Low Key Photography: A Guide to Dark and Dramatic Photos

If you’re interested in learning how to shoot emotional, dramatic, dark, and moody photographs then look no further. This guide will teach you how! Low key photos are dark and dramatic, but shooting low key photography is much more than just underexposing your shot. 

This guide will explain what low key photography is; what gear you need; how to edit your shots; and we’ll give you several tips to get you started as a low key photographer. 

low key photography
Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

What is low key photography?

Like we mentioned above, low key photography is not low light photography. It is more than just a dark, underexposed photo. It refers to a style of photography that uses low, directional lighting and dark tones to produce high contrast, dramatic images. 

In a typical photograph, you try to avoid harsh shadows, especially on your subject’s face. However, with low key photography, deep shadows are considered a main element of the image — almost as important as the subject itself.

Low key photography is usually used in portrait and still life photography, but you can find it in almost any genre.

History of low key photography

Low key photography has its roots in the Renaissance when painters began using a technique called chiaroscuro and experimented with producing darker and moodier art. Chiaroscuro comes from the Italian “chiaro” meaning clear/light and “oscuro” meaning obscure/dark.

history of low key
An example of chiaroscuro in art: The Hundred Guilder Print, c.1647-1649 By Rembrandt 

What gear do you need for low key photography?

Having the right equipment is essential for any genre of photography. That holds true for low key photography, too. Here’s a list of some basic gear you’re going to need if you want to shoot low key photographs:

  • Camera: A DSLR or mirrorless camera that gives you the ability to manually adjust your exposure settings and change your lenses is a must for shooting low key photography. When shooting in very dark settings, it’s necessary to be able to have complete control over your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to produce high-quality images.
  • Lens: the lens you choose will largely depend on what you’re shooting and where you’re shooting. But, definitely go for a “fast” lens — one with a wide maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 or wider. If budget is a concern, a 50mm f/1.8 “nifty fifty” is a fantastic low-cost option that’s perfect for low key photography.
  • Lighting: While low key lighting doesn’t require a lot of light, it does use some specific, directional lighting. If you plan to shoot in a studio, a basic lighting kit with one strobe light will be sufficient.
  • Black Backdrop: this is a necessity for shooting classic low key studio portraits.
  • Light Modifiers: again, if you’re shooting in the studio, light modifiers like softboxes, reflectors, snoots, diffusers and more will help you get the directional light you need to perfect your images. Even if you shoot out of the studio, a reflector can be useful to redirect light where you want it.
low key bicycle
Photo by Josh Nuttall on Unsplash

Camera settings for low key photography

Camera settings can vary quite a bit for low key photography, but here are some basic settings to start with, then you can adjust as necessary to get the look you want.

  • Set your camera to manual so you have complete control over your exposure settings. It will be very difficult to achieve a dark, high contrast, low key image otherwise.
  • Set your ISO to its lowest native setting. For most cameras, this is 100. This will ensure that your image is dark but not noisy.
  • Start with a wide aperture. This will let in a lot of light, but this is your starting point. Adjust the aperture as necessary to darken the image but be aware that closing your aperture will also narrow your depth of field.
  • Start with a fast shutter speed. This will keep your images dark. This is also a starting point. Adjust the shutter speed as necessary to lighten the image, but be aware that a slow shutter speed could introduce motion blur.
  • Shoot in RAW. This will give you greater editing control in post-processing.
charger low key
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Tips for shooting low key photography

Having the right gear and knowing what settings to use is important, but the secret to nailing the perfect low key shots will come through getting out there and practicing. That said, here are some tips and tricks to get you started:

Try black and white

When you think about low key portraits, one of the first things that comes to mind is probably a dramatic black and white. This is a popular choice because you don’t have the distraction of color. The black and white accentuate the contrast between the light and dark. So if you’re having trouble getting your image to look like a low key photo, try converting it to black and white.

low key flower
Photo by Carlos Quintero on Unsplash

Use directional light

With low key photography, shadows are one of the most important parts of the image. And shadows are most dramatic when created by an intentional, single light source. Experiment with different types of lighting to achieve the drama you’re looking for, like side lighting and Rembrandt lighting.

side lighting
Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

Remember textures

Low key photography offers a great way to emphasize interesting textures and celebrate shapes and curves. Use light and shadow to draw attention to wrinkles, lines, fur, skin, texture, and more.

low key chimp
Photo by Rishi Ragunathan on Unsplash

Editing low key photos

Most professional photographers will tell you they aren’t finished with their images until they edit them in Lightroom or Photoshop. Post-processing will be extremely important with low key photos, too. 

You’ll just want to make a few tweaks to perfect your images, like deepen the shadows and increase the contrast.

low key band
Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

Final thoughts

To recap, a low key photograph is not just a low light photograph. What it lacks in light, it makes up for with contrast, emotion, drama, and moodiness. It’s one of the more difficult genres of photography to really perfect. Now you know what it takes to create your own low key images. All that’s left is for you to practice, practice, practice!

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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