Low key lighting

What is Low Key Lighting? [Complete Guide]

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Table of contents

In this article, we’re going to discuss what low-key lighting is, why it’s used, where you’ve seen it, and how to use it for your next project.

What lives in shadow evokes curiosity… then imagination fills the gap.

The creative use of light and shadow gives emotional depth to your story. Done effectively, it’s one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can learn how to use.

Ever seen a shot and instantly felt a sense of drama, tension, or fear? There’s a name for this style and it’s called low key lighting.

What is Low Key Lighting?

Low key lighting is a visual style that emphasizes dark tones with high contrast and deep shadows. For the most part, there’s little or no use of mid-tones and ambient light. In fact, some call it shadow lead lighting.

For instance, you’ve seen it in genres such as dramas, thrillers, horror, and noir. It creates a closed-in effect, controlling the perception of the viewer.

This style is in direct contrast to high key lighting, which uses soft lights for a bright and evenly lit frame. This creates an open and positive atmosphere.

Low key lighting, on the other hand, uses hard light sources to create a stark contrast and deep shadows. With its concealing nature, it adds dimension and suspense.

History

Low key lighting has been around for a very long time, even before Film Noir. The evolution can be traced back to a style called Chiaroscuro from the Renaissance period.

Chiaroscuro Lighting

Chiaroscuro lighting

In Latin, ‘Chiaro’ – means clear or luminous, and ‘Scuro’ translates to ‘obscure or ‘dark’. Combining the two in one composition creates a bold contrast. As a result the subject pops, creating a 3-dimensional effect.

This famous style was popularized by great painters such as DaVinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. DaVinci famously said:

“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”

Chiaroscuro found its way into cinema during the German Expressionist movement a decade after WWI. This movement stepped away from being aesthetically pleasing, focusing more on a realistic view of the world.

As a result, the style thrived and inspired the well known genre – Film Noir. This classic lighting survived the introduction of color in motion pictures and is widely used in films we love today.

Low Key Lighting Examples

You’ve seen low key lighting in many of your favorite films. This technique adds dimension to any subject matter. Even without context, you get a sense of unease with a desire to know more.

Here are a few examples of low key lighting from popular films and TV shows.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan

Take a look at the trailer from Darren Aronfsky’s psychodrama, Black Swan. The main character has to compete with a double for the role. In turn, she must embrace the darkness to become the star. The ultimate dance of good and evil is artfully executed in this low key lighting example.

The Lighthouse (2019)

Low key lighting in The Lighthouse

In this black-and-white horror, two men are on a desolate island maintaining a lighthouse. When a great storm delays departure, their guiding light dims. The low key lighting shows us growing distrust for one another. As their sanity slips, impending doom awaits in the shadows.

Sin City (2005)

Low key lighting in Sin City

This is a great example of low key lighting in film. The stark contrast and deep blacks reflect the sinister motives of gritty characters. Just like the comic book, action, and suspense fills every frame of this groundbreaking Neo-Noir.

Chernobyl (2019) 

Chernobyl

The Chernobyl series uses low-key lighting to showcase the darkest human behavior. The government went to great lengths to shield themselves from shame by concealing information. As a result, innocent people lost their lives and many more suffered. The visual style deepens the emotional impact of the real events depicted.

Breaking Bad (2008)

Low key lighting in Breaking Bad

Walter White was the ultimate Anti-hero. Creator Vince Gilligan’s logline for Breaking Bad was to turn Mr. Chips (gentle schoolteacher) into Scarface. Some of the most intense scenes of walking this path were guided by low key lighting. Watch this dynamic interaction with Mike unfold below.

Why Use Low Key Lighting?

First off, there are many reasons to use low key lighting. Mostly, the technique enhances the drama of any story. More is happening than what the viewer is shown. After all, more is expressed through shadows than through light.

To help define the look, ask yourself simple questions: What is the tone of the scene?  What are the key aspects of the frame? What are the motives of the character?

Moreover, set design with low light is a bit easier than high key lighting.  Largely because unwanted details can hide in the shadows. In turn, equipment costs are low and setup time is fast.

Uses for Low key lighting in film:

  • Create serious atmosphere
  • Add emotional depth
  • Increase dimension
  • Build suspense
  • Establish a good vs. evil theme
  • Foreshadowing
  • Dark human behavior
  • Create silhouette
  • Accentuate contours
  • Enhance body language
  • Create long shadows

As you can see, low key lighting is a powerful way to direct the viewer’s attention.

How To Use Low Key Lighting?

First, in order to get the maximum contrast, your light sources need to be completely controlled.

Second, pay close attention to ambient light and white walls. Due to their reflectiveness, limit or eliminate.

Shooting in front of a setting sun makes for great silhouette shots. In the same way, In addition, street lamps or car headlights create menacing shadows.

Furthermore, you can establish opposing forces by using high key lighting in one scene, then low key lighting in the next. Remember that the purpose of your first shot is to get your viewer to watch the next. The first act to the final.

Step-by-Step Guide

Follow the steps below to create a dramatic shot with high contrast and deep shadows.

  1. First off, inspect all the details of the frame, your goal is to avoid shooting near white walls and ceilings. If needed, tape Duvetyne or black trash bags to the surface for negative fill.
  2. Next, Place your single source light behind your subject on the opposite side of your camera. Place light above your frame and angle slightly downward. To avoid creating a complete silhouette, bring the light slightly towards the side of your subject.
  3. If you have zero ambient light, set up a fill light to nearly an 8:1 ratio. Generally, you’re aiming for 3 f-stops or more between the key and the background of your subject. This will give depth to the shot. Check out our article on How To Use A Light Meter to learn about light ratios and f-stops.
  4. Use light modifiers such as barn doors or flags to trim the beam of your light source.
  5. Fine-tune the look of your shot using negative fill boards to the side or underneath your subject.
  6. Be sure to test the camera and character movement within the scene. Blocking may require tracking of your single source lights to maintain exposure on your subject. In addition, rehearse character gestures and props. The use of a second dedicated hard light may be required.
  7. To add an extra sensibility to your shot, add a little fill on the texture of the scene whether it’s dirt on the ground or grungy alleyway walls. Broken glass looks great too.

Pro Tips

Here are a few quick tips to help emphasize your low key lighting.

  • Smaller light sources create harsh lines, sharper edges, and shadows
  • Have your subject wear darker clothes and avoid patterns. This keeps the attention focused on the subject without creating unwanted fill light.
  • High contrast with soft edges is a stylistic choice. If this is what you’re aiming for, use a parabolic softbox with a grid. Grids are great to shape the direction of your light without spilling on the areas around your subject.
  • Haze spray or flour can also act as reflecting light, creating more of an atmosphere.
  • Save setup time by shooting at night. This drastically reduces your equipment list.

Essential Low Key Lighting Equipment

Low key lighting can be simple and budget-friendly. After all, you need minimal gear to create a dynamic look.

  • 1 key hard light with barn doors
  • Fresnel attachment for a focused beam
  • Duvetyne or black muslin
  • Negative fill (black) boards
  • Flags
  • Honeycomb grids (help direct light and prevent light spill)
  • C-Stands, boom arms, Cardellini clamps, gaff tape, and sandbags

As mentioned, if you’re looking to soften your edges, pick up a parabolic softbox with a grid and skirt.

By all means, work with what you have. Make sure homemade light modifiers aren’t too close to a hot light.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, low key lighting shapes the way a viewer experiences your story.

The intentional use of light and shadow makes any shot more compelling. This way, you can fill every shot with meaning. 

There are so many cinematic looks you can achieve with a single light source. It’s what you show and how you show it. The more you can say visually, the better.

So, get out there and experiment to level up your cinematic lighting skills.

Author
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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