Post & Photo by Joe Farace – Follow Joe on Twitter

Low-key lighting is a style of lighting that creates a chiaroscuro (strong contrast between light and dark) effect by accentuating the contours of an object by throwing areas into shadow and usually only requires one light, maybe the sun, that sometimes can be supplemented by a reflector. For those mathematically inclined, low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, 8:1 in the example shown, than high key lighting, which can approach 1:1. High-key lighting, on the other hand, aims to reduce the lighting ratio in the scene, and is soft and free from dark shadows. This is usually accomplished with a large, soft light source that can be, as in the example on the left shows, window light from a North facing window.

To show how similar techniques can produce completely different results, let me show you how I create high or low-key portraits indoors using (mostly) available light. The image on the left was from on my first sessions with an aspiring model and was made in my kitchen with all of the blinds in the bay window pulled up to produce the maximum amount of available light. To add more light, I used a 550EX speedlight on camera with Sto-Fen Omni Bounce attached to spread and soften the light. Camera was Canon EOS 50D with EF 28-105mm zoom lens with an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/4.5 at ISO 400 with a plus one-stop exposure compensation to emphasize the high key aspect of the portrait.

If the front of my house gets lots of light, the back gets less, especially near the dining room door that I use to create low-key portraits. Low key pictures concentrate on the darker tones, conveying an atmosphere of mystery and use higher contrast lighting with most of the subject is in shadow and relatively brightly lit small areas. It’s a useful technique for photographing brunettes. I photographed the model wearing black in a pose similar to the first subject to show how two completely different moods can be created using similar but not necessarily identical lighting techniques.

I photographed the second (right) subject at the back door to my home. The blinds in the door were adjusted to let in a minimum of light to maintain a low-key look. The shadow side of her face would have been dark without a Flashpoint 32-inch 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector at camera left to provide some fill. A Canon EOS 50D with EF 135mm f/2.8 SF lens was used in Program mode with an exposure of 1/200 sec at f/3.5 at ISO 400 with a minus two-thirds-stop exposure compensation to emphasize the portrait’s low-key mood.

Joe Farace is the author of a new book called “Studio Lighting Anywhere” that’d available in all the best bookstores as well as Amazon.com.

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  1. [...] while you can easily check exposure using the camera’s Histogram, sometime, especially with high and low key images, it can be [...]

  2. [...] High Key/Low Key: A Tale Of Two Portraits (photofocus.com) [...]

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