Creating Sharper Looking Portrait Photos Using Low Key Lighting

Low key lighting in portrait photography can do one really big thing for your subject: make them pop out from the background a whole lot more. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of portraiture? To make someone stand out and be the primary subject? When combined with very specific lighting, your subject can really come across front and center so to speak. So for the most part, I want you to imagine that an actor or actress is on stage for a bit of theatre. A spotlight comes in on them and the rest of the stage isn’t lit at all. In fact, it’s incredibly dark. So more or less, you’re really just seeing your subject and nothing else. That’s how low key lighting works.

So here’s how you make it work to create better portraits.

What is Low Key Lighting?

Low key lighting is very popular right now because a whole lot of people really digg the high contrast look. High contrast makes a scene and your subject look sharper, which we’ll explain in just a moment. But to consider how low key lighting works, consider a lot of noir films where the world around a subject is incredibly, dimly lit. Because of the way our eyes work, low key lighting doesn’t occur a whole lot naturally. Our eyes adjust to be able to see the world in a high dynamic range. But low key lighting typically has a very low dynamic range. The shadows and dark areas are very deep and the highlights are very specific. There isn’t a whole lot otherwise; and that’s why you have to think about spotlights.

Low key lighting is specifically used in story telling to draw a subject’s eye to a particular part of a scene. That’s how it works in cinema but it can be applied to photography for sure.

How Does Low Key Lighting Work in Portraiture?

To begin, good portraiture uses three main colors: the subject’s skin tones, their wardrobe and the background. Each of these colors contrasts enough from one another in the ROYGBIV scale to make them different from one another. Your background is pretty much always very dark, but your subject and their wardrobe are brightly illuminated.

In portraiture, all you really need to do is use a very specifically tuned light source on your subject. Typically this makes sense with smaller but still soft output light modifiers. So generally you’re not reaching for a six foot parabolic umbrella as much as you are going for a more controlled light modifier. You see, an umbrella has what’s called inefficient light output–which means it isn’t very targeted or controlled. That’s part of the beauty of an umbrella though. But efficient light is highly targeted and controlled; it doesn’t spread all over the place. Think of it as the difference between a hose and a fire hydrant spout. The hose targets and controls the water but the hydrant spreads it out all over the place.

How Low Key Lighting Makes Portraits Look Sharper

So here’s the bigger question: how does low key lighting make portraits look sharper? Well to start, note that it doesn’t make portraits sharper but instead it makes portraits look sharper. How is this possible? Well, the deeper the blacks in your photo are, the sharper your image will appear to the human eye when looking at a whole scene. This is because the human eye tends to just ignore the black areas due to them not having any sort of pertinent or important information. So the light being projected onto your subject instead provides more emphasis on said subject and their clothing.

Essentially, that’s how it works.

What Do You Need: Gear Recommendations

So what I do typically use to create low key lighting?

Lights

  • Adorama Flashpoint Zoom Lion: On a daily basis, this is my go-to flash. It’s small, powerful, portable, reliable and it’s pretty affordable too. It’s a speedlight, so it can go into smaller, tighter places.
  • Adorama Flashpoint Xplor600: I’ve got this in Canon TTL to be used with my Canon DSLRs. It’s got a whole lot of power output and just by using the umbrella reflector that comes with it, I typically have enough power and output to just shoot with it without a modifier.
  • Impact VentreTTL 600: I’ve got this in Sony TTL, and I REALLY love using this with Polaroid and Instax film.

Modifiers

  • Phottix Octa Luna: This light modifier is small enough for upper half-of-a-person portraits and also gives off soft enough light output. I’ve been using it for years.