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Lighting can be a huge challenge when you’re first starting off in film and video. 

First and foremost, you have to be able to find ways to have enough light. And for those on low-budget (or no-budget) projects, that can present a huge problem. Many digital video cameras simply require a lot of light to function at optimal settings.

However, as you progress in your filmmaking career and learn how to provide enough lighting on set for a shoot, your next challenges revolve around what you do with those lights. (And sometimes, more importantly, what you do not do with some of them.)

 

We’ll explain more as we dive into the world of low key lighting. Often thought of as a counterpoint to its antithesis — high-key lighting — low key lighting is defined by its dark, moody, and dramatic look and style, and it’s often thought of as the more cinematic approach to film lighting.

But how does low key lighting actually work? What elements are in play for creating a low key lighting look? And, most importantly, how can you use low key lighting in your films and videos? 

We’ll answer all these low key questions and more as we dive into the fascinating, yet dimly lit, world of low key lighting.

What is low-key lighting?

 

 

Let’s start with the basics and provide a simple definition. Low key lighting is a style and technique for lighting in film, television, photography, and any other type of creative arts that makes use of the standard three-point lighting setup (the key light, the fill light, and the back light).

However, unlike traditional three-point lighting setups which make heavy use of all three lights for a bright and evenly lit composition, low key lighting only makes use of a key light with minimal fill light or back light. It’s a way to create a dramatic mood and dark shadows while also casting an overall dark background.

The desired result is less bright and soft, and instead more dark, muddled, and shadowed as a way to create and control contrast. 

This contrast key-to-fill formula in lighting is called the lighting ratio, and low key lighting versus high key lighting can be quantified either as a high ratio (low key lighting with lots of contrast) vs. a low ratio (high key lighting with little contrast).

It can be a bit confusing at times, but generally speaking, low key lighting can also be a catch-all term for any type of film or video cinematography that makes more intentional use of shadows and contrast. This choice is often to benefit certain styles, looks, and genres of projects like horror films, noir styles, or even achieve the classical chiaroscuro lighting effect with the use of artificial light.

Examples of low-key lighting in film

 

 

I’m a fan of this video above by YouTuber CINEMATICJ because it shows not only some of his own examples for setting shots with low key lighting, but also some of the cinematic examples which low key lighting creates and from which he draws inspiration. 

And, truth be told, there are a lot of films and television shows which use this low key lighting effect that you can personally look to for guidance.

We’ll specifically compare and contrast low key lighting to high key lighting below, but outside of mainstream comedies and reality television, it’s safe to say that the majority of films and television shows shoot low key lighting because it simply creates more interesting images.

If you just look at the dark and moody films of David Fincher, or the gritty and gruesome television shows like Daredevil or The Boys, or even the melodramatic movies of auteur directors like Lars Von Trier or Yorgos Lanthimos, you’re going to find shots and scenes that are lit with minimal lights aimed at creating contrast and crafting odd, challenging shadows.

High-key lighting vs low-key lighting

 

 

For the sake of these educational videos and definitive articles, high key light and low key lighting setups are often thought of in terms of polar extremes. Some projects require tons of bright, soft light where nary a shadow can be found; other projects shun all lights save for one dramatic key in order to leave characters in near darkness.

In reality, there’s a lot of crossover between high key lighting and low key lighting, but for those first starting out as filmmakers it’s helpful to at least understand the differences. The crux of the high key vs. low key debate comes down to finding the right lighting ratio for your project’s needs.

From there, it’s really all about understanding the true power of lighting as a storytelling tool. Sure, it can be helpful for an audience to see all of your characters’ faces fully for a romantic comedy, but that also might not give the viewer much relevant information about how to feel.

Even for product videos, corporate messaging, or television commercial spots, there are no rules against jumping between high key images and low key dark tones and compositions. And the best cinematographers know how to find that right balance from shot to shot.

Working with a low-key lighting setup

 

 

With all that being said, we can now go into looking at how to actually achieve a true low key lighting setup for your film and video projects. 

I really like how creator Sidney Baker-Green breaks things down in this video tutorial, as there can be a common misconception in the film industry that creating low key lighting and low key images is somehow “less work” or “easier” than its high key counterpart.

In fact, the opposite is usually true. Low key lighting usually requires using more lights and in more creative ways because lesser light sources (like using windows as a light source in Sidney’s example) become more important to how a subject is painted. With high key lighting, the name of the game is softness as a way to cover all your angles.

But for these low key lighting setups, every light source must be accounted for and justified on screen. To help further, here are some basic tips to keep in mind when working with low key lighting and a darker setup:

  • Start with the key: The key light is always the best light to start with when setting up your lighting compositions as it will inform the rest of your lighting decisions.
  • Be careful with natural light: Unlike high key lighting, low key lighting is really about minimizing unwanted light and sources. As such, try to black all windows and doors to minimize any uncontrollable light sources.
  • Harsh light can be good: While you can still use softboxes and LEDs, low key lighting can benefit from harsh lighting as a way to build greater contrast in your compositions.
  • Know your camera’s native ISO: In general, it’s ideal to record video footage at your camera’s native ISO to ensure the highest quality (and least grain) as possible. 
  • There’s never such a thing as too much light: Even with low key lighting setups, the old adage about never having too much light is still true. Even if you want it to appear like your character is in a dark scene, using lights with certain colors or to highlight specific elements is still helpful.

Further reading

If you found these low key lighting tutorials, tips, and tricks to be helpful for you on your own filmmaking journey, be sure to check out more great articles on lighting, filmmaking, and royalty free music here on the Soundstripe blog:

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