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Low Key Lighting: Creating Drama and Depth

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Low Key Lighting

The art of photography is as much about lighting as it is about the subject itself. Indeed, in the hands of a skilled photographer, lighting can transform the mundane into the magnificent. In this article, I will discuss one of the most dramatic lighting techniques: low key lighting.

Often likened to chiaroscuro—the dramatic interplay of light and shadow in classical painting—low key lighting is a photography technique that breathes life, depth, and emotion into seemingly straightforward compositions. Picture those striking portraits where the subject is tantalizingly absorbed into the dark, or still-life captures wherein the dance of shadows engenders an atmosphere of mystery. Such is the compelling charm of low key lighting, painting the canvas of photography with its uniquely dynamic brushstrokes.

I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer and event photographer, and if you would like for me to be your low key lighting photographer and create stunning images for you, please contact me at! Also, to learn more about high contrast photos, feel free to read my article "High Contrast Photos."

Also, be sure to follow me on Instagram and YouTube!

What is Low Key Lighting?

Low Key Lighting

The term "low key" traditionally refers to lighting setups that feature predominantly dark tones and colors. These low key light setups often have high contrast between the darkest and lightest parts of the image, with very few mid-tones. The result is an image that commands attention, drawing viewers in with its emphasis on shadow and form.

Low Key Lighting

Low key lighting isn't exclusive to photography. It's a technique borrowed from the world of motion pictures (especially horror movies) and theatre, where low key lighting creates a sense of drama, suspense, or melancholy. In photography, it's a powerful tool in your repertoire, whether you're shooting portraits, product photography, or even macro work.

Creating Low Key Lighting

Low Key Lighting

Embrace the allure of the dark side as I go into the process of creating low key lighting. From mastering the art of using minimal light sources to manipulating shadows to your advantage, I will guide you in transforming simple setups into visually captivating, dramatic mood scenes.


Venturing into the world of low key photography doesn't necessitate a colossal inventory of fancy gear. Rather, it's about understanding and making the most out of a few key pieces of equipment. From your adaptable camera to carefully chosen light sources and modifiers, each tool plays a crucial role in crafting the dark, dramatic imagery that defines this stunning style of photography.


Any camera with manual control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Light Source

This could be a speedlight, studio strobe, or even a table lamp.

Light Modifiers

Softboxes, grid spots, or snoots can help shape and control the light. These can be used as a key light or a fill light to create the desired low key lighting setup.

Dark Background

Black velvet works great due to its non-reflective qualities.


Reflectors act as a fill light to manage the light and fill in shadows, if necessary.

Setting up the Shot

Diving into the fascinating process of setting up a low key shot is akin to becoming a conductor of a grand symphony of shadows and light. It's about making careful decisions on positioning, light control, and exposure to orchestrate an image that tells a story through contrast and form.

Background Setup

Start with a dark background (such as a dark grey background) for your low key lighting setups. It's crucial because if too much light hits a light-colored background, it will reflect back and reduce the contrast you're trying to achieve.

Light Positioning

Position your light source so it illuminates your subject from the side, above, or below, rather than straight on. This creates shadows that emphasize texture and form.

Exposure Settings

Set your camera to expose correctly for the lit part of the subject. This means the shadows will fall into deep black, enhancing the contrast. Experiment with different settings to achieve the desired effect.


Post-processing can help you adjust contrast, manage shadows, and highlight the details in your subject. Don’t be afraid to use software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to refine your low key images.

Low Key Lighting Tips and Tricks

Low Key Lighting

While the steps above give you a basic road map, mastering low key lighting comes down to practice and a few additional tips. Here are a few tips which I hope will help you achieve the low key lighting effect and low key photos which you desire:

Control Your Light

Keep your light source narrow and focused. This ensures light falls where you want, and shadows remain deep and dramatic.

Less is More

Embrace the shadows. They are not your enemy, but your allies in creating mood and form.

Experiment with Color

Low key doesn't mean you're limited to black and white. Bold, saturated colors against dark backgrounds can create stunning, emotive images.

Understand Your Subject

Different subjects require different approaches. For instance, when shooting portraits, try to emphasize the subject's facial features or expression.

Shoot in RAW

This provides more control in post-processing, especially when recovering shadow details.

High Key Lighting vs. Low Key Lighting

Low Key Lighting

In the world of photography, light is the secret ingredient that adds flavor to every shot. Two opposing, yet equally compelling techniques—high key lighting and low key lighting—serve as prime examples of how light can drastically shift a photo's mood and message.

High key lighting is reminiscent of a bright, sunny day. High key images are flooded with light, minimal shadows, and a sense of airy positivity. The scene feels open and welcoming, bathed in whites and light tones, projecting an ambiance of joy, innocence, or even an ethereal quality. Keep this in mind if you want to achieve high key lighting shots.

Unlike high key lighting, a low key lighting setup produces a low light scene, like a moonlit night that is cloaked in mystery. Its essence lies in selective illumination (using a key light) and the masterful use of shadows to create high contrast, dramatic imagery. Dominated by blacks and dark shadows/darker tones/harsh shadows, low key shots convey a mood that's intense, captivating, and brimming with intrigue.


Low key lighting is a remarkable technique that, when mastered, can transform your photography. It opens up a world of possibilities, allowing you to depict subjects in new, intriguing, and dynamic ways. As with any portrait photography technique, practice is key. So, go ahead and explore the shadows, embrace the mystery, and let your creativity shine in the captivating world of low key lighting photography. You might just find that some of your best work is created in the heart of darkness.

I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer and event photographer, and if you would like for me to be your low key lighting photographer and create stunning images for you, please contact me at! Also, to learn more about high contrast photos, feel free to read my article "High Contrast Photos."

Also, be sure to follow me on Instagram and YouTube!


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