What is Low Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography

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Editors Note: What is Low Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography was originally written by Mark Cleghorn for www.lastoliteschoolofphotography.com and has been reproduced with permission.

low key 6 - Top Tip

Low Key Top Tip

What is Low Key (Lighting)?

If you want an image with impact and with a minimal amount of equipment low key photography is right for you as one light controlled well can result in amazing images and very dramatic results.


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One light creates instant impact in a portrait.

Key – As grey is referred to as a mid-tone, black is in the lower level of brightness in tone and hence referred to as ‘Low Key’.  Any image that is dark or black, with the majority of the tonal range in the low brightness level can be referred to as low key; this could be a night time study or a portrait taken inside a room using a small desk light for illumination.

It is always easier to start with a solid black background like a roll of paper but any background is basically black until it is illuminated with light.  Even a white background can be made to look black if no light is allowed to spill onto it and reflect on its surface.  If the light is allowed to spill onto a background it is referred to as contamination and it will affect the end result so make sure you control your lighting to maximize the depth of black in the image.

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Control is the key to low key portraiture as any light spilling onto the background may create a washy contaminated black background.

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Black and White images seem to go to the next level with low key portraiture.

What is High Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography

The term high key has been hi-jacked by the portrait photographer and often refers to white or light setting, often a roll of white background paper where the overall portrait is white or in a pastel tone, which is complimented with the subjects in similar light clothing.

low key 4 - Simple Low Key

Simple Low Key

Simple Low Key – A Lastolite black velvet collapsible background and one studio flash to light the subject with is a simple low key studio setup. Velvet absorbs a lot of light before it is allowed to reflect any back and show any detail in the background, so it is perfect for small studios as well as photographers who need to be more portable with quick set-ups, especially as it will absorb any key light spillage.

Styling – The type of portrait you shoot is obviously down to your taste as well as; more importantly, your clients needs.  The difference being that you may want to shoot a hard lit style of character portrait, showing warts and all as the saying goes whilst your subject may actually want to look better than in real life, with a few years taken off their face with good lighting making them look younger.

low key 5 - Hard Lighting

Use a combination of slow shutter speeds and off camera flash to create dynamic images.

Hard Lighting – Bare bulb flash is a simple and effective way to create character in a portrait as heavy shadows will instantly be created in the crevices of the face, emphasizing the lines and the harsh reality of life.  If you want to lift some of the shadow detail in the portrait without introducing a second light source try using a Lastolite TriGrip white reflector in front of the subject.

Soft lighting – By softening your light source whether it is flash or daylight the tonal range especially in portraiture will be soft, add to this a reflector from below the light source and a great looking portrait is always produced.