Low Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Small Spaces – Part 2

In my last post I discussed a classic four light, high key on white, lighting setup.

“But Deborah,” you say, “I don’t have four lights.  Or three.  Or really, even two.  I just have the one.”  No problem.  You’re perfectly outfitted to do a beautiful, classic low-key lighting setup.  Your camera’s dedicated flash unit could even be set up off-camera to achieve this result.

Low key portrait lighting tutorial.

What is low key lighting? According to Wikipedia, it attempts to create a chiaroscuro effect. In traditional photographic lighting, three-point lighting uses a key light, a fill light, and a back light for even illumination. Low-key lighting requires only one key light, optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector. This type of setup is usually shot against a dark background.

The image above of my oldest daughter was taken using a single light inside a very large soft box that was positioned directly to one side and approximately 2 feet away from her.

See diagram:

Low key portrait lighting tutorial.

Generally speaking, this is a less ‘forgiving’ lighting setup than other options in two different ways.

  • The lighting zone is much more narrow than high key lighting, meaning the subject has to be more carefully placed in relation to the light.  This would NOT be the lighting setup of choice for a busy two-year old (unless you have a trick or two up your sleeve, like my super secret weapon MR. SMILEY FACE).
  • Severe side lighting will highlight any natural flaws in the skin.

Therefore, this is lighting best reserved for the very young, those with flawless skin or ruggedly good looking men where you want to emphasize their facial ‘character’.

However, that last drawback can be overcome if:

  • you simply back farther away from your subject, shooting full body, rather than tight facial close-ups and you
  • angle the light more towards the front of the subject and use a reflector directly opposite it (see diagram below), which is not only more flattering, but allows light to spill onto the background, providing a level of separation between subject and background.

This image is a good example of the natural drama of this type of lighting and the unexpected scenarios you can use it in.

Low key portrait lighting tutorial.

I used one light and a reflector on an arm and stand for the shot above.  The key light was placed to one side and slightly in front of the subjects.  The reflector was positioned on the opposite side to bounce light back onto the subjects.  Whereas the first photograph of my daughter was against seamless black paper, this one was shot against a dark cloth backdrop.  The side lighting emphasizes the texture in the background to nice effect.  If I had not used a reflector opposite the key light, the young man’s face would have been completely in dark shadow with no visible expression.

Low key portrait lighting tutorial.

Best results with this lighting setup are achieved with the use of a soft box.  The larger the soft box, the more ‘window-like’ the lighting will be.  In another post I will illustrate this lighting technique using natural window lighting, which, while it requires NO lights, does require knowledge of how to get a properly exposed image.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

High Key Studio Lighting – Tutorial

Photographing Young Children With Low Key Lighting – Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Headshots – Tutorial

How to Set Up a Photo Booth in Your Home

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

Photographing Babies, Birth to One Year – Tips and Techniques

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

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  1. Awesome, this really helped me learn more on lighting, I’ve been trying what you said but my light is massive and does not seem to give the same effect!

    Most of my high key stuff is horrid, I love how you get total exposure with no blow outs! You can see it on my site: http://www.expertprintni.com – would love a pointer!

    To big you up – I read EVERY POST on this site, keep them coming as Im on your RSS!


  2. Hi

    I think your shots are really good and I like how you keep things simple!

    One question, in the first shot is the room dark? or did you achieve this affect with just the dark background etc!

    Thanks John

  3. deborahwolfe says

    Hi John. That first shot was done on a seamless black paper sweep with a single light. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Thanks for this great input relating to this subject…….a learner like myself needs all the support possible. 🙂