The lowdown on Low Key

When photographers talk about the highlights and the shadows in a picture, the looseness of language means that they’re often talking about the brighter and darker tones on display in the frame, writes Jon Adams. As an example, imagine James Bond in typical evening dress attire, and we’d often describe the white shirt as the ‘highlights’ because it gives the brightest tone in the picture, and the black tuxedo and bow tie as the ‘shadows’ as they serve up the areas with the darkest tones.

But to understand Low Key lighting, you need to think about a shadow as a genuine shadow – the thing that is cast when a light source is obstructed by a physical object and throws a dark echo of its shape across part of a scene or subject. This is very different to a dark-coloured tone, so in the context of lighting and lighting styles, when we talk about shadows, this is what we mean.

Hopefully, you’ve read our articles on High Key lighting (if not, you’ll find the first part here, and the second part here) and from these, you’ll have a good understanding that the ideal High Key setup requires three light sources (Key, Fill and Back lights) and by balancing the illumination power from the Key and the Fill lights, you can achieve an evenly-lit subject that has barely any trace of shadow.

In contrast, Low Key lighting is the alter-ego, where deep, obvious shadows is the overall aim. Provided your subject is three-dimensional and your Key light is positioned to one side of it, then you can’t fail to get a Low Key result, provided you have your Fill light at a lower intensity than the Key light. This lower intensity might mean anything between having the fill a little bit dimmer and having it switched off entirely, but generally speaking, the norm would be somewhere between these two extremes.

In this Low Key portrait, the Key light is a stripbox positioned to the left of the model, and the Fill light is turned to zero to allow the shadows cast by the Key light to be as deep and dramatic as possible.

Just as people think rather casually that High Key is about clean white backdrops and smiling faces, it’s often falsely concluded that Low Key is about jet black backgrounds and stern, moody faces. It’s not! High Key and Low Key aren’t supposed to be about emotions – they’re just lighting styles that either remove or create shadows to get the desired look. It’s quite possible to shoot a cheerful, Low Key shot of a smiling subject on a white background – the only quality required is that they are not evenly-lit and some of their face is in shadow. If in doubt – look at the nose shadow: its size, position and depth will tell you almost all you need to know about the lighting setup used.

Now we’ve established that Low Key means non-even lighting where “shadows are part of my picture”, we can further break down the Low Key look by assessing how dominant the shadow is. Three-quarter lighting is popular, where the Key light covers about three-quarters of the face, and leaves the remaining one-quarter in the shade. But powerful shots can be achieved with a more extreme lighting angle that lets the shadow dominate more of the image. This may involve side-lighting (or half-lighting), where the shadow takes up about 50% of the subject, and short-lighting where the Key light is almost used as a backlight to let the shadow occupy three-quarters of the image.

Short-lighting – where the Key light is placed to the side and slightly behind the model – was used on this shot, and the lighting style makes the shadows dominate the image. The lead eye is completely in shade, but the lighting angle still allows a catchlight to be present, to prevent the eye disappearing altogether.

But just as we explained with true High Key lighting, not many of you will setting up artificial lights to get your shot, writes Andrew James. Instead you’ll be using some of the elements of true Low Key to shoot eye-catching images. While the traditional use of Low Key lighting lends itself to high-impact portraits – the sort that non-photographers look at and think “that’s rather cool” – you can use the principles of the style in lots of different genres, including landscape, street, and wildlife photography.

So what are those elements that we need to harness for something that grabs the attention? Obviously shadow is the most important element here. A good proportion of your image is going to be in shadow or at least affected strongly by shadow. That’s a given. If strong shadow isn’t visible and, to a large part influencing the success of the image, then it’s not Low Key.

Take a look at this first image of Leonardo, a Cuban tobacco farmer that we met on the last Foto-Buzz Cuba trip. Leonardo was in his tobacco-drying shed. It was dark…

A Low Key portrait can be tricky to shoot.

There is one main source of light out of shot to his left (the door) and another to his right (a small window) that is throwing a small area of blue light onto his hat. But most of the lighting work in this image is done by the match that’s lighting his cigar! Essentially it’s illuminating his face and without it we’d have to have his face turn more towards one of those other light sources.


The table in front of him with his cigar-related paraphernalia on is pretty much in total shadow. The only thing obvious is the reflective knife that’s picking up a bit of light. And here’s the thing with this Low Key style approach, although only a small area of the frame might be illuminated, it has equal importance to the larger shadow area – more so I’d say. Really the darkness is a frame for the main subject – in this case Leonardo’s face. The foreground and background shadow just pushes our eye to the light.

Of course, shooting in circumstances like this presents problems that need to be overcome. The main two, when shooting Low Key style images is focusing in the low light and shutter speed. On this image, I had to get the AF to focus on his eye quickly before the light went out. The only way to do it was to choose a Single Spot AF  and aim it on his face where the shadow and highlights created some contrast. Sounds easy? It wasn’t – there is a lot less contrast there than it looks and that’s what autofocus needs.

As for shutter speed, the larger the main area of shadow is, the less shutter speed you have. There’s no light, the camera shouts help, and you find yourself handholding at speeds that are going to cause camera shake or subject movement. There are two solutions and you’ll probably need a combination of both.

You can take a Spot or Partial meter reading from the brightest area – Leonardo’s face for example – as that at least will tell the camera the area you want to be ‘correctly’ exposed. The trouble is, that might actually take out too much detail leaving the shadow areas even darker than you want. Plus, depending on the available light, you still might not have a fast-enough shutter speed.

I actually favour sticking with Evaluative/Matrix metering and using Exposure Compensation to either brighten or darken the shot. That means a test shot though, so Leonardo had to strike a few matches! When a test shot isn’t possible, use Spot Metering.

Of course, the shutter speed is overcome by ISO. Turn it up! The image of Leonardo is ISO 1600 at f/2.8! This gave me a shutter speed of just 1/60sec but, as I was using a wide-angle lens, I knew I could handhold it.

Here are a few more Low Key-style images…

Wildlife: While there is some backlighting here which isn't 'strictly' Low Key, the dominating shadows framing the gorilla and the highlights on his eyes and the shape of his face create an interesting image of a shy creature peering tentatively from the undergrowth.
Landscape: Early morning on the dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia – the low raking sun illuminates a sliver of the sand while the area behind and in front fall into deep shadow.
Architecture: The interior of an abandoned factory in Cyprus. The muted light through windows creates the necessary contrast to provide shape and form but the shadows dominate to give a moody atmosphere.
Published in Camera Skills
1 Comment
  1. I am writing a test piece.

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