low key photography

High Key and Low Key Photography

The use of light in photography is always the most important factor. High key and low key photography is a technique that uses to much or not enough light to create your exposure. Think of the two techniques as purposely over or under exposing your image.

By letting in too much light or restricting more light than usual you can create different moods within a scene. This can create powerful contrasts or vibrant, feel good, images that create a completely unique view of your subject.

It is up to you, the photographer, to decide how far on each scale you want to go. Do you choose to remove a little bit more light? Or do you choose to completely blow out the scene to really create a unique look?

High Key Photography

High key photography refers to the concentration of the light areas of an image. The aim is to eliminate harsh shadows and create a bright frame. A focus on the light areas will usually create a very happy, vibrant feel. Think product photography, weddings, babies, holidays and portraits.

low key photography

Low Key Photography

Low key photography refers to the focus of the dark areas of an image. Like any dark photography the idea is to really concentrate on shadows and contrasts. Low key photography is typically used to add a spooky feel, a sense of mystery or to really force you to only look at one subject in the whole image. Think powerful portraits, flowers, halloween, castles, cemeteries.

high key photography

In Camera Settings

Some modern cameras will have a built in high key and low key setting. If you shoot Nikon you will find you can quickly select high or low key in the effect setting on your dial.

If you do not have those settings do not worry. You can do it manually just as easily.

The main aim in camera is to effectively overexpose or underexpose your image depending on which technique you are using. Just like in your everyday photography life it is going to be unlikely that the image you produce in camera will be your final outcome. If your subject is over/underexposed you can correct a bit in editing. Especially if you shoot in RAW.

For this reason you may want to pay more attention to the areas surrounding your subject rather than the subject itself. Have you removed all distraction?

To get your camera to manipulate the light you are going to need to have a great understanding of the exposure triangle and manual mode. If you allow your camera to pick the “best” settings then it is going to try to pick a correct exposure. Unless you are in high and low key mode of course.

High Key in Camera Settings

One of the only times a high ISO is acceptable is when shooting in high key. First off a high ISO will let a lot more light in but it will also start to add some noise that can actually become very complimentary against your subject. Of course, this is also personal taste.

On that note you can also get away with a narrow aperture to add a wide depth of field. A good go to is to set your aperture to f/10 and then go up or down from there.

The shutter speed should be used to add some sharpness but you could also use it to show some movement by having the shutter open for a while.

Low Key in Camera Settings

When it comes to ideal camera settings for low key photography, you should try to keep your ISO low and aperture wide open. There are going to be a lot of dark tones so noise from ISO will be particularly obvious. You can start by setting your ISO to 100. Once you’re satisfied with your choice of ISO, you can adjust your shutter speed and aperture and achieve the desired effect for the light you’ve chosen.

You can set the aperture by starting with the smallest f-number, such as f/1.4 or f/1.8 and then adjust from there. You will be able to use a relatively fast shutter speed if you stick to the widest aperture meaning the subject is sharp. Sharpness and great contrasts are usually the key in low key photography.

high key photography
Use a tripod for all aspects of high and low key photography

The great thing about using a tripod and DSLR is you can see your result on screen and alter accordingly. Trial and error will likely be necessary. Don’t be fooled in thinking you should know the exact settings immediately. Even the best photographers in the world will take a test shot and adjust.

Just remember the aim is to purposely shoot the bulk of the image very bright or very dark to create a mood.


If you want to go further than just altering your exposure values in camera then you need to think about your setup.

High Key

Studio lighting is a perfect way to bring a lot of light into your camera sensor. All this extra light will make for great use in a high key shot. If you set it up right you can keep your subject correctly exposed and blow out your background to create a real ethereal effect.

A flash is always helpful here to try to eliminate any shadows that may be visible in your shot. It also will add a few extra stops of exposure if you just aren’t achieving the results you want.

low key photography

Low Key

Remember low key photography is about restricting as much light as possible. You obviously want your main subject to be visible but there usually shouldn’t be any other distractions. Think about putting black sheets over windows or shooting at night.

In order to get some light into your subject you probably want to be using a soft flash aimed solely at the subject. The key is to try to keep the subject somewhat lit whilst negating the rest of the background.

Because of the purposeful absence of light you will probably require a tripod to prevent any camera shake.


Your editing is probably where your shot and idea is going to come to life. Once you get familiar with editing a high or low key shot then you will be able to shoot them in the field knowing exactly how your edit will turn out.

High Key Editing

Darken Your Subject

You may find your main subject is a bit brighter than you would have liked. Particularly if you used a flash. Don’t worry. Editing is where you patch all this up. Use your adjustment brush (highlighted in the below photo) to paint over your main subject. Then play around with your sliders to get a feel for what is making it look good and what isn’t.

You will find your contrast slider can come in really helpful in high key photography. You can quickly apply dark contrasts that will bring down shadows but increase highlights.

Birghten the Background

If there are still details in your background that you didn’t want to be so visible then try to focus on them and bring the exposure on them up. The ‘white’ slider tool will really help with that.

Low Key Editing

Brighten Your Subject

If you have got your shoot right your subject should be the brightest part of your image really. However you may have underexposed your subject a bit to keep the rest of the frame dark. Perfectly fine.

If you are editing in Lightroom then take your brush tool (highlighted on the above image) and paint over your main subject to highlight it. Then tinker around with your exposure, contrasts, highlights, shadows, clarity, whites and blacks. In low key editing you will probably find the ‘whites’ slider is going to be your most powerful. It will pull out any light on the subject whilst keeping all shadows completely dark. This is great for sharp contrasts.

Darken the Background

If you are close to getting your main subject nicely exposed you may want to consider your background now. You may be able to alter the background by using the shadows and blacks slider only. If it needs a little more work use the brush tool again to paint over the areas you want to amend.

A more popular option is to apply a radial filter (the option to the left of the adjustment brush). The radial filter allows you to draw a circle around your subject. Anything not inside the circle can then be edited using the sliders. So a great tactic is to highlight your now correctly exposed subject in your circle and simply play around with the sliders to darken your area around your subject.

A third option is to add a vignette which will add a dark tone to the image starting from all 4 corners and going in depending on its strength setting.

Reduce Noise

Noise is one of the typical issues in low key photography. Even though we should keep our ISO low, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid cranking it up. Bear in mind that noise reduction should be used carefully because it blurs the photo slightly. Use it only when it’s truly necessary.

Play With The Colours  

You may have seen great low key shots with a slight bit of colour in. They do not have to be black and white of course, although they usually are. The below image has made dramatic use of the pinks and dark greens in the image. Don’t forget in Lightroom and most editing softwares you can desaturate specific colours. So if you wanted to remove the green in the below image to keep only the pink that would be an option to.

Read more about selective colour here

high key photography

Take Inspiration

High Key Ideas:

  • Portrait Photography, newborn photography, for fashion shoots, weddings,
  • Vibrant nature shots. Trees, flowing water, animals, flowers
  • For cinematic shots
  • For advertising-related photoshoots. White backgrounds. High contrasts

Low Key Ideas:

  • Dramatic close-ups when you’re trying to capture emotion.
  • Portraits
  • When you’re trying to emphasize part of a subject’s face or body, for instance the subject’s blue green eyes.
  • If you want your subject to look dramatic in black & white.
  • When there is intense action happening.
  • Dramatic nature scenes. Storms, animals, flowers.
  • Spooky shots and dark moods. Castles, Halloween.

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