Marcell takes us through his process of creating beautifully lit Low Key photos

The Definition of Low Key Photography

The concept of low-key lighting is very often misinterpreted by some as underexposure. I would define low-key as a way of lighting your subject to accentuate certain curves or shapes, creating great contrast between your highlight and shadow areas with predominantly dark tones contained within the image. Although most low-key photographs tend to be monochrome, it is not a prerequisite, a well shot low-key image can be very appealing in colour.

Photo Credit – Marcell van Aswegen

Artificial/Available light

Lighting a low-key image will differ greatly on your subject matter and type of background used. Using less light sources are key to create the stacks of contrast you need for this look, and it will keep your setup simple and easy. Typically, one light source, preferably off camera, in a dark ambient environment is all that’s needed to produce a good low-key image. Single light sources are often used with a reflector to fill the shadow side slightly. Multiple light setups require careful placement to retain the low key look. Furthermore, it should be lit using hard or soft light as long as certain parts of your subject or frame are cast in deep shadow or dark tones Your source can be available light, i.e. light that is not explicitly supplied (street lighting, sunlight etc.), or you can add your own light to achieve this look. Finding a location with the right available light is tricky and will take some time scouting different locations, at various times of day. For the purpose of this post I will concentrate on using artificial light.

Photo Credit – Marcell van Aswegen

Studio/Location

The low-key style of lighting is simple to achieve both in studio and on location, as long as you have a good foundation to work from. In this case the “foundation” would be a controlled environment. I suggest cutting down or even totally eliminating ambient light. It is a lot less frustrating to light your subject if you do not have to worry about the ambient light. In studio the unwanted light is normally easy to control. On location you can’t always physically flag down the unwanted light which makes it harder to light your subject for that low-key look, start by cutting light in camera by stopping down your aperture (smaller opening = higher f-number), lowering your ISO and using your fastest flash sync speed available for your camera. Some newer studio lights do have built in High Speed Sync (HSS), and this feature is very useful to overpower the sun. The use of a neutral density filter (used mostly in sunny environments) helps to cut down on the light reaching your camera sensor. Once you have the ambient light under control it is just a matter lighting your subject with the artificial light of your choice. To get the best result with low powered flash heads, position your key light closer to your subject, this will help with getting enough light on your subject and they won’t need to work as hard.

Photo Credit – Marcell van Aswegen

Additional tips:

• If you are using battery powered lights on location, moving them closer will also save precious battery life, and have them recycle faster.

• Light fall-off happens much quicker when your light is positioned closer to your subject, which will help with light spill.

• If you have access to a make-up artist, I highly recommend using one, as this type of lighting tend to pick up imperfections in skin, especially if you are using unmodified or hard light.

• It might be worth waiting for cloudy conditions if you want to overpower the sun. It makes it much easier, and you won’t need HSS or ND Filters.

• Try and stick to a lighting ratio (key to fill) > 6:1 (difference between brightest lit and least lit areas)

Photo Credit – Marcell van Aswegen

If you enjoyed this blog you might also enjoy reading:

Black and White Photography for Beginners

by Wouda Pitzer

or

Black & White Photography – It’s a love story

by Maryna Cotton