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I dare say that nothing is quite like the effect of low-key lighting to show drama in an image. So what does low-key lighting mean in terms of photography? A good definition is found here.
Low-key lighting often uses only one key light, optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector.
The term “low-key” is used in cinematography to refer to any scene with a high lighting ratio, especially if there is a predominance of shadowy areas. It tends to heighten the sense of alienation felt by the viewer, hence is commonly used in film noir and horror genres.
To simplify the term further, low-key lighting focuses on the shadows by using usually one light source. Therefore, shadows are now the primary element of the composition.
The nice thing about low-key lighting is that it’s quite experimental. There are no hard and fast rules that you need to adhere to. You can vary the position, and the distance, of the one light source more to the front or side of the subject, depending on how much contrast you want your model to have. Or ask the subject to turn more into light source or away from it. Here are a few more guidelines:
You may be surprised, but this type of setup doesn’t require a proper studio. You can do a low-key portrait in a relatively small area, or anywhere in fact. This setup requires the minimal of gear:
I am a great believer in practicing what I preach. So I came up with a DIY solution for shooting a low-key setup, using a black shower curtain, in your own home. It is inexpensive, and doesn’t require a lot of time to implement.
So that is your background sorted. The shower curtain, when taken out of the packaging, has obvious pleats. Don’t worry about these. This is easily sorted in post-production.
As I really enjoyed using this DIY method. I have left the Cord Clips up on the wall in my kitchen. They are relatively discreet. I intend to use this setup again. It is so simple and a perfect solution if you can’t get to your studio, or if you don’t have one!
You don’t want any light to hit the black background, this is called contamination. Plus you want the black background to be texture, and wrinkle free. In some of my shots, the pleats were a little obvious in the background.
Getting rid of them was relatively easy. In Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), I adjusted the Shadows and Blacks sliders,
until I had a wrinkle free black background. However, as this is a global adjustment, you may need to an Add Adjustment Brush to areas on the subject to bring back some detail.
Another alternative in Photoshop, is to apply a mask to isolate the subject. For the image of the senior man, I used Select>Color Range rather than using the Quick Selection tool or the Refine Mask tool. The Color Range is a color-based selection tool which was ideal in this case, as my subject was much lighter than the background making selection relatively easy. A few clicks on the background and I had a near perfect mask, except where the two eyes were. I applied the mask and filled in areas that were needed in black with the brush tool.
I then applied a Levels Adjustment layer, and moved the black slider ever so slightly to the right, until the background was completely black.
Of course shooting lo-key isn’t restricted to indoors, nor do you need a black background. You can achieve similar effects outside. Check out this great video on the topic of creating an invisible black background to portraits using the same techniques.
Caution: You may possibly experience lots of fun shooting low-key! So let’s see your examples in the comments below.