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This post was most recently updated on November 7th, 2021

Using a lowkey light in photography and videography is essentially shooting in low light conditions, or in the dark. It is often considered to be one of the hardest forms of lighting to master, as many things can go wrong, and it’s very tricky to get it just right for those perfect results.

Nevertheless, the effort is absolutely worth it. Playing with shadows, and light and dark, can make for some dramatic and powerful storytelling within the end picture result, and the aesthetic will look professional, drawing people’s interest in.

Of course, in order to put in the effort and achieve lowkey light pictures, you first have to understand what lowkey lighting is, how to use it, and exactly what you need. So we’re going to tell you all about that!

What Is Lowkey Lighting?

Let’s start with the very basics, defining exactly what lowkey lighting is.

Put simply, lowkey lighting is a specific style of lighting in photography and film, in which there is a strong emphasis on shadows and the contrast between light and dark. The aim is to have the subject stand out from the environment, with a hard source of lighting that provides light within a dark space.

The main traits of lowkey lighting photography are deep blacks, darkness, and shadows. No whites, and no midtones.

While other types of photography use the three-point lighting setup, in order to achieve the lowkey lighting it is necessary to instead just use the key light. (Of course, a setup can vary depending on the exact result the photographer wants, and you can play around with the “rules” and experiment to discover what works best, but in lowkey lighting, it is typical to just use a single source of light, so that the shadows are more dramatic).

Should You Use Lowkey Lighting?

Before we continue explaining different aspects of lowkey lighting, we would like to talk about whether you should use it or not, and when it is most effective to do so.

Lowkey lighting, as a general rule, is used mainly to achieve a strong sense of atmosphere, and a specific type of mood. Lowkey lighting makes any scene look dramatic, mysterious, and in some setups, creepy or scary. It can also convey sensuality, drawing the viewer in, which is why lowkey lighting is often used for commercials and to showcase items of high status.

Lowkey lighting leaves the viewer wanting to know, and see, more. And you can use that to your advantage.

To make it easier, here are some of the main uses for lowkey lighting, in which it is most effective:

  • Commercials and teasers
  • Dramatic storytelling or portraits
  • Horror photography and videography
  • To create a mystery of any kind

However, it is also important to say that lowkey lighting isn’t always a good idea. It is not the most ideal form of lighting for casual or day-to-day photography, or for anything that is cheery, lighthearted, or upbeat. Lowkey lighting naturally has a more serious tone, whether that be sensual, mysterious, high-class, or horror.

Also, lowkey lighting is not easy to use, and therefore, it is not usually recommended for beginners, or for those that are still in the midst of developing basic techniques and skills. But don’t let that stop you! After all, practice is what makes perfect, and you have to start somewhere.

What You Need To Achieve Lowkey Lighting In Photography

In photography, using the right gear is essential, and the same goes for specific lighting set-ups, especially if you’re looking to achieve a very particular end result.

So, here are the main things that you will need in order to aptly achieve some lowkey lighting photographs:

A Camera

You can’t take photos without a camera, but for the best results, you need the right type of camera. Specifically, a camera that will be able to shoot in high quality while in low lighting, this is key.

Look for a camera with which you can set the ISO to a low setting, either to 100 or to as low as it can go. (A low ISO will allow the image to remain dark, with a low amount of noise. Higher ISO means the camera is more sensitive to light, and therefore there is more light in the image, which you want to avoid!)

It is also best to have a fast shutter speed, and then you adjust as you go along until you hit the sweet spot.

We also recommend that you use a full-frame camera, as they usually reduce the amount of noise in the final picture!

The Right Lens

As you must know, there are many different types of lenses that you can use with a camera, and they all affect the final result of the picture. Most standard lenses will have an aperture of more or less f/3.5, but the amount of light in these won’t be apt. Instead, we recommend a lens with a maximum aperture of around f/1.4.

Alternatively, simply start with a low f-number, and work your way up until you are happy with the results!

The Key Light

Lowkey lighting still requires a source of light, but a single key light should suffice. This can be artificial, or natural, depending on your setup. (Artificial will, of course, be a lot easier to control and adjust).

If you want the shadows to be slightly less harsh, you can use a reflector. But most lowkey lighting wants to have dramatic contrasts and shadows. Just play around and adjust depending on what you like!

What we do recommend, is keeping the subject close to the key light, and avoiding any light in the background, as this will detract from the main scene.

A Backdrop (Optional)

As we’ve stated, a backdrop is optional, however, having one makes things a lot easier. A black or dark-colored background will ensure the subject is isolated, and that there isn’t a distracting background that might otherwise ruin the end result. It also ensures that everything fits within the dark atmosphere and mood!

Others Items

There are plenty of other items that you can incorporate into your setup, but this will depend on what you like and dislike, and what you end up wanting. Photography is all about experimenting and playing around, and once you find something that works, you stick to it!

Tips For When Using Lowkey Lighting

Using lowkey lighting is hard, and not recommended for beginners. In fact, lowkey lighting is regarded as highly professional and advanced, because it is very tricky to get a high-quality result, seeing as it requires a lot of effort and technique.

So to help you out on your journey of perfecting this lighting setup, here are some handy tips!

Use a fast lens. Seriously, this will save the quality of the pictures. If the shutter is open for too long, the photos will be full of noise, and hardly any definition. A fast lens, on the other hand, allows for that crisp sharpness, despite the darkness!

You don’t use a lot of light in lowkey lighting, which is why the one source of light needs to be as high-quality as possible! This is the trickiest part, getting the light just right, but it will make all the difference.

Always shoot in RAW when doing lowkey lighting. That way, you can edit the pictures afterward, and adjust them to perfection.