When I first started working with studio photography I would look at low key studio portraits taken by other photographers and be in awe of the dark, moody, and atmospheric lighting that they were able to create. I also thought that these shots would be very hard to setup and shoot myself. The truth has it though that the formula for setting up low key lighting is much simpler than it looks. In fact, it is easier to create than many other forms of studio lighting effects.
The main element of low key photography is that it is a very high contrast form of lighting. High contrast meaning it has a sharp transition from the bright areas of light to the dark areas of shadow in the photo.
In order to create this look, there is no light positioned directly in front of the model. Normally the light source for low key photography is placed either directly to the side or behind the model to create this lighting effect.
Low key lighting isn’t suitable for all types of photographic purposes though, but if you want to create a photo which looks artistic and atmospheric then it works very well for that type of a shot. I find it is best used for black and white purposes and for studio portraits and artistic nudes and I use only carefully controlled strobe flashes for the low key lighting setups I am going to discuss.
The first thing to do to start shooting low key is to setup your camera with the proper settings. Next is to test out your settings to make sure that the ambient light in the studio is not going to brighten your photos with light in areas where you don’t want it.
Start by setting your camera to an ISO setting of 100. This will make your sensor less sensitive to ambient light and helps to prevent the camera from picking up extra light from unwanted ambient light sources in the studio. It will also minimize noise in the shadow areas of your photos, which is important since your pictures will have at least 50% darkness.
Then set your shutter speed to 1/125. This relatively fast shutter speed will also help to prevent the sensor from picking up any ambient light, but it will still allow the camera to sync with your studio flashes, which is key.
Now set your aperture to F/11. This will give you nice, crisp, and sharp edge detail on the model. This is important because the sharp edges of the model play an important role in the look of this style of photography. F/11 is also a rather narrow aperture which will help to prevent the sensor from picking up any of the unwanted ambient light as well.
Next, prepare to shoot the model against a black fabric, non-reflective backdrop to increase darkness around the model. This will also add to the overall dark atmosphere of the photos.
Lastly, setup a good, continuous light source in front of the model, known as a modeling light, so that you have enough ambient light to be able to auto-focus your camera easily on the model. This ambient light will be very weak relative to your camera sensor’s low sensitivity and will have little, if any effect at all on your photos, especially when shooting at the camera settings I provided above.
The next thing to do is take a test shot without any flash first to test the ambient light in the studio and ensure it is not having any effect on your photos. If what I say is correct, then you should end up with a completely dark test shot.
Assuming your test shot is black confirms that the ambient light present in the studio will have no impact on the amount of light resulting in your photos when you actually start shooting with flash.
The heavy darkness on 1/2 to 2/3 of the model that you are aiming to achieve will now come down to the placement of the studio flashes themselves in respect to the position of the model, plus the amount of power being output by the flashes.
The next step is to start setting up your studio lighting for low key. First thing is to prepare 1 or 2 soft boxes of 1 meter to 1.20 meters long each. Soft boxes will give you a good disbursement of light from top to bottom on the model and give you a nice soft and diffused finish on your model’s skin.
Pictured below is a 1.2 meter long strip softbox which is what I prefer to use. A strip softbox emits a narrower beam of light than the more common square shaped softbox. A narrower beam will work better for low key lighting in that it spreads out less light on the model and gives you the higher percentage of darkness you are aiming for.
There are the two basic flash lighting setups I use. For simplicity purposes I am going to call them back light setups and side light setups.
A back light setup basically places the light or lights at a position close to 180 degrees to the camera or at roughly between 10:00-11:00 or 1:00-2:00. This assumes your camera is positioned at 6:00. If you want one side of the model to be in total darkness then you should setup just one back light on only one side of the model. If you want light to appear on both sides of the model then you should setup two back lights, one each at around 10:30 and 1:30. In my opinion, since the back light angle of the light will result in heavy darkness throughout the photo, I would use two back lights, one on either side, so that there is at least some light on both sides of the model. Otherwise, with just one back light, and a dark background, you might feel that the overall photo has too much shadow. The result of a two back light shot is what you see below.
The one thing you need to be concerned with though when using back light like this is that the back lights don’t emit light that goes directly into your camera and then causes lens flare. The simplest way to avoid lens flare from occurring is to hang a piece of black fabric in front of each light in the direction of the camera in order to prevent the light from the back lights from entering into your camera when they fire.
If you are curious what type of lighting equipment I use, well, after trying out many different brands, I am now using all Elinchrom studio strobes as I have found over the last 10 years that Elinchrom offers the best value and quality for the money. I stick to mainly 600 watt monolight strobes (I don’t like power-pack setups because they are bulky so I use only monolights). A monolight (a.k.a. monobloc in Europe) is a self-contained studio flash head which has the power transformer built in.
The Elinchrom 600 watt per second strobes are generally enough power for most studio applications. The Elincrom 500 watt strobes are often adequate power too if you are on a tighter budget, but stay away from the less expensive Elinchrom D-Lite models as they are only 400 watts power, as they may not have enough power for many applications, and the D-Lite monolights are not such great build quality either.
There is a great Elinchrom 600 watt monolight kit here and a lower cost Elinchrom 500 watt monolight kit here, both available on Amazon with free shipping. Or, if you just want to purchase the monolight strobe heads individually you can buy the Elinchrom 600 watt monolight heads here and you can buy the Elinchrom 500 watt monolight heads here, again with free shipping from Amazon.
I am going to end the first part of this article here. Part 2 will start with setting up side lighting for low key. Click here to continue reading Part 2 of this article.
*UPDATE #1 / 7-November-14* – See my newest article about How To Setup High-Key Studio Lighting here.