Basic Studio Lighting: Low Key Portrait Lighting
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Basic Studio Lighting: Low Key Portrait Lighting

Use low key studio lighting when you want to create the Chiaroscuro Effect in a portrait. Low key lighting is harsh lighting and should be reserved for the young and beautiful or for the ruggedly handsome subjects.

Now that, you have mastered the basics of the high key portrait lighting setup, we will tackle its counterpart, the low-key lighting setup. These two lighting setups have much in common, yet they are quite different in purpose. You use the high-key setup when you want a blown out the background and a shadowless portrait. You want to use the low-key light setup when you want a dark background.

The Chiaroscuro Effect

The low-key portrait recreates the Chiaroscuro Effect. The Chiaroscuro Effect is a strong contrast between light and dark areas that affect the whole composition. Like many of the artistic techniques that photographers use to paint pictures with light, the Chiaroscuro Effect predates photography by thousands of years.

Lighting equipment required

You can shoot Low key portraits with just a key light, with a key light and a fill light, or with a key light and a reflector. Depending on my subject and the effect that I am trying to achieve, I prefer working with just a key light or a key light and a reflector.

Shooting With A Key Light

Shooting with low key lighting is much more difficult than with high key lighting. You are working with an extremely narrow lighting zone, and there is little room for error. There is no forgiveness with low key lighting. Your must place the key light in the right spot, or the portrait will be unusable. You should not attempt Low key portrait lighting with children.

Severe side lighting will also emphasize any flaws in the skin. You should reserve this portrait technique for beautiful women with flawless skin or for ruggedly handsome men whose character you want to emphasize.

Shooting With A Key Light And Reflector

Using a reflector to light, the opposite side of the subject can reduce the harshness of side lighting. By controlling the amount of fill light by moving the reflector closer to or farther away from the subject, you can make imperfections less noticeable. When using either one of these low-key setups, the best results are achieved when using large soft boxes as a light modifier. The larger the soft box the more natural the lighting will appear. With a little practice, you can actually create a studio portrait that looks as if it was shot using daylight entering a large window.

Practice Makes Perfect

When it comes to mastering any studio lighting setup, you must practice, practice, and practice. Be thankful that we live in the digital age where it does not cost anymore to shoot 1,000 pictures than it does to shoot 10. Back in the day of film cameras and paper prints, we could not afford to waste a single frame. So find yourself a willing subject, set up your backdrop and lights, and practice until you can make the setups without having to think about every move you make.

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Comments (4)

I find it really hard to have good light when take pictures of jewelry. Good article. Thanks

I'm emailing this to Hubby. You've done it again.

Thanks for these tips Jerry! You're the master. :-D

Hi Donna. I have an article in the works on how to light jewelry and other small objects.