This post is part 2 of the article published on 30-Oct-2013 entitled How To Setup Low Key Studio Lighting. You can click here to read part 1 of this article.

The second type of low key lighting setup is where you use light from the side of the model by placing the light at either 9:00 or 3:00 or simply at 45 degrees to the camera on either side of the model. In this type of a lighting setup I found that just one light is best because if you have a light on both sides of the model at both 9:00 and 3:00 you will end up with very little shadow except for the area in the very center of the model’s body. So, with light on both sides of the model, the resulting photo would not end up very low-key looking, which then defeats the purpose. The example image seen below I shot with just one side light positioned at 9:00 while the camera was positioned at 6:00:

Once you setup your lighting the way you want it though you may find that you still want more shadow on the dark side of the model. One way of achieving this is to hang a black bounce on the opposite side of the subject facing back in the direction of the side light.

A black bounce is a dark piece of fabric. Felt or velvet is the best fabric to use for this because both are very non-reflective fabrics. What the black bounce does is prevent any light from bouncing back onto the dark side of the model which may occur from light from the flash bouncing off of other surfaces in the studio. By using the black bounce it allows you to darken the dark side of the model even more without affecting the amount of light on the bright side of the model. This is what I had done in the side light portrait (shown above) in order to increase the amount of darkness on the dark side of the model.

This next photo shows you what it looks like when you mix a blend of sidelight with back light. It shows how you can be a bit flexible when it comes to the position of the lights in order to create different ratios of highlights to shadows for different types of high-contrast, low key photos. I used a light gray paper backdrop on this setup instead of black fabric which also helped to pick up a bit of the flash light from my sidelight and bounce it back onto the model:


So that is about it in terms of the simple studio lighting setups for low key photography. The bigger mounting question now is how do you know how much light power to use from your flashes when shooting at F/11 in order to give you the dark, atmospheric look that you want.

The truth is there is no exact science to this. It is somewhat trial and error and it depends a lot on how much of a dark atmosphere you are trying to achieve in your photos. You could use a light meter to set your back lights to a certain F-Stop if you want, but I find it easier to do it by eye. What I normally do is first set my camera to ISO 100, F/11, and 1/125 as instructed earlier. Then I set my light (or lights) to about half power and take a test shot with the model positioned on the backdrop. I then look at the camera preview screen to see how strong the lighting is where I want it to be bright and how dark it is where I want it to be dark. If the lighting is too strong on the bright side of the model then I normally reduce power of the studio flash or increase the power if the bright area of the model is too dark. And when setting the power on the light, I don’t worry about how much light is hitting the dark side of the model. I base it all on the bright side. But if I am getting too much light on the side of the model that I wish to have dark then I normally setup a black bounce as I mentioned above to help darken that area. You can also adjust the falloff of the lighting by moving the flash(s) a bit further back behind the model. As you move the studio flashes further behind you will notice that the percentage of shadow area in your photo also increases so there is a possible tradeoff there.

If you still can’t get the dark side totally dark the way you want it then you can easily just darken the shadows during post processing with a levels adjustment in Photoshop for example. This will normally darken the shadows a lot without affecting the bright areas of the photo very much at all. It is a very easy post processing adjustment to make on your low key shots and you will find that it really helps to increase the overall contrast and desired dark looking effect of your final photo.

If you have any questions on this technique please feel free to post them below and I will answer them as soon as I can. Enjoy!

*UPDATE #1 / 7-November-14* – See my newest article about How To Setup High-Key Studio Lighting here.

*UPDATE #2 / 12-December-14* – 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.