Skip to main content

Exploring Low-Key Portraiture

Lesson 2 of 15

What Is Low-Key Lighting?

Chris Knight

Exploring Low-Key Portraiture

Chris Knight

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

2. What Is Low-Key Lighting?


  Class Trailer
Now Playing
1 Class Introduction Duration:12:53
2 What Is Low-Key Lighting? Duration:11:11
3 Bringing in the Subject Duration:05:01
4 Lighting Patterns Duration:19:21
6 Giving Your Light a Job Duration:12:07
7 How to Create Separation Duration:06:58

Lesson Info

What Is Low-Key Lighting?

Let's start with maybe the big question. What is low key now for this? We kind of have to think about what Loki means to you, and it means different things to different people because there are words that we associate to Loki. Loki is really just about darkness and shadow, but it's a little bit more, and for that we have to think about why we might use Loki. What is Loki trying to accomplish? What's it trying to say? What's it trying to communicate? How does it fit into the context of the emotional response? Right. So if we're going to make something look dramatic, dark and moody, why are we doing this right? Low key? It could be. It could be serious. It could be moody, mysterious. It can be cinematic. There are a lot of different emotional responses that can be drawn from it. I as as a photographer I love. I love dark tones. Um, and I love working within them because it works for the visual story that I want to create. Now, Loki portraiture is all about dramatic light, creating mood a...

nd showing emotion. It's not just with the subject themselves, but it's also a way in which you capture your subjects. So the idea here is that it's always about moving the greater idea down the river Lighting is a component of what that greater idea is. Why are you crafting this low key image? What is it trying to facilitate in the end result of what you're trying to create? Because if you try to, let's say, do someone laughing and smiling in the context of a low key portraiture is thought that it can't be successful, but you tend to be combating certain visual characteristics that the viewer is taking into account automatically before they even enter into what's happening here. So think about what that's going to mean in the context of the greater shot. Now, technically, there are a couple of different ways we can address what Loki is now. Generally speaking, technically, Loki is when most of the information in your image in your photos hissed a gram is to the left of center. Now this is an important distinction because between this and under exposure, because they're going to look very similar when you're looking at your history, Ram, right, basically hissed. A gram is just it's Ah, a line graph where it shows you where the information is in your image. If you have a lot, ah, lot of height to that line graph. You've got a lot of that information. And when most of that information is to the left of center, you've got either a low key image or you've gotten under exposed image. And so how do we know what's correct? Because they're going to look the same just by looking at the information. That's because Loki is all about intent. It's all about purpose, and it's all about subject matter. A dark subject on a dark background will look dark in the history. Graham. It's supposed to, right, And when were using the control of the studio, we actually get to dictate the exposure. If you were outside and you put your camera on auto, it's more than likely going to try to center weight the information it's gonna make if you have a dark subject on a dark background look overly bright. If you have a light subject on a light background, it's gonna make it look dark. That's what the automatic settings are trying to do. We're overriding that idea and we're putting intent to exposure. Now we can create the Loki look in two different ways, and each half of today is going to represent both the ways we can do it or reinforce one or the other. Now, the 1st 1 we're gonna be doing and this is going to be the core and the focus of today is gonna be low key via subject matter. So these air to images that are Loki images based on what's actually in the image. You've got dark subject matter on a dark background. And that's not to say that there is not there, not bright parts of the image there are but those of the elements that draw our I to them. There are a set of principles that I recommend exploring. They teach it a lot in graphic design. It's called the Gestalt Principles, and it talks about the different ways in which the human mind organizes visual information. Because we don't we don't remember. We don't see the way a camera does. We we recognize things based on different kinds of elements, and one of the most important ones that we can actually utilizes photographers is something called a figure ground relationship. And that's basically we. As human beings want to differentiate a figure from the ground or the figure from the background, and one of those ways in which we do that is our eyes go to the brightest part of the image. It also gravitates to areas of contrast, and it gravitates to areas of saturation. And so, in both of these two images, I use saturation, contrast and brightness to draw the eye to the face, which is the subject because it's a portrait, right? And there's this, these all these little subtle clues that can help guide the viewer's eye to where you want it to go. And even though these air particularly dark tones, the I goes to the face, which is where it should go now, the other way, week, the other way we can establish what a low key tone is. Actually, my toe. When he was about two months old, we got him to sit for this. Yeah, um so So the other way. You can get a low, medium or high key images, actually, through post production, there's a lot more flexibility to your images than you might think, and you can process one image in in a variety of different ways. Maybe not necessarily. Ah, low, medium and high. But there is a lot more flexibility. The ones were shooting today. You're not gonna be able to get realistically ah, hiking image out of it because we're shooting lots and lots of shadow. But we can definitely get different interpretations of the same file. And this is the thing that I think a lot of people forget is that the idea of a correct processing are correct. Exposure is is different just in that I can use a lot of different variations on exposure to get a correct exposure. There are a lot of different variations on processing to get a correct processing. We talked about the idea of moving everything down the river a little bit, and you're processing like you're lighting like you're styling, like your selection of model and the expressions you get from your model. All of these things add up to help sell the final idea. Whatever that idea happens to be Now, the one thing that makes it a little bit tricky to read is there is that giant spike in the middle. That's the great background, which is basically a neutral gray background. And because it takes up so much real estate in the image, that's why you have that big spike in the middle. But if you'll remember, I said a little bit earlier. Left side of the history Graham Central Weight and right Side of History, Ram. That's your low, medium and high key. And there's information in the shadows and all of these. There's information in the highlights and all of these, and there's no clipping a neither the white or the black information on any one of these three. And so that just goes to kind of show you that you can create different interpretations of the same file again. There's a lot of flexibility in what you dio. Very importantly, when you are going in to create a low key portraiture in a given space, you have to recognize and address the space because the space will manipulate your image in different ways. And if you're in a small room, if you have low ceilings, if you have lots of white walls, those are all things that are gonna work against you when it comes to honing and tightening and controlling your life. Because white walls are giant reflectors, they will bounce light everywhere, and we don't necessarily want that. So how do we avoid it? Right? Well, there's a lot of different ways we can do that. We can use the flag. Let's say you have your subject sitting relatively close to a white wall. You have the light coming in from this side. You bring in the flag that prevents the white wall bouncing light onto the face. It's going to make you have a little bit more contrast in drama over on this side. Now it doesn't have to be a flag. It can also be the black side of a V flat. You can hang up black fabric on the side of the wall. There's a lot of different ways you can do it. It's just a matter of blocking that light from bouncing around and doing things that you don't want it to do. Light is moved through space, and if it's moving somewhere that you don't want it to go, all you have to do is block it lights Very simple. Once you understand the tools, lighting is very simple. It's you. You put light where you want and you block it where you don't. The trick is actually just knowing what you want. That's the hard part of lighting. Just knowing what you want on dso some things we have to consider. Like I said, the white walls reflect light, lessening the overall contrast. If you're in a small space, you are going to reflect more light than you would if you were in a larger space when a relatively large space here today. So we're probably not gonna get a lot of light bouncing around. But like I said, it is just important that you are aware of the space and that you modify it to what you need. You're talking about white walls. I'm wanting to shoot in my very small living room show, and the walls are sort of a parchment color, and I'm wondering if I should repaint, necessarily repaint. I mean, if you want to keep the walls, keep the walls, just you can string up black curtains. That's that's probably gonna be a good temporary solution, which may be a little bit more work, but, uh, yeah, I mean, it's it's not gonna be a permanent solution of having you having to paint black walls and you don't necessarily even what black walls. I mean, sometimes you want a little bit extra light bouncing around. It really depends on how you work on a regular basis, so this just gives us a lot of temporary options. Now flags come in a lot of different sizes. They come in collapsible sizes as well. They're a little bit pricier. The pre constructed immovable ones are usually a lot a lot cheaper, but but they are. They are wonderful once you. Once you get to using these pretty regularly, do you ever post process a normally exposed picture to make it low key? I know you're talking about how your you have to differentiate between under exposed or and low key, but is that a technique that people can do? Is absolutely I'm I'm a big fan of doing it, especially black and white imagery. I think black and white imagery tends to lend itself to it a lot more than maybe a color image rehab spends on the color image. I was a very good question. Black and whites. I probably definitely do it quite a bit. I like a darker tone, black and white. And so what I'll do is I'll take something that's properly exposed. Bring it down a little bit and you just have to make sure you're, you know, processing it in a way that that saves everything and and doesn't doesn't ruin the image. But we're gonna be talking about that in the second part of today. Thank you.

Class Description

Embrace the dark! No longer be afraid of shadow and murky tones. Explore the low-key portrait with Chris Knight. Learn how to maximize the detail in dark imagery through lighting and post-production. Chris will take you from concept through execution covering simple (yet effective) lighting techniques as well as tethering tips with Adobe® Lightroom®. He'll also discuss how to develop the raw image and retouching tactics to make your image appear powerful and purposeful.


Brenda Pollock Smith

Thank you Chris Knight and Creative Live for another excellent class. I appreciate both the actual shooting and post instruction. Right before your eyes you will see how simple applications of light, shadow combined with post production can create gorgeous, dark images. Chris has a great relaxed manner, easy to follow while offering a ton of tips and tricks. I can hardly wait to try my hand at producing some hauntingly beautiful images like Chris.

a Creativelive Student

I don't have a ton of time to spare and largely catch segments of courses on short breaks. One of the things i like best about this course Chris's ability to communicate so effectively and efficiently. He covers a lot of ground in not a lot of time, but the course doesn't feel at all rushed. He's just a good speaker/instructor. One of the other reviewers mentioned that this instructor brings no ego to the stage, and I have to agree. He's a confident and competent instructor without being obnoxious. Rock solid course with terrific instruction. I will definitely check out more of Knight's classes.

jos riv

The detail and order in which the information for this class was presented was just perfect. It was like a perfectly prepared meal with each bite more delicious than the last. It had exactly what I needed to move forward with some of my techniques. So glad to have the class so I can enjoy/learn over and over.