How to Shoot Low Key Portraits at Home

Shooting low key photographs in a studio environment is easier than you think. With just one source of light you can experiment with it in a hundred different ways. You also need a dark background—preferably a black one. The idea is to have a lot of contrast in your images. Gavin Hoey explains:

For this shoot, Hoey uses a single lightbox a Westcott 32” RapidBox Duo at an angle of about 45 degrees to the model and aimed straight at her. The model herself is standing in front of a black background. The light is metered at f/8.

Quick Tip: If you don’t have a black background or have one that is gray, this is what you need to know in order to turn that gray background into a black one.

With the light, background, and model in place Hoey takes a quick test shot:


As you can see Hoey captured a lot of low key tones in this shot. There are also a lot of details in the highlights.

To make the image appear more low-key there are two options. Both result in the introduction of more shadows. First, you could move the light a little farther from the model. Second, you can move the model away from the light.

With the working space being cramped, the only option in Hoey’s case was to move the model farther away:


As you can see, the model’s face is almost obscured. Though there is a lot of contrast and shadow, a completely obscured face is not desirable.

The solution is rather easy. The model needs to turn ever so slightly toward the light:


You could use props too, to further accentuate the images. Hoey used a piece of red fabric:


Even a bare flash works exceedingly well to set up a low key lighting arrangement:


With a snoot, the light is narrowed down to a beam and the low key effect is accentuated even further:


To accentuate low key portraits, Hoey suggests you use local adjustment tools in post-processing to remove some of the light from an image.

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