Low Key Studio Lighting

A Guest Post on Low Key Studio Lighting by Kyle Miller from Photography Tips

I’ve talked about basic and advanced lighting techniques commonly used for virtually any studio photo shoot, but those lighting setups require more than a single light, and for a beginning photographer, especially one who has a limited amount of studio space and a small budget, retaining multiple lights can be a problem. There is a way to get around using multiple lights though, and that is low key lighting.

Low key lighting is a type of portrait lighting that creates a very dramatic light setup, as well as creates some intense classic looking photos. Low key lighting lends it’s self strongly to a darker side of glamor and artistic photography. This type of lighting can cast a strong exposure on the subject, creating harsh contrast between the light and shadows of your subject, and leaves a majority of the background darkened. There are a few ways to set up a low key lighting setup, but the common factor in almost all low key setups is that they are predominately lit by only a single light.

45 or 90 Degree Angle

Image by Andy Leddy

This setup is the simplest by far, but still creates powerful, elegant images. Place your key light at either a 45 or 90 degree angle from the subject, on either the left or right side of your camera. That’s the entire setup, one light, in one of four locations. While it is a simple setup, the effects of the setup can very greatly. At a 45 degree angle, exposing the front of your subject, you will create a beautiful front exposure, with harsh contrasted shadows. At a 90 degree angle, if you expose your subject from the front you can create an intense split light where the subjects back will virtually vanish into the background, but if you expose the subject from the back you will create the exact opposite effect.

45 or 90 Degree with a Reflector

Image by Cillian Storm

This setup is the exact same as the previous, with the inclusion of a new piece of equipment, a reflector. The reflector is placed on the opposite side of your subject, and directly in front of your light. The light that wraps around the subject, or misses them entirely, is diffused and reflected on the back of the subject, creating a softer exposure. In this way the reflector acts as a fill light. Images shot in this way will not be as dark and contrasted as the previous manner, but will still maintain a much darker contrast ratio.

From Behind

Image by spunkinator

This type of lighting is commonly used to create a much more brooding, or sinister look, by creating an intense silhouette of the subject, only exposing a small area outlining the subject. The best way to achieve this look is with the help of two strong lights, but it can be done with as little as one. Place both lights behind the subject at 45 degree angles on opposite sides. An addition trick to really enhance images shot like this is to actually include the lights in the image. This will create a lens flare look behind the subject, and really enhances the visage of a foreboding or sinister subject.

Kyle Miller has been a professional wedding and portrait photographer for several years. He shares his knowledge on his blog Photography Tips where you can also download his eBook 7 Essential Photography Tips for free.


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

You may also like...

1 Response

Leave a Reply