Setting The Mood With Low Key Lighting

Setting The Mood With Low Key Lighting

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This image was made using a flash on camera, bounced into an uncoated muslin reflector.  The uncoated muslin warms the light up about 400 degrees Kelvin.  The reflector was positioned above and to the left of the camera, with the flash aimed into it.  EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ISO 100, 1/250, f/4.

This image was made using a flash on camera, bounced into an uncoated muslin reflector. The uncoated muslin warms the light up about 400 degrees Kelvin. The reflector was positioned above and to the left of the camera, with the flash aimed into it. EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ISO 100, 1/250, f/4.

This diagram shows the lighting for the image above.  The uncoated muslin reflector is positioned above and to the left of the camera, with the flash bounced into it. Play with the angle of the reflector to get the lighting just right.

This diagram shows the lighting for the image above. The uncoated muslin reflector is positioned above and to the left of the camera, with the flash bounced into it. Play with the angle of the reflector to get the lighting just right.

Last week I wrote about high key portrait lighting and how it creates a very upbeat feel in images lit that way. 

The opposite end of the spectrum is low key lighting, which creates a more moody feeling in images.  Low key lighting tends to be lit with one light on the subject, using reflectors or fill light if necessary to fill in shadows. Because only one light is required, it can be a bit easier to light a subject in the low key style, and certainly less costly indoors.

Light reveals your subject, and shadows define your subject.  The shadows you create are equally as important as the light you use to expose your subject.  Low key lighting will have a high lighting ration from main to fill, typically as high as 8:1.  High key, by comparison, will approach 1:1.

Indoors, the simplest way to achieve low key lighting is to use a speedlite on camera, bounced off a wall, or into a reflector angled to catch your subject in the face.

Adjusting the flash output will help you get the softness in light, as well as using a larger reflector. Another reflector on the opposite side of your subject can be used to throw reflected light back where it came from for fill if desired.  Using a silver or gold reflector will create a harsher light, while using uncoated muslin or soft white will create a softer light.

If you’re able, and want to get the flash off camera, using a wireless trigger on your speedlite, while placing it in a softbox gives you another option to light your subject.  A softbox gives you soft, directional light, without spilling the light into the background.  Softboxes work by enlarging your light source.  The larger the light source, the softer the light will be.  

I use several softboxes depending on what I need.  The first is a Westcott Bruce Dorn 18×42 assymetrical strip box.  This is great for

lighting a full length figure, with a natural falloff at the feet.  The rest I use are Westcott Apollo softboxes. I have the 16″,  28″ and 50″ softboxes, depending on what the situation calls for. 

The 50″ creates light very similar to window light, with a nice soft wraparound effect.  The 28″ is a bit harsher, and the 16″ harsher still.

For this image, I used a Westcott 28" Apollo softbox, with a speedlite off camera. I turned down the flash output slightly to give a more moody feel. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70 f/2.8L. ISO 100, 1/200, f/8.

For this image, I used a Westcott 28″ Apollo softbox, with a speedlite off camera. I turned down the flash output slightly to give a more moody feel. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70 f/2.8L. ISO 100, 1/200, f/8.

The softbox is positioned to the left of the camera and aimed at the subject as the subject is turned toward the light. The camera shoots from the shadow side of the subject, allowing the light to just kiss the contour of the subject from the side.

The softbox is positioned to the left of the camera and aimed at the subject as the subject is turned toward the light. The camera shoots from the shadow side of the subject, allowing the light to just kiss the contour of the subject from the side.

Outdoors, to get a low key lighting effect, you’ll need to catch the sun when it’s low in the sky, just as it’s setting, or in the morning as the sun rises.

Alternatively, standing at the edge of deep shade can help create a low key effect as well. 

If needed, a scrim can help soften the light hitting your subject, but generally a sun low in the sky creates a soft warm lighting on your subject.

Low key lighting is great for setting a mood. Add it as another option in your lighting toolbox and see what happens.  Share your favorite low key images in the comments too!

This shot was taken using only late afternoon sun, just before sunset. When the sun sets it becomes directional, and all I had to do was instruct my model to face the light, watching the soft shadows it created. EOS-1D X with EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/320, f/4, ISO 320.

This shot was taken using only late afternoon sun, just before sunset. When the sun sets it becomes directional, and all I had to do was instruct my model to face the light, watching the soft shadows it created. EOS-1D X with EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/320, f/4, ISO 320.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Simon Kitt August 9, 2013 10:28 am

    Thanks for this article. I love this website for its great resources.
    Here is a pic I did:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/toastmuncher/9469629000/

    Keep up the good work guys

  • Cal August 3, 2013 01:22 am

    glad to have this explained,... my question, is there a difference in "Low Key Lighting" & "Soft Key Lighting".. both are mood related, as I see it,

    Low key is the introduction of shadows, deep shadows for effect.
    Soft key is an equal and adequate amount of light, applied that creates smooth continues lighting with low shadows if any.

    How would you describe the difference ?

  • Kris August 2, 2013 04:18 am

    Hi and thank you for taking out the time to write an educational article.

    Why on earth people are here criticizing your photos is beyond my understanding. This isn't a flickr rate-me post.

  • Guigphotography July 31, 2013 11:04 pm

    The definition of low key appears to be far less literal than the arguments about it. Personally, I've re-read the article objectively and think that the language Rick uses is very flexible (e.g. can be/tends to/approaching/typically) and well written.
    The information and context he provides with each shot makes them suitable to support his guidelines. They might not hit the exact ratio that everyone wishes to adhere to in their own perception of the definition, but that's where you get into subjective argument and I don't think the article warrants that.

  • ScottC July 31, 2013 08:23 am

    Wow, this one broke down in a hurry.

    A good article regardless of any opinions on the photos. This is all natural, but I think low key nonetheless.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4557804773/

  • marie July 31, 2013 06:16 am

    being a natural light photographer, i find off or on camera lighting to be a challenge. thanks for the tips!

  • katesi July 30, 2013 08:22 am

    Even with your copy-pasta definition you didn't provide works that fit the definition you just gave. "The relative strength of key-to-fill, known as the lighting ratio, can be measured using a light meter. Low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, e.g. 8:1" Your examples do not fit that, especially the third. The second one is still under exposed and has very little value range but is probably closest. Yohann is right about the chiaroscuro. Low key is not subject alone it's subject related to background, the entire image. The background being st apart from the image in light value is what makes the key high or low. Having a nearly white background such as in the third picture makes it high key and the woman is exposed at the same value. The subject alone is still also not an 8:1 ratio, she is very filled in, the background is light, the key is high.

    Also the first woman, her eyes have absolutely no pink or veins, that does not look natural. The third woman does look softened. If that isn't what you were going for, that's what you got. The aperture was super wide so that could explain the skin softening.

    I would say the subjects' and artist's satisfaction are what matters primarily but they are not all that matters when you are instructing. Because you wrote a post designed to display a technique, and then did not display that technique, it matters also that the information is correct.

  • Rick Berk July 30, 2013 05:51 am

    You're confusing the "chiaroscuro effect" with low key lighting. Low key lighting is one element of that, but the two terms are not interchangeable.

  • Yohann July 30, 2013 05:46 am

    I'm not going to fight with you about the definition of low key lightning.
    All that i know is that it's based on the "clair-obscur" technique and is widely accepted as the melting of the subject with a dark background.

    > Finally, and most importantly, ALL of my subjects were pleased with the shots, which ultimately is all that matters.

    Of course it's the objective, but as a professional photographer you should be your harshest critic.

    Honestly i'm not buying the fact that her eyes weren't enhanced in some ways and that the skin wasn't soften, but it doesn't matter.

  • Donnie Kimbrough July 30, 2013 05:41 am

    I like the photos. Great lesson. Thank You.

  • Rick Berk July 30, 2013 05:14 am

    First of all, low key lighting does NOT mean that the subject blends into the background. Low key lighting is defined as follows: Low key light accentuates the contours of an object by throwing areas into shade while a fill light or reflector may illuminate the shadow areas to control contrast. The relative strength of key-to-fill, known as the lighting ratio, can be measured using a light meter. Low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, e.g. 8:1, than high-key lighting, which can approach 1:1.

    All of my images above fit that definition with regards to the light and shadow on the subject. Just because the background is bright does NOT mean the lighting is low key (or high key). Low key and high key are chiefly defined by the lighting ratio on the subject, NOT the background.

    Second, I do not enhance eyes. That photo is of my ex-wife, and I can assure you, her eyes look exactly that way. The third photo- the model has impeccable skin. All I did was clone out one small scar.

    As for white balance, I preferred a warmer tone for these images. The reflector I use is uncoated muslin, which warms up the light by about 400 degrees kelvin.

    Finally, and most importantly, ALL of my subjects were pleased with the shots, which ultimately is all that matters.

  • katesi July 30, 2013 04:50 am

    I would say look to Caravaggio.

  • katesi July 30, 2013 04:48 am

    I agree with Yohann. Low key does not just mean under exposed and that last image is not low key at all. That first one might only barely qualify because it's cropped so tightly that there is much more mid value exposure than dark. None of these have a low-key light ratio.

  • Yohann July 30, 2013 04:20 am

    I don't think that the last image can be called "low-key".

    The whole point of the low-key lightning is to blend the subject with the background.
    You shouldn't be able to discern every edges.

    Please do not imply that an underexposed image is low-key.

    Not about the low-key itself, but i'd like to share my thoughts about your post-processing :
    I think you are softening the skin too much (3rd photo).
    The eyes of the model in the first photo are obviously faked or enhanced in an unnatural way.
    On photos 1 and 2, the white balance is a bit too yellowish.

  • Brian Fuller July 30, 2013 02:34 am

    I have shot portraits by bouncing a flash off the wall and by using off-camera through an umbrella, but haven't thought of bouncing off a reflector as the first diagram depicts. I need to try this.
    Would help if my young children would sit still as well, but that will come eventually.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c