April 17, 2014

What is Low Key Photography?

Low key photography makes use of dark tones and colors. The main component of a low key photograph is shadow. The idea here is to direct the viewers’ attention directly to the subject by increasing the contrast in the image thereby giving it a dramatic look.

Unlike high key photography where we use a lot of light, low key requires much less (only the most important features/elements are illuminated and the rest are kept in the shadows).

This helps convey atmosphere and mood to the viewers, when high key images feels airy, light and rich low key images feel dramatic and is full of mystery.

Low Key Lighting in Art

Artists discovered the potential of low key lighting long before photographers came around. Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque periods (14th–16th centuries) often used a technique known as "chiaroscuro" to get similar dramatic tones for their images. Chiaroscuro comes from the Italian "chiaro" meaning clear/light and "oscuro" meaning obscure/dark.

Chiaroscuro It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.

The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst

Why is it called Low Key Photography?

In photography, we refer the mid tones as key tones, and we attain low key effect by placing these key tones low on the exposure scale thus making them darker. The majority of the tones in a low key photograph will be below 128. So low key photography means the image’s key tones are low.

Low-key image vs. Underexposed image

A low-key image and an underexposed image are totally two different things. Underexposed images are flat, with bad highlights or whites which is totally opposite of what we get in a low-key shot. Low key images have high contrast, which means a good white as well as plenty of deep blacks.

Camera Settings and Light setup

For low key shots, the camera settings can actually vary quite widely. In most of the cases,

- Set Camera in Manual mode.

- Set the ISO to lowest say ISO 100

- Set the shutter speed to the maximum flash sync speed/ strobe sync speed (1/200 sec in this case)

- Keep the light source as close as possible to the subject to avoid spill.

- Use a smaller aperture (Higher aperture value) to cut down the ambient light.

- Take a test shot and increase/ decrease the aperture and/ or ISO and or Flash output to match your taste.

The trick is to minimize the light entering the camera while not making everything too dark. The below image shows an overview of the setup I used to generate these images.

To make the light more directional and to avoid spill, you can either use a snoot on a speed light (Nikon SB 910 in my case) or zoom-in the speedlight to its maximum. In this case, Nikon SB 910 has a zoom range of 17 mm to 200 mm on FX which was zoomed to it's maximum i.e. 200 mm.


One of the great things about photography is that even though there are a millions of different rules – rules of composition, rules of lighting, rules of exposure – there are really aren’t any rules.

Almost all photography ‘rules’ can be broken with good results, provided you know what you’re doing. Experimenting with low-key and high-key images is one way to push the boundaries of those rules.


Rohan Mishra Photography- Creative Weddings and lifestyle photoshoots.

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