial for preserving the integrity of low-key lighting. Lower ISO values reduce noise and create darker, moodier scenes with rich shadows. Begin with the camera’s lowest ISO setting, typically around 100, and only increase it when necessary to maintain the desired exposure.

How to use low key lighting in different types of photography

1. Food photography

It might seem unconventional for food photography, but its impact can be astonishing. A gridded softbox positioned over a flash serves as the primary light source to achieve this effect. The grid on the softbox prevents light spillage onto the background, ensuring that the illumination remains focused on the subject, such as a delectable fruit tart.

2. Still-Life photography

In still-life photography, it can be harnessed to create captivating and moody compositions. To achieve strong shadows and controlled lighting, a naked flash is employed. However, a clever tool called a “gobo” is used to prevent light from spreading indiscriminately.

low key lighting
Photo by Mario Mesaglio on Unsplash

3. Gig photography

Gig photography frequently features low-key lighting, not only due to the use of flash but also because it complements the aesthetics of live performances. Lighting designers often opt for minimal ambient light to create a visually striking atmosphere during gigs. The controlled lighting in such scenarios simplifies the photographer’s task, eliminating concerns about rapidly changing lighting conditions.


Mastering low-key lighting in photography and cinematography unlocks creative opportunities. It adds drama with deep shadows and stark contrasts, enhancing various genres. Whether capturing food textures, still-life compositions, or live performances, low-key lighting tells compelling stories. With expertise and equipment, confidently navigate low-light situations to create impactfull visuals. Embrace low-key lighting’s potential for lasting creative effects.

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