The Lack of Lighting Technique for Masterpieces
Low-key lighting is often misunderstood as a type of lighting that requires a solid black background; this is not true as a great photographer can make any background of any color turn black during exposure through the use of the Inverse Square Law, plus it’s not the background that separates low-key lighting from other lighting techniques, it’s the use of dark tones combined with chiaroscuro, in addition to the lack of lighting.
While sure, a black background can make it easy don’t let the lack of one stop you from creating dramatic low-key lighting photos. The key is to minimize the background to maintain focus on the subject while the use of dark tones captures your subject’s form as explained in my article, Form in Photography. Form is the most basic element in art based on the fundamental that form is a three-dimensional geometrical figure as opposed to shape found in two-dimensional objects.
A sure way to do this, is keep your subject closer to your light source and at least twice the distance to the background, plus if you’re using flash, use a high-sync speed to eliminate or reduce any ambient light. I’ve shot low-key lighting photos simply by using a incandescent 60-100 watt table lamp with the lamp shade removed. Look at where your light falls, but go after the shadows in this type of photography—it’s passionately fun!
Low-key lighting involves the intermixing of lights and dark and relies heavily on deep shadows or darker tones on and around your subject. The background is irrelevant provided the photo is mired predominately in dark tones that help create mood, mystery, drama, and the “heighten sense of alienation felt by the viewer.” Think dramatic film noir, though low-key lighting works with color capture too, as black is black even in color photography.
Low-key lighting is normally based on a one or two-light setup, whereas traditional three-point lighting is based on a three-light set up, a main or key light, a fill light and a backlight. Traditional lighting plus high-key lighting lean more toward limited or softened shadow areas whereas low-key lighting thrives on dramatic shadows and dark tones. Black tones are the power to low-key lighting. It’s actually the lack of lighting in the right areas of a photograph that can make it a weak or strong photograph.
Utilize Its Power
The power of low-key lighting to invoke emotions from the viewer was long established before the birth of photography during the Renaissance and Baroque periods of painting where chiaroscuro became popular to bring a more realistic look to paintings. One of the most famous paintings with a low-key look is the “Saint John the Baptist,” by Leonardo da Vinci. Low-key painting techniques brought out the illusion of a third dimension in the two-dimensional artist’ canvas; photography is no different, low-key lighting accentuates an illusion of the third-dimension in a photograph, plus you can use postproduction to enhance it’s effect.
Low-key lighting is also used to hide things you may not want to show purposely, a technique commonly used in fine art nude photos to outline the body but still leave to the imagination. I like to look at low-key lighting as a lack of lighting technique in areas the photographer would like to leave as a mystery to the viewer. In fact, since low-key lighting relies on very little light, it’s one of the best low-budget genres of photography where a photographer can succeed with very little overhead costs besides a good camera and a great lens.
Basically the idea is to keep the light off your background and more on your subject—and when you have one or no lights, that’s easy to do. Wait! No lights? Yes, if you don’t own a set of lights, look for lights outdoors, especially when it gets dark. A simple streetlight or even the headlights from your car can provide ample light, just be mindful of your white balance as explained in my recent article, “White Balance In Your Camera, Trick It.”
The Rule of Shadows
One other thing besides backgrounds often misunderstood when it comes to low-key lighting is the right and wrong way to use shadows, specifically when it comes to photography—well to clarify, there is no real Rule of Shadows. And if you firmly believe that, then learn that rule and learn how to break it.
Shadows are the main ingredient in low-key lighting, or as mentioned before, the lack of lighting to create those shadows. Many photographers believe there is a requirement for a distinct break between the shadows and highlights. While low-key lighting traditionally relies on a high lighting ratio, the ratio between the brightest part of the image to the darkest part, like 8:1, and not the typical 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1 ratios found in traditional three-point lighting, there is no rule that requires a distinct separation between highlights and shadow areas. Distinct shadow lines and shadow fall-off are acceptable.
The key to shadows isn’t whether they fall off gradually or have a defined edge, what matters is that the shadows define the form the photographer is trying to create? Shadows create form, form creates shape, the three combined create dimension in an image. Shadows can create emotions including, fear, grief, despair and vulnerability in addition to mood, mystery, drama, and the “heighten sense of alienation felt by the viewer.” The idea is to create a photograph that visually illustrates a story with art—Storytelling With Your Photos.
Underexposure Is Not Low-Key Lighting
In closing, some advice, don’t confuse an underexposed image as a low-key image, there is a difference and one of the major differences is that low-key lighting predominately provides a high contrast between the dark tones and lighter tones. Underexposed images are flat, low-contrast, and just a plain error in your capture. In digital photography you can adjust on the fly when it comes to checking your LCD preview screen and histograms. Though keep in mind, your histogram, as explained in Histograms, Always Right in Digital Photography, will likely be heavy on the left, with some small, narrow spikes in the middle and/or right side of the graph—this is normal, so don’t panic.
So what are you waiting for? Go out there, have fun! It doesn’t take a ton of lighting gear, if any, so go shoot some low-key lighting! That said, as always, please don’t forget the men and women who serve to protect our freedoms; God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.