Using Low-Key Lighting For A Dramatic Effect

Light and shadows are great for visual storytelling. Give any scene in your project a deep and melancholic atmosphere with a low-key lighting approach.

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Is your scene lacking the emotional impact to get the point across to your viewers? Maybe some shadow work around the subject is all you need to make it intimate and pull the audience in. Let’s look at what low-key lighting can do for you.


Low-Key Lighting: Basics

The low-key lighting style has been around for longer than most people think, with one of the most prominent uses for it dating back to the renaissance period. The chiaroscuro technique, pioneered by painters Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, consisted of using strong tonal contrast between light and dark to achieve solidity of form with a dramatic effect.

Having this as a backbone, it didn’t take long since the introduction of cameras for photographers and directors to experiment with the style. The most common use for low-key shooting is to abstract the subject from the rest of the shot, surrounding it with darkness and giving it an air of mystery. This way, the viewer’s attention is guided where the light wants it and can emphasize detail as well as emotion.

Shooting Low-Key Lighting

In order to film and photograph low-key you’ll need these basic elements in your setup: a camera and a large light source. Depending on where you place the subject and the light, you’ll achieve very different results. Let’s take the next photograph as an example:

We can observe that the light is quite dim, so we’re looking at some sort of softbox that is projecting from the right side, at a low-to-eye level height. To achieve this particular aesthetic you would only need a black background aside from the other two basic tools and, of course, total darkness in the workspace.

When dealing with lighting for a shot, it’s important to note that most of the time less is more. If you’re struggling to get the right atmosphere for your shoot, then maybe turning off some lights is the answer!

Gear Tips for Low-Key Shooting

Like any other scenario where the subject has a small amount of light on it, the attributes of the camera you’re using, your lighting rig and considerations in post production are essential to get the best results.

  • RAW vs. JPEG

    Before any shooting takes place, there’s the choice of doing it in a JPEG or RAW format. This is something every photographer has to consider at some point, and it is crucial for how much editing in postproduction a photograph can have and what the end result will look like!

    For any professional setting where experienced image processing is available (especially with low-key lighting), RAW shooting is ideal as it contains the most information and has the most editing possibilities.

    For settings where the images need to be delivered fast and quality can be compromised, JPEG is the better option. This format will automatically compress the photo and add blacks, contrast, sharpening, noise reduction and brightness. While the image will probably look more “finished” than the RAW version right after shooting, the processing for it will be very limited.

  • LIGHTS, camera, action

    Aside from a good camera, another important piece of gear to invest in are quality lights. As we now know, low-key lighting is very dependent on the light source for optimal results, so you should try to get at least some decent soft boxes. Going for a cheap alternative or using hard lights can ruin a whole shoot- avoid making that mistake!

  • Shutter Speed

    Having a camera with some fast lens is crucial when shooting low-key. Faster lens have larger maximum apertures. This means that the hole in the lens will allow more light to get in when you hit the shutter. Combining this with how long the shutter is open (longer than the average time if you want to shoot in low light) will help make the image brighter and more detailed.

Low-key Lighting Results

Let’s take a look at some examples of low-key lighting photographs and what they achieved using the technique.

In the image above we can tell a couple of things: the light source is projected from the left side at an eye level height, likely coming from a soft box. The camera has a large aperture (given the brightness and crisp quality), and it is using a slow shutter speed noticeable on the punching arm, which has some degree of blur and gives a feeling of motion.

The second photograph used low-key lighting for a more intimate effect; having a still subject, the shutter speed allowed to be faster and “absorb” more detail. This way, we can appreciate the man’s facial features better (time-worn skin, rugged facial hair). The shadows really bring focus to the eyes for a dramatic and emotive effect.


I hope you put this awesome style of shooting to good use in your own projects! If you have any other suggestions, don’t hesitate to put it in the comments below!


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