In a lot of commercial portraiture these days, there’s an emphasis on high-production values. Whether from exotic locations or from using a lot of lights, it seems the conventional wisdom is generally “more is better.” But, in fact, when trying to create a moody, dramatic or intimate black-and-white portrait, sometimes less actually is more. With a simple setup, using strobe lights or constant sources, in a studio or even on location, photographers can create beautiful, low-key black-and-white portraits that prove minimal lighting can deliver a maximum effect.
Let’s be clear on some definitions, first. What is low-key lighting? Unlike high-key lighting—which creates a scene that’s very bright and low contrast—low-key lighting is darker and higher contrast. Low-key lighting features prominent shadows and many near-black tones, with minimal midtones and highlights serving as poignant counterpoint to all that darkness. And it works very well in black-and-white.
START WITH JUST ONE LIGHT
Because low-key lighting, by definition, requires deep shadows and a plethora of dark tones, too many lights actually can be a liability. For most low-key lighting setups, a single source is all that’s needed. You can do a lot with just one light.
Smart photographers know that a single light source can deliver unbelievably beautiful illumination. (Don’t believe me? Watch a sunset.) By moving a single light source far from the subject, the illumination gets flat and less dramatic. Moving that source close to the subject, however, allows the faster falloff from highlight to shadow to make for more drama. This approach also helps to create the darkness in the background that sets the mood and isolates the highlights against a canvas of dark pixels. With a subject far from the background and the key light very close to the subject, the background is bound to go dark.
DARK BACKGROUND, DARK CLOTHING
Enhance the effect by starting with a dark or black background. In the studio, a dark wall or roll of dark gray or black seamless paper provides the perfect backdrop against which to set your low-key scene. If you’re not in a studio, choose a space that’s large enough to put some distance between the subject and background so any falloff from the key light has dropped to nearly nothing by the time it reaches the background. Underexposing the ambient light in a large room works very well for low-key lighting when a black backdrop can’t be had (more on that in a moment).
If your goal is lots of darkness and minimal light, it can also be helpful to ensure your subject is wearing dark clothing, as well. A light-colored outfit will distract from the place in the frame where you want the eye to go: the few pixels that are brightly illuminated, often the face. I use a black cotton or velvet cloth as a drape to camouflage bright clothing and make it easier to achieve a truly low-key scene.
OVERPOWER THE SUN
Sometimes not only is a studio unavailable, anything indoors is unavailable. But low-key lighting can still be created. Even on a sunny day, you can use a strobe to overpower the sunlight and make the background fall to black. To do this, increase the shutter speed to the maximum sync speed. This is often a shutter speed of 1/250th. Then set the ISO as low as possible (100 or 50, ideally) and set the aperture to the smallest opening (ƒ/22 or ƒ/32, depending on your lens). Take a picture with these settings and check how underexposed the scene is. If you’re able to shoot at 1/250th at ƒ/32 and ISO 50, even on a bright, sunny day, you’re going to create a photograph that’s at least four stops underexposed. There still may be some visual information evident if it’s really bright out, but on an overcast day or any other situation where the light is low, the ambience should be very dark, maybe even pure black. Then you can add your strobe—placed close to the subject—and dial up its output to match the camera settings and create the appropriate illumination for the subject. This “day for night” effect can make practically any location look like a darkened studio.
TYPES OF LIGHT SURCES
In the studio, creating a one-light low-key portrait can be done with either strobes or constant lights such as LED panels, compact fluorescents or even HMIs and tungsten hot lights. Whatever equipment you choose, it’s important to be able to move the light away from the camera. So if you’re using a hot-shoe speedlight, invest in the necessary accessories, such as a stand and remote trigger, to be able to move the light around the subject and away from the camera (more on placement in a moment).
If you can diffuse the source, that’s even better. True, a bare-bulb, specular light definitely will make for some dark dramatic shadows, but until you’re skilled at illuminating faces with a hard light source, I recommend starting with some diffusion. If you insist on working with slightly harder light, consider a beauty dish, which is a great compromise between specular “pop” and beautiful diffusion.
A small softbox, an umbrella or even a light bounced off a white reflector can create just enough diffusion without scattering the light all around the room. Too much spill on the subject’s body or background will ruin the low-key effect. To fight this, use carefully placed flags. Not only can they prevent spill, they will help to stop lens flare when the light is placed beyond 90 degrees from the camera axis. And that’s often the ideal place for low-key lighting.
LIGHT SOURCE PLACEMENT
I’ve already mentioned keeping the light close, but where exactly should it be? I find one of the most effective placements of a key light in a low-key portrait is to create short lighting, where the side of the face that primarily faces the camera is in shadow and only the smaller side of the face—or even just a sliver—is illuminated. Better still, consider backlighting for a rim effect to create separation between subject and background.
This also works exceptionally well with a profile pose. To create this rim, position a specular light source directly behind the subject, aiming toward the camera, but ensuring that the subject’s body casts a shadow on the lens. If you’d like the light to wrap around a bit and provide more illumination on the subject’s cheek, simply move the light incrementally from behind the subject to the side. These subtle key adjustments, or subtle moveme
nts of the subject’s head position, make all the difference.
Don’t be afraid to take the time to move the light subtly in and out of frame, forward and back, up and down, until the effect is just right. As a world-class portrait photographer once told me, when an image is mostly dark tones, the few light tones really matter even more. So position the key light deliberately to put those highlights exactly where you want them.
One caveat when it comes to light placement: A light like this can create a raking effect across the subject’s face. This is certainly dramatic, but it also can emphasize any texture on the subject’s skin. A diffused light source may help, as will subtle tweaks to the subject’s face or the light’s position. It also can be defeated with fill light, but too much fill flattens the scene and changes the key. Ultimately, it’s simply a technique that may not work for every subject.
As long as you’re thinking about placing sources, look to the classical lighting patterns as a guide. When it comes to low-key portraits, the butterfly/Paramount pattern works very well, and loop and split lighting also do a fine job here. But it’s Rembrandt lighting that really excels in short-lighting, low-key situations. Watch for a diamond of light spilling onto the subject’s otherwise shadowed cheek, and you’ll know you’re on your way to beautiful, dramatic lighting.
I find that a very subtle fill from a reflector or very low-powered strobe positioned close to the lens works wonders to add a hint of detail to shadows. This might be a garment or a cheek or even a subject’s hair. Because too much pure black shadow can be overbearing, a little bit of fill can be a big help.
If you’d like to consider adding lights, you can. Just keep them behind the subject so they create edge lighting, and use a frontal fill for detail illumination, as needed. This technique is popular in edgy sports portraiture in recent years. The edge lights really define the shape of a muscular body, and the frontal fill adds the polish to this lighting approach. Without that frontal fill, the shot can still work—it just becomes a graphic, almost abstract outline of the human form.
Once you have your RAW files in the computer (you do shoot RAW, don’t you? It’s particularly helpful when working with low-key image files because of the retouching latitude), simple Lightroom adjustments can really refine your images. For an image that is very dark and contrasty, the Shadows and Blacks sliders will slightly bring up those values, while dragging down the Highlights and Whites sliders in the Develop module will keep the very brightest pixels in the scene in check. With Lightroom’s Adjustment brush, these edits easily can be applied selectively, like dodging and burning.
With an image that was too bright at the time of exposure, drag the Exposure sliders down to darken the overall look of the scene, then grab and hold the sliders corresponding to whites and highlights and drag them to the right.
These effects can be achieved in Photoshop, as well. You’ll likely find that Adjustment Layers are the perfect tool to add selective brightness and darkness to an image to polish it off. If you have dark areas that need to be darker, you can always use Photoshop’s Paintbrush tool to paint away unwanted details in the darkest shadows.
There’s a black-and-white-specific advantage when it comes to dodging and burning a low-key image, too. Using the individual color sliders that adjust the black and white mix, whether that’s in Lightroom’s Develop Module or Photoshop’s Black and White Adjustment Layers, it’s easy to brighten or darken specific areas of an image that correlate directly to the original colors in a scene. Blonde hair, for instance, can be lightened or darkened easily with the yellow luminance slider, even though the image is now grayscale.
Another refinement for low-key black-and-white images is toning. Because low-key images can easily come off as too stark, a bit of toning or split-toning can really add some dimension. Simply use Lightroom’s Split Toning controls to add a hint of warmth in the highlight (by first selecting the appropriate yellow or beige tone, then using the Saturation slider to increase its appearance) and balancing it with subtle blue or purple tones in the shadows. Failing that, consider using a Photoshop Adjustment Layer with the Filter adjustment dialed in to exactly where you need it. The Warming Filter is a personal favorite.
Lastly, clean up any skin texture produced by the raking light position. The Frequency Separation approach is a great way to isolate texture from tonal values, or just use the Clone stamp and Spot Healing brush to eliminate the most egregious bumps and wrinkles.
As with every kind of portraiture, it’s the combination of quality lighting and just the right amount of retouching that make an image work. With low-key lighting, the effect can be as classic and timeless, or as hip and cutting edge, as you want it to be. Either way, these lighting and editing techniques go a long way to creating successful low-key portraits.
William Sawalich is a commercial photographer, an educator and a contributing editor for Digital Photo Pro, Digital Photo and Outdoor Photographer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. Visit his website at sawalich.com.