Low key lighting is a style of cinematography and photography where you create  images featuring mainly dark tones to create a dramatic, contrasty looking image.

inflatable-space-elevator-thoth-lgPersonally I find myself working a lot in this style.

High key lighting – the reverse – means  to over (or more flatly) light (and/or expose) the subject. The goal is to reduce the contrast. Low key lighting increases the contrast in an image through substantially reduced lighting aided by the desired exposure.

The goal here is not just to produce a darker looking image but to draw the spectator’s eye where you want and create mood. Only parts of the image, therefore, are illuminated.

In a lot of everyday filming, you work to eliminate or lessen harsh shadows. Especially on faces and around the subject’s eyes etc. Shooting low key can actually be a refreshing change of approach when you light..

So… instead of avoiding shadows,  consider them as the primary element of the composition… one that defines the mood of the entire photograph.

You manipulate your lighting and the positioning of your subject so that the shadows fall in just the right spots to create the look you want.

This takes time to learn but the reward is far more interesting images. Think of the work of the great cinematographer Gordon Willis who shot Klute,  The Godfather trilogy and several of Woody Allen’s major films including Manhattan.


Klute 1971

The mystery, the leaning forward almost to view the scene.

In future posts I will discuss the tools I use to light as a professional. I’ll also show you how to achieve the same result with inexpensive gear you already have in your home – or, at least, purchase inexpensively.

Amanda x




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