Getting Started with One-Light Low-Key Portraits

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Once your portrait needs have advanced beyond what natural and available light can provide, it is time to begin exploring studio lighting. The best way to build any lighting kit is one light at a time. This allows you to grow with your setup, developing an understanding of how and when to use your lights along the way. One of the simplest creative setups to experiment with when working with your first light is low-key portraiture. This article provides an introduction to this simple lighting setup capable of adding some serious drama to your compositions.

Figures 1 & 2: Low-key lighting was popularized by the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt in the 17th century. Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610 (left) and Rembrandt, Portrait of a Man, 1632 (right).

During the Renaissance, the Italian word chiaroscuro was used to designate the contrast between light and shadow in drawings and paintings. About a century later, another Italian word, tenebrism, was designated to describe compositions that used extreme chiaroscuro to achieve dramatic effect. The Baroque painter Caravaggio was revolutionary in his use of tenebrism, adding drama to religious scenes in an effort to rally the faithful during the Counter-Reformation in Italy. In the north, the Dutch painter Rembrandt was equally innovative as he deployed chiaroscuro to add dimension and mood to his portraits. Rembrandt’s influence on portraiture continues into the present as “Rembrandt lighting” is used to describe low-key portraits that mimic his painterly style.

Figure 3: Note how boosting fill cuts back on shadows and dimension from a portrait.
Figure 3: Note how boosting fill cuts back on shadows and dimension from a portrait.

So what exactly is low-key lighting in photography? When we talk about “high” or “low” key lighting, we are talking about the ratio between primary and secondary sources of light. A key light is the primary source of light in any lighting setup, while the fill light, as its name suggests, fills in the shadows. High-key portraits employ similar power for the key and fill light, producing relatively even lighting. Low-key portraits widen the gap between the power of the key and fill lights, producing a noticeable discrepancy in lighting on one part of the subject compared to another. Notice in the figure above how increasing the power of the fill light removes shadow from the model’s face and flattens the image. When working with a single-light setup, your fill light can be a reflector, white surface, or eliminated altogether depending on your desired effect.

Figures 4 & 5: Note how much of a difference a simple reflector can make filling in shadows (right image).

When making low-key portraits, your ability to control environmental, fill, and spill lighting is as important as your ability to shape your key light source. These are photographs that rely upon significant separation between highlights and shadows so if you are shooting in a well-lit setting, you will likely run into trouble achieving adequate contrast. Block windows with either blackout curtains or, at the very least, use black V-flats to box in your subject. Turn off any additional lights that could interfere with your image. Continuous lights are a bit easier to work with under these circumstances since you can see the exact effect of your light in real time. When working with a strobe, turn on its modeling light to get a preview of the shape and direction of its light. Modeling lights also come in handy when focusing your camera before exposure.

Figure 6: If blackout curtains are unavailable, you can use black v-flats to enclose your subject, blocking at least some environmental light.
Figure 6: If blackout curtains are unavailable, you can use black V-flats to enclose your subject, blocking at least some environmental light.

Once you have your environment under control, it is time to shape your key light. In contrast to conventional portraits, which typically benefit from large modifiers that amplify your light source, low-key portraits demand more control. One way of managing where your light ends up is by using grids on your light or modifier. A grid narrows the path of your light, tempering spill on parts of your subject that you do not want to be lit. Note the beam angle of the grid you are using; the smaller the beam angle, the more direct your light will be. Similarly, rigid, honeycomb grids will provide a sharper effect than soft, egg crate style grids. If you do not have a grid for your light, you can manage spill by flagging your light to prevent it from ending up in parts of your composition you do not want.

Figure 7: Grids can narrow your source’s beam angle, producing a more direct path onto your sitter.
Figure 7: Grids can narrow your source’s beam angle, producing a more direct path onto your sitter.

For the most precise placement of light in a low-key image, consider using a snoot to avoid lighting anything more than what is absolutely needed for your image. A snoot is simply a tube that goes in front of your light that narrows the face of your light, providing a spotlight-like effect. This can be especially useful when working in cramped quarters where you want to light part of your subject without lighting the surrounding environment. You can even fit some snoots with a grid to achieve maximum control of light placement.

Figure 8: Gels can add even more creative possibilities when working with low key setups, since their effect will face less competition, leading to bolder results.
Figure 8: Gels can add even more creative possibilities when working with low-key setups, since their effect will face less competition, leading to bolder results.

The most exciting part of working with low-key lighting setups is experimenting to achieve different effects. Start by positioning your light around your subject by itself. If you find this to be too extreme, add a little fill with a reflector or bounce card. This can open up some shadows while remaining low key. Another popular way of using this style of lighting is by adding colored gels. This allows you to add a splash of color to your portraits to contrast with the shadow areas of your image. As you become more comfortable working with grids and snoots, you can even begin to “paint” your subject using gels of various colors for creative effect.

When you decide to turn the lights back on, you can learn about how to create soft light using a single source here. If you haven’t yet chosen your first light, check out this article to help you pick one that is right for your style of work.

Do you have experience creating low-key portraits? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!

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