- Portrait Photography: Low-Key vs High-Key
- How to Create a Low-Key Portrait
- Other Portrait Photography Tips
- Low-Key for High Quality
photo by LookAod via iStock
When creating portraits, control of the lighting is an essential factor in whether it will turn out as a wonderfully artful portrait or merely as a snapshot of the subject.
Some of the basic lighting styles and configurations allow a photographer to control shadows, highlights, and contrast.
Beginner portrait photography tips show you common lighting configurations, or how to place the lights. They include Rembrandt lighting, butterfly lighting, short lighting, and broad lighting, among others.
Lighting styles can use all of the different configurations or setups, and are generally separated into high-key, mid-key, and low-key.
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Portrait Photography: Low-Key vs High-Key
Most snapshots will fall into the range of mid-key. Averaging and evaluative metering modes in modern digital cameras tend to expose for a natural look.
High-key and low-key go beyond the average look. They are also sometimes referred to as mood lighting. A high-key image evokes a light and airy mood. Low-key feels subdued or dark, edgy even.
High-key image by Stephen Harker
Low-key image by Stephen Harker
As an example of what I mean, take a look at two photos above of the same exact thing, one exposed for high-key and one for low-key. Both of them are properly exposed, but they have two distinctly different moods to them.
It’s All About Contrast
In order to achieve these moods, contrast is what needs to be controlled. Lighting ratio adjustment is one of the primary ways to control contrast.
Portrait photography tips sometimes skip over talking about high-key and low-key, even though they are teaching lighting ratios by showing the different lighting configurations.
photo by Jenae Spriensma via iStock
To create a high-key effect, the contrast ratio needs to be lowered. This usually means that a low ratio of fill light to key light will be used. Ratios of 1:1, 1.5:1, or 2:1 make it easy to get the high-key look.
Generally, at least two lights will be used for high-key. A single soft light can also give you a high-key effect. Lighting the background also helps with creating a high-key effect.
photo by OtmarW via iStock
Low-key lighting is higher contrast. Ratios of 3:1, 5:1, or higher are useful for creating a low-key look. Just one light is needed, but multiple lights allow for more control of the ratios.
Exposure settings will need to be correct for the best results. One thought to get out of one’s head is that low-key is underexposed and high-key is overexposed. Both require proper exposure, just change the contrast ratios.
How To Create a Low-Key Portrait
photo by Kangah via iStock
The secret to a great low-key portrait is using the right lights. You could use sunlight, provided you place the subject carefully.
A consistent way to get proper lighting for a low-key portrait is to use artificial lights. The two basic genres of artificial lights are strobes and continuous lights.
Strobes can be studio strobes, camera flash units, or portable strobes. Several current DSLR and mirrorless camera systems have remote flash metering and triggering, allowing for off-camera flash placement while maintaining exposure automation.
Continuous lights emit a steady light, so you can readily discern what your lighting ratios are while setting up the light or lights. I like the new breed of battery powered LED photo/video lights, such as the Hakutatz Pocket Size RGB+AW LED Light.
Rembrandt Lighting for Low-Key Portraits
photo by redhumv via iStock
One of the better lighting configurations for low-key portraits is the technique called Rembrandt lighting. Rembrandt lighting can be set up with one or two lights, even with window light. It creates the perfect ratios for low-key portraits.
This lighting technique is named after the Renaissance era painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. His portraits often had a low-key lighting effect with a specific pattern of light and shadow.
photo by mbbirdy via iStock
The key light is set about 45 degrees to the side of the subject and a few degrees above the subject’s eye level. Have the person face the light and then turn their head toward the camera until you see that triangle of light under the eye in the shadow.
Besides Rembrandt lighting, there are other lighting setups that work well for low-key portraits, such as loop lighting, a less specific style similar to Rembrandt, and split lighting, with about an even split between light and shadow.
Broad lighting and butterfly lighting can be used well for low-key portraits. Any of these can be done with multiple light sources if you want to play around with them.
The Advantage of a Small LED Light
Looking for lights that are bright, portable, and easy to use led me to try these out. The battery life is pretty good, the LED bulbs are cool operating, and the color temperature of the light can be adjusted, all of which are plusses for a portable light for portrait photography.
Continuous lights like this one have an additional advantage. They can be used with smartphone cameras. Modern smartphones such as the iPhone 11 Pro, Google Pixel 4, and Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus have amazing capabilities for portrait photography.
The Hakutatz Pocket Size RGB+AW LED Light has an app that lets your smartphone control the light’s color and intensity. Multiple lights can be used, too. But this is just one of many high quality, small LED lights for photo and video.
Editor's Note: The Hakutatz Kickstarter campaign was a huge success! Their Amazon store will be open soon.
Other Portrait Photography Tips
photo by gorodenkoff via iStock
Some other ways to increase contrast are with a post-processing programs or use snoots or spotlights instead of a softbox of other light diffuser.
You can also increase contrast by raising the ISO on the camera, which also can have the effect of increasing digital noise, resulting in a hard, grainy look to the finished portrait. Experiment to see how much each adjustment changes the final image.
Low-Key for High Quality
Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash
Despite the hard edge that low-key portrait lighting can lend to an image, one of the other effects is that it can generate an attitude of high-class luxury. This will also work with product photography and certain types of fine art photography.
Whether you’re using one of the new smartphones or a sophisticated DSLR or mirrorless camera system, give some of these ideas a try for low-key portrait photography.