Low Key Photography - A Beginner's Guide

low key photography, chocolate key, black background

Low key photography is one of the most challenging techniques of photography for both novice and experienced shooters. But you do not have to take a lifetime to master this form of photography because it involves illumination and elimination, just like most other forms of photography.

The one thing that most shooters like with this form of photography is the ability to bring instant drama and hard-hitting emotion to an image.

In this guide, you will learn everything about low key photography and how to shoot photos on the dark side.

What Is Low Key Photography?

vase with flowers low key

This is a type of photography that utilizes the centuries-old concept of chiaroscuro. Unlike high key lighting that increases exposure on the subject by eliminating shadows, low key lighting increases contrast on the subject by reducing lighting.

It involves the balance of light and darkness to come up with a vivid impression. Note that the key here is not just to make the image appear dark, but to light it up selectively to illuminate specific portions of the image.

As a photographer, your aim is to avoid harsh shadows around the subject's face and eyes, and this where low key lighting becomes a fun change of pace.

Instead of avoiding intense shadows, you want to identify the key elements that define the mood of the photograph. You then try to manipulate your lighting so that the shadows appear on the right spots of your subject for the sake of drama.

How to Take Low Key Photographs

dog portrait, low key photography

To learn how to use low key lighting, you need to understand the different types of light. They are two main types: natural light and artificial light.

Low Key Photography Natural Light

flower, low key photography

When shooting low key photography without flash, ensure that there is a natural light coming by the window. Therefore, ensure that the window allows minimal ambient light to come through.

If there is a bounce of light off the walls, you can use heavy curtains to control the rays. Draw the curtains close enough to make sure that only a lit of light enters the room. Your subject should stay in the sliver of light so that the light hits their face, while the rest of the body is in the shadows.

You can also use low key lighting outdoors by shooting against a dark background. If the sun is up, you should utilize light pockets that penetrate through trees or buildings. To do this, let your subject stay in the beam, and there you have it.

Using artificial light and a single flash


When shooting low key photography in dark areas, use a single flash to create light artificially. To make it easier to understand, think of a flash as the same beam of light through the window.

Similarly, place it the flash above the head of the subject. Now, the difference is you don’t place the light directly in front, but you move it about 45' to the subject's side. However, you are allowed to experiment with the angle to see what works for you.

Placing it between 35 – 45 degrees will result in the loop lighting effect, while placing the light on the side of the subject will likely help you achieve split lighting. If you intend to light up the subject face to achieve adequate low key lighting, try to angle the light towards the face.

Using a beauty dish on the flash can improve the focus of light on the subject, but you can also test with a softbox. However, you need an S-type bracket Bowens mount to use Softboxes and light dishes for low key photography.

Camera Settings

young womem , low key portrait

For beginners with no idea of what camera settings to use, the program mode can help to correct the exposure. However, this is likely to cause overexposure due to the light in the background. To avoid this, you need to learn how to controls the settings yourself in the manual mode.

When it comes to ideal settings for low key photography, try to keep your ISO to the lowest and the aperture wide. This is important because low ISO makes the image appear darker. Once you set the ISO, adjust the shutter speed and aperture until you achieve the light's desired effect.

For the aperture, you can start with the lowest f-number like f/1.8, as this allows your camera to take in the most light and adjust to your desired light. Because you will be using the widest aperture, you need to have relatively fast shutter speed, but this will depend on the light source in place.

Low key images also work well with the auto-exposure mode, but you need to apply negative exposure compensation. However, using these means, you should switch from the metering mode to spot metering. This allows you to focus solely on the subject, which is what you are looking for.

Making your background appear dark

No matter the light, having a dark background in low key photography is crucial. In case your background appears lit and distracting, consider moving the subject and light evenly away from the wall. If you do this, you should notice that the background gets darker, while the subject stays the same.

That's not the only way to darken the background. You can also move the light to the side so that the portrait becomes even more dramatic. This is great if you intend to achieve bold results.

If you have a grid in the studio, you get more flexibility in how you control the light using the light modifier. The grid allows you to restrict the light to whatever is in front of the light, meaning light wont spill in the background – that’s exactly what you need.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a studio because there is still another way to shoot great low key photographs. You can use two separate rooms whereby you block the light in one room by closing the door so that you could see nothing. The adjoining room acts as the light source. Use the door to control the amount of rays that enter and try to keep the camera from the path of light or hitting the background.

How to Edit Low Key Images

Editing your low key images can transform them from mediocre to world-class. Follow these tips to make your images appear skillful:

  • Brighten the subject

With low key images, the subject is usually the bright part. You may find the need to make the subject a bit more conspicuous, especially if you didn’t use the flash. To achieve this, adjust the highlights, Exposure, and Whites in Lightroom.

  • Check the white balance

White balance in raw low key images tends to be off. If you shoot indoors, it might appear too warm while using a flash might make it too cool. Consider adjusting the white balance during post-editing.

  • Reduce noise

Using a low ISO reduces noise, but it’s impossible to avoid cranking it up entirely. Keep in mind that you may blur the image in the course of noise reduction. As such, use it when it’s really necessary.

  • Add a vignette

When dealing with low key portraits, vignettes can enhance the feel. To add and control the placement of a vignette, use the Radial Filter in Lightroom.

  • Play with color

You can play with both the warm and cool tones in your images using the HSL panel in Lightroom. Shifting the colors on some parts of your images can result in bold and playful contrast, adding more drama.

  • Fix the backdrop wrinkles

When shooting in a studio, your black background may have a few wrinkles. To achieve a wrinkle-free background, you'll need to adjust the shadows until the background appears uniform. Remember that this will affect the subject too, which is where the Adjustment Brush adds a few of the lost details.


Low key lighting can be challenging to use if you are unsure about the image you want to achieve. The good news is that you can understand the process behind the technique and find it easier to shoot great low key shots indoors and outdoors.

We hope that this guide has left you with plenty of tips to experiment.

Posted in: Photography for beginners