If you are looking to make a dramatic impact with a portrait then so called low key lighting may be something you should try. This style of portraits focuses on using light sparingly, allowing much of the subject to be covered in shadow or fade into complete darkness. In addition the minimal light available seeks to highlights small areas of the subject, providing high contrast to the dark shadows.
The effect is a powerful one that usually leads to dramatic, compelling shots. The great thing about this technique is that it is relatively simple to achieve and doesn’t require complicated or expensive lighting equipment making it very accessible for the amateur photographer.
Low Light Portrait Set Up
The key to succeeding with these kinds of low key portraits is the lighting. You can use either an off camera flash or a small table lamp to get the effect. Simply position you light source to one side of your subject (about 2-3 feet away if using a table lamp). If you are using an off camera flash then consider bouncing it of a wall or fire it through an umbrella to soften the light slightly.
To help isolate your model try to use a black background. Ideally hang a piece of black felt behind the subject. Failing that bear in mind that you’ll be cropping the shot tightly so hanging up a couple of black coats behind the models head will probably do the job!
In order to help you emphasis the shadows across your subjects face try to eliminate all other light sources by drawing the curtains and turning off all other lights in the room.
These kind of shots work a lot better on people with interesting faces. What do we mean by interesting? Well, features such as uneven skin, aging wrinkles or facial hair will all help throw shadows and increase the amounts of contrast in your shot, helping to increase the effect.
Low Light Portrait – Getting The Shot
Ask your model to look directly down the lens as this will help make the shot look dramatic and grab the viewers attention. Experiment with different facial expressions ranging from a blank stare to laughter. What works for one model may not for another. While doing this play around with the positioning of your light source. Less light will tend to make a shot look more threatening.
Aim to try and shoot a large aperture (maybe as big as f2.8 if you lens allows) that allows you to get a shallow depth of field and more importantly a quick shutter speed to avoid motion blur.
Ensure you focus on the eyes as this is generally where you want to focus the viewers attention.
If you are struggling to get a sharp image it may be that the low light is causing you to use a slow shutter speed. Anything under 1/60 of a second will likely lead to blurred imaged caused by camera shake if using say a 50mm lens.
If this is happening try turning up the ISO to help alleviate the problem. If you are using a speedlite aim to use your cameras highest sync speed (often around 1/200 of a second) as this will help minimize any ambient light creeping into the shot.
Ok, so you have transferred your images to your pc, now choose what looks to be the best one in terms of focus (on the eyes), expression and lighting. Open it up in your editing software and we’ll start to make a few simple improvements.
The first job is to crop the image nice and tight – do not feel like you have to have all of the face in the picture, play around and see what looks best. A tight crop can again help create drama as well as draw the viewers eye to the subjects eyes.
The next thing to do is to increase the contrast to help accentuate the shadows in the picture. Finally adding some sharpening will help highlight those details such as skin blemishes or facial hair that can make this kind of shot really jump out off the page.
Quick Tips For Low Light Portraits
1. Get the model to stare down the lens
2. Use a black background
3. A 3/4 works best by maximizing shadows
4. Increase contrast during post production
Enjoy this article? If so please subscribe to Digital SLR Guru to receive free updates!