Low Key Lighting in 3 Steps

3 Steps for a Suspenseful Image

Have you seen those images with a dark background and only a portion of the subject is exposed? Let’s create an image like that! Keep reading to learn how.

One of my preferred kinds of lighting is called Low Key lighting, or low key photography. You can easily identify it because most or all of the background is dark, but the subject, or a portion of it, is lit. In this post you’ll learn how to create this kind of lighting.

This is a style that was used in film-noir and some other film genres, in order to create a bit of suspense in the image, and make the viewer a little tense. That’s why I like it so much, it’s an effective way to create emotions on the viewer. I recently practiced low key lighting with Jessica (@jessicaa.mor), so come along to create similar images.

In order to create this lighting you can follow 3 simple steps.

Under-expose by 2 or 3 stops

You need to start with a dark frame, so let’s get to the scene, place our subject in front of the camera and meter so the image is under-exposed. Keep an eye on your shutter speed and don’t go beyond the sync-speed.

Take a Test Shot

Taking a test shot should tell you if you’re under-exposing enough. If you can see the subject clearly, keep close the diaphragm or go for a lower ISO and repeat this step.

Add Flash, Under-exposing by 1 Stop

You can now add flash, setting the power by using manual calculations based on the distance to the subject and your current diaphragm aperture (f-stop). Once you come up with a flash power setting, reduce it by 1 additional stop.

And now, you can shoot your image. There you have it! A mostly dark frame, with a subject that is barely lit.

Low Key Lighting - 01
ISO 100, f/2, 1/250 s, flash inside octabox at 1/16 power

Bonus Tip

When you try this technique, look for an open wide space and keep away from any walls that may reflect the light from your flash, This way you’ll make sure the flash barely touches your subject and it’s under control.

Just like any other photography technique, the best way to learn is to practice a lot. Why don’t you try it and tag me in your social media (@alexsilva_photography), so I can see your work?