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High-contrast lighting is responsible for some of the most memorable imagery put to film. The crisp, delineative quality of deep blacks contrasted with the lit portions appeal to our love of strong scenery, our innate sense of visual beauty.
So, how does one achieve this look in films or photographs of their own? With a process known as low-key lighting. But what is low-key lighting?
Low-key lighting is a high-contrast style of lighting used in photography and film, most commonly seen in film noir, thriller, horror, and associated with dramatic action. It is characterized by strong areas of shadow within the frame, wrapping and contouring a subject. Low-key lighting is achieved through the primary use of a single key light to illuminate a subject, while reflectors, bounce cards, or small fill lights illuminate dark areas to shape the shadows in dramatic fashion.
Wait… high contrast equals low-key? Yes, and we’ll talk about that and much more below, so let’s get into it.
When Should I Use Low-Key Lighting?
Due to the inherent drama that heavy contrast instills, low-key lighting is best suited to scenes that are dramatic, revealing, or isolative. Heavy shadow makes audiences uneasy, so it’s perfect for building tension and creating that “edge of your seat” tone.
This means you have to choose carefully what scenes this style will fit.
Is your character making breakfast for his or her kids in the kitchen on a slightly overcast summer morning? Unless your protagonist is getting ready to tell the kids they’re adopted or that they’ve never actually been loved, maybe low-key isn’t the setup to go with.
However, if your scene features your protagonist stumbling home in the middle of the night to find their best friend who they thought was dead sitting in the corner, shrouded in shadow, waiting to tell them that the government is coming to assassinate them, then this is perfect for a high-contrast setup.
Setting Up the “Low-Key Look”
So in reading the explanation above, you’ve decided that this is the look for your next film. You want to achieve breathtaking dramatic flair. Lucky for you, a low-key setup is pretty simple in the sense that you don’t need much in the way of lights.
Low-key lighting is usually a one-light setup. A strong key should be set up to illuminate your subject from whatever angle you wish. This can be achieved with heavy tungsten lights or even a softbox.
But a softbox is too… well, soft!
Remember, hard shadows aren’t the defining characteristic of low-key lighting. What’s important is that the tone of the shot is dark and contrasted. Softer shadows can achieve this, as well.
Once you have your key light set up on the subject, your next job is to manage the shadows it throws by using bounce cards and reflectors to shape the shadows. This is where experimentation comes into play to achieve the exact look you’re looking for. See how you can shape the shadow to really heighten the drama of your subject.
Sometimes you’ll find that the white, silver, or gold surface of the reflectors and bounce cards you’re using are too harsh, that they’re eliminating key areas of shadow that you simply wanted to lessen, not obliterate.
In this case, negative fills can save your image. A negative fill operates on the opposite principle of bounce cards and reflectors. It absorbs light.
Negative fills are simply dark-surfaced boards or fabrics that can be used to absorb excess light hitting your subject.
So back to that reflector obliterating the shadow you simply wanted to lessen. Throw a negative fill in front of it and you’re still letting the reflector do its job, but not as strong as before, which means you’ve got your shadow back, but not as deep black as it was before.
Don’t Go Overboard
Low-key lighting is a fairly simple setup. Don’t get crazy with too many lights or moving pieces. Sometimes even just the key light with no bounce or reflection can look pretty cool.
If you feel you’ve achieved the look you’re going for with just a few simple actions, don’t feel the need to make it more “filmic” and add too many visual flairs just for appearance’s sake.
Working with Shadow
When you consider that high-contrast lighting styles are basically low-light setups with one source key, you have to realize that shadow will be playing a large role in your frame.
With that in mind, you need to make sure your equipment can handle processing dark shots effectively.
Strong Light Sources
A heavy key is the… ahem, key to successfully pulling off your high-contrast look, so make sure you’ve got some strong light sources on hand.
2K, 5K, or some large softboxes will do the trick. Whatever the choice, you’ll want a large source.
When in doubt, light stronger than you think you’ll need. You can always cut it down with scrims or flags if it’s too much, but you can’t add more light to a weak key. Go big or go home.
Camera and ISO
You’ll be working with low light, so a good low-light camera is a must. If you can’t go pro with RED, ARRI, or Canon C series, then make sure you’ve got a decent, full-frame low-light DSLR to avoid digital grain in your blacks.
DSLRs that should do the trick:
Canon’s 6D MK II, 5D MK III
Sony’s A7S, A7 II, or A7 III
Nikon’s D610, D750, or D810
If you don’t own a full-frame, but have access to a micro four-thirds, go with a camera which has dual-ISO such as the Panasonic GH5S (not the GH5).
Remember, whatever camera you choose to go with, crank the ISO as low as it will go. Use your lights and your lenses to bring as much information into the camera without the help of ISO. This will give the deepest blacks possible with the least amount of ugly grain.
Another way to get the deepest blacks possible in your shadows, and to give you the most flexibility with color correction in editing, is to shoot RAW. Your file sizes will be enormous to be sure, but all that extra quality and detailed information will give you a much crisper image with much more depth to the shadows than shooting MP4, MOV, or similar video compression format.
Best clear up those home movies of your children’s first birthdays and make room on the old hard drive. With uncompressed RAW, you’re gonna need it.
Use Fast Lenses
Good lenses can pick up a lot of the slack if your camera isn’t quite up to snuff in the low-light department. Arguably, lenses could even be considered more important in capturing the specific look you want than the camera itself.
To help combat the low light camera noise and grain mentioned above, a fast lens will go a long way to getting you that clear, contrasted image.
What is a fast lens? Simply a lens with a high maximum aperture, meaning it can open very, very wide. In general, lenses with the ability to get to f/2.8, f/1.8, f1.4, and so on, are considered “fast” lenses.
Why are fast lenses good for low light shoots? Because the aperture of fast lenses opens wider than other lenses, thus allowing more amounts of light in. This eliminates the need to use ISO to expose your image correctly, which helps to eliminate camera noise, thus creating a clear image with low noise even in a darkly lit scene.
I know high aperture lenses can cost a pretty penny, but there are some affordable options if you look for them, notably 50mm lenses. Canon is well-known for its “thrifty fifty” or “nifty fifty” 50mm f/1.8 lens, usually in the ballpark of $125.
So get yourself a fast lens to really boost your image quality when shooting low-key lighting.
High-contrast imagery achieved through low-key lighting is a fantastically dramatic, moody, tonal style perfect for thrilling, or anxiety-inducing scenes across a smattering of film genres. And it’s a comparatively simple style to achieve through a one-light setup and only a few pieces of lighting equipment required to shape the shadows.
With this guide, you should have all the information you need to set out and create your own low-key look.
Don’t let the easy setup and relatively low amount of equipment needed to achieve it fool you, however. It will require practice to master the technique and clearly understand how shadows and light work when bounced, diffused, or filled.
So play around with it and see what results you get. Try different angles and different reflective tools. Try harsh light vs. soft light. Throw some gels into the mix for good measure to achieve some different colors and temperatures mingled with the shadow. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with.
Got any tips for low-key setups? Spread the knowledge to your fellow filmmakers and drop us a comment below!
And if you need a general introduction to lighting setups for video and film, have a look at our Video Lighting Guide.
About the author
Nikola Stojković is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA. When not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.