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How to Make a Low Key Portrait (Step by Step)

low key portrait photography

If you’re looking to create a stunning low key portrait, then you’ve come to the right place.

Because in this article, I’m going to give you a simple, step-by-step process for creating low key photos.

In fact, it’s the same setup I use when capturing my own low key shots, so you know it works.

(And I include quite a few examples, so you can see what I’m talking about!)


Let’s get started.

What is a low key portrait?

A low key portrait has tones that are mostly dark. Like this:

Low key portrait of a man

Compare it to a high key image, where most of the tones are lighter than 50% gray.

Low key portraiture replaces a light, airy feel with a more moody, dramatic look. And your histogram will be bunched up on the left-hand side.

That’s not to say you’re underexposing the subject to get a low key look. You’ll still need correct exposure on the face.

A lot of action movies or thrillers have posters with a low key feel. Think drama, and you’re in the ballpark for how a low key portrait will turn out.

The background and lighting

Your background needs to be dark, usually dark gray or black. And your subject’s clothing needs to be dark, too (though black clothes aren’t necessary). Also, avoid clothes with patterns, as this will draw attention away from your subject’s face.

Low key portrait of a man

Set your lighting to create drama; I recommend loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting, or some other form of sidelight. Take your cues from film noir.

The photos don’t need to be in black and white, though you may find that the absence of color in low key images can lend itself to this look.

Lighting a low key portrait

You don’t need to use artificial lighting to get a low key portrait. You can always use natural window light.

But to control the natural light, you must close the curtains down to a tiny slit. Then, with the room lights off, place your subject in the light and expose for their face.

Low key portrait of a woman

You can also shoot in the studio, so let’s discuss how to light a low key studio portrait.

You’ll need a lighting setup that is flattering and controllable. A strip box will help control the light, as will a beauty dish. If you don’t have either, you can add some material over a standard softbox to create a strip light.

If you have a grid, even better. As long as you can control where the light goes, you’ll be able to nail a low key portrait. You can even block your light from the background using a black card (items that block light are referred to as flags).

Creating a low key portrait from scratch

For the examples below, I used an Elinchrom softbox with a white beauty dish and a white reflector.

However, as I’ve mentioned, you don’t need this exact gear to get these shots. Gear is only a small part of the equation.

It’s how you use the gear that counts!

Making the background darker

In this first shot, you’ll see the model against the wall, photographed with a butterfly lighting pattern.

Though the tones are dark, the image itself is too bright to be considered a low key portrait.

woman portrait against a gray wall
setting up a portrait

By moving both the model and the light away from the wall, you’ll notice the light on the subject stays the same, but the background gets darker:

portrait with a darker background
Moving the model away from the wall means the light falls off and the background gets darker.

Move the light to the side

If you move the light around to the side into a short lighting position, you’ll see the background darkens even more and the shot becomes dramatic. We still have some light spilling onto our background, though:

Low key portrait of a woman
Moving the light to the side means even less light falls on the background, which darkens it further.
Low key portrait setup

Add a grid to your lighting modifier

By adding a grid to your modifier, you can control the light even more.

The grid restricts the light to a narrower beam; when a grid is in place, no light bounces around or spills past your subject.

Low key portrait of a woman
A low key portrait with a grid added to the light.
Low key portrait of a woman setup
Light with a grid added.

Add light onto the hair

While you’ll now have a very cool low key effect, you’ll see that the hair is starting to blend in with the background. If you want separation between the hair and the background, you need to add a fill light.

You could use a reflector, but a second light offers more control. For the photo below, I added a strip light on the other side of the subject (opposite the main light).

Make sure the hair light doesn’t hit your lens; otherwise, you’ll get flare. Use a grid or a flag to block your modifier, if necessary.

Low key portrait with a hair light
Low key portrait setup with a hair light
Here you can see two lights: the main light plus a hair light.

Low key portraits: Make sure you practice!

Hopefully, these steps will help you create your own stunning low key portraits.

The trick is to control the light so you darken the surroundings. Use the narrow curtain trick if you don’t have any lights.

You can even try putting a flash outside a window to replace the natural light source for more control.

Good luck with your portraits!

Now over to you:

What type of low key portrait do you plan to take? Please share your plans in the comments below!

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Sean McCormack
Sean McCormack

is an official Fuji X Photographer and Adobe Community Professional based in Galway in Ireland. He’s been shooting for almost 20 years and loves portraits, landscapes, and travel when he gets a chance. He’s written a few books on Lightroom.

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