Low Key Photography


The roaring lion by Karsh.  A famous Low Key Portrait of Winston Churchill


High Key and Low Key are terms that derive from stage and early film.  They relate to artificial lighting arrangements.  The face of the actor on the stage is lit by the key light.  They may also have other lights like back and side lighting.  When the key light is turned up high – you get a high key effect (bright) and when it is down low, low key (dark).  It is not hard to see how this terminology has come across to portrait photography, and from there to still life.  However we also use these terms for natural light portraiture, landscape photography and other genres that do not use artificial lighting.  I guess it has derived a second meaning.  High key refers to a picture dominated by highlights and a low key image is one dominated by shadows.  The following two line drawings by Pablo Picasso (in ink) and Henri Matisse (lino cut) could be described as high and low key, even though there is no attempt to portray light effects in either image.

One artist that is often quoted when talking about low key images is the Italian Renaissance artist, Caravaggio.


Salome with the head of john the Baptist – Caravaggio

The figures are lit dramatically on a black background, their shaded parts receding into the shadows and the highlights jumping out of the page at you.  It is almost a 3D effect.  This approach is referred to as chiaroscuro.  Many photographers chose to emulate this style.  Below is a parody of Caravaggio by Scallywag Fox.


Low Key for Beginners.

So what do you do?  How do you take a low key photograph?  My Camera has a high and a  low key preset.  You have to go to the scene menu.

In Camera Hi and Lo Key

The presets look very similar to the effects you would get if you moved the exposure compensation to +1 and -1.

There are low key filters in some of the post production software.  For Instance NIK filters colour Efex Pro (below). There are a lot of sliders and controls.  I guess you have to play around until you get the image how you want it.  It seems to be doing something very grunge like.

Colour Effex Low Key

This is where I declare that the presets and the filters don’t work for me.  I think you need more.  There is a lot of compositional work that goes in to making a good Low Key image.  I’m sure that the filters and  presets would help to enhance a good low key composition.  They certainly don’t make instant low key out of nothing.

Lighting setup

This is how I would go about constructing a lighting setup for doing low key still life or portraiture.

My camera is a Nikon D7000.

I want to use off camera flash.  I have 2 flash units that I can control through Nikon Flash control.  However I prefer to use my cactus remote triggers. (see the article on remote flash triggers).

The background needs to be black.  We bought a long sheet of matt cloth that we attach to the curtain rail with pegs.  Another shorter piece we can drape over the kitchen table.

I have learnt that you need to control the spread of light from the flash.  It would be nice to have a proper soft box.  What I actually do is place the flash on a tripod (or similar) and use bits of black card to stop the light from going too far forward to create lens flare, or backwards to illuminate the black cloth.  What I’m trying to achieve is a vertical band of light coming from the side to light just the subject.  Actually it works well if you can illuminate from both left and right  to avoid losing the back of the subject in heavy black shadows.

Lighting Setup

Dusty Ornament

The final image is well lit (not dark), but is surrounded by deep blackness.   Personally I don’t like purely underexposed images being passed off as low key images.  Some element in the image should have correct exposure.   It isolates the subject very effectively from the background drawing the viewer to look at the figures.  (Post script – I would have done better if I had dusted the ornament before photographing it.)

There is an element of guess work when using flash lites.  You don’t know how it will turn out until you see the test image.  Sometimes you can practice  lighting by using desk lights.  At least you can see what you are going to get.  Move the lights to get the light and shadow to fall correctly on the subject.  In portraiture concentrate on the face.   See if you can create the classic lighting setups, Rembrandt lighting, loop lighting, butterfly lighting, side lighting, rim lighting etc.  If you have never heard those terms – go and look them up.

Low Key Portraiture

Just put a person in place of the ornament.  Moving backwards and forward may alter the amount of shadow on the face.


Some people prefer to work in monochrome.

B&W A cup of Coffee

Rim lighting effects can be achieved by placing the lights behind the subject.

James Allan - B&W Cuppa A4

A lot of the really cool minimalist low key portraits I’ve seen on the internet use principally rim lighting.

Natural light Low Key

Keep an eye out for images that will be enhanced by going Low Key.  You can adjust the exposure of the image with lightroom or photoshop.  I prefer to use curves, but many people like the white / highlight / exposure / shadows / black sliders in Lightroom or  Camera Raw.   Alternatively use the Low key filter in Nik Filters.  A judicious use of low key treatment can really lift the odd image.


Well that’s about all I can think of for the time being.  Good luck with playing around with this.