Filmmaking Lighting

Low Key Lighting: How you can create a dramatic atmosphere immediately

Shooting in low key is something photographers, and videographers can avoid, as they prefer to shoot with high key lighting. However, there are some incredibly cool shots and scenes you can film in low key lighting, and it’s something you must consider in your next film project. 

Shooting in this style of lighting can immediately add a dramatic tone to your scene; the use of low key lighting can add a cinematic edge in minutes. 

It’s a great source of contrast, especially if most of your films shot with high key lighting, or natural outdoor lighting, throwing low key lighting into the mix can help a scene or a moment in the film stand out. 

In today’s article, we are going to look at what low key lighting is. Why you should use low key lighting and the equipment you will need to achieve it. 

We will then look at how to shoot low key lighting and key examples of when low key lighting has been used in the best possible way. 

Right, let’s check it out!

What is Low Key Lighting?

Low key lighting is a style of lighting used in photography and filmmaking. It’s a lighting effect that uses a hard light source to enhance shadows in your shots. This is all about utilising the shadows in the shot, which is quite the opposite in the more popular high key lighting set up.

Shadows, darkness, and dark colours are key characteristics. Avoiding any whites or mid-tones in the shot is imperative when setting up this lighting set.  

Its often used when the director wants to isolate a character or create a dramatic atmosphere. If you want your audience to be gripped, and on the edge of their seats, low key lighting is the place to start. 

The use of low key lighting can help you express an integral part of your story. For instance, if there’s a profound moment, you wish to share with the audience. Using this could be the additional factor that helps you share this moment of importance with your audience. 

Read More: 9 essential film lighting techniques every filmmaker should know

Why Use Low Key Lighting?

It’s used to achieve an atmosphere within the scene. It’s an essential tool for creating a mood within a scene – perfect for adding mystery and tension to an integral scene in your film. 

It’s perfect for commercials to create an air of mystery around the product and isolate the product for the audience to see. 

The main reasons for using low key lighting are to isolate your subject, convey mystery, or air drama in your scene. It can grip the audience, and grab their full attention as they sit precariously on every word the character is delivering—ideal for an important scene or a line that will shape the movie.

You may also be interested in reading our article on: Three-Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film

What Filmmaking Equipment do You Need For Low Key Lighting

Here is a list of the essential items you will need to achieve a low key lighting setup in your next shoot. 

Equipment is integral to filmmaking and the specific lighting arrangements. You’ll need a particular list of equipment to ensure you can film and capture the low key lighting to the best of your ability. 

We’ve broken down each section briefly and have included links to our in-depth guides to help you decide on the best bit of equipment for the shoot.

You may also be interested in: Natural Light: How to shoot using Natural Light

Camera

This is a pretty obvious one we know, but the camera has to be mentioned. The reason for its inclusion is to capture high-quality footage in low key lighting. You need to make sure your camera is capable of achieving this. 

You will need to make sure the camera has an ISO setting low enough to film in this setting. When filming set your ISO level on your camera to 100 or as low as it possibly can go. This will allow you to capture the image as dark as possible and reduce the amount of noise in the shot.

The best combination to film the shot in is to have the ISO number as low as possible and the shutter speed as fast as it possibly will go. This will help you capture the scene in low key lighting at the highest quality.

You may also want to read: DSLR camera guide: What to look for when buying a DSLR?

Lens

The lens is essential to this because you need a lens that’s quick. By “quick” we mean a lens that has an aperture of f/1.4 or f/.8. The standard lens aperture you get with your DSLR at f/3.5 will not cut it. 

Because the lens will be too slow to work in the low key lighting set up, this is due to the lens not capturing the shot in the dark setting and producing an image with too much noise, leaving the final shot redundant. 

Key Light

Key light is the light source you will be using to create a low key lighting set up. With this, you only need one light source to achieve this. The key light can be artificial or natural, depending on your preference. 

For example, you may choose the light the subject using sunlight that’s creeping through the crack of a window to create sadness, mystery or suspense. 

Remember to ensure you don’t light the background and keep the subject isolated with the light. You can even look to using a softbox with the artificial lighting setup – this allows you to light the subject with soft light whilst keeping the darkness and shadows.

You may also like: 9 essential film lighting techniques every filmmaker should know

Backdrop

The final part of the puzzle is a backdrop. The backdrop is not an essential part of the lighting setup, but we feel it’s worth mentioning.

This is worth noting if you’re filming in a studio. You will need to ensure that the backdrop you are using is black or dark grey. 

The dark colours will lend itself to the low key lighting and allow you to achieve the atmosphere you want, and help you film a dramatic and cinematic scene. 

How to Shoot With Low Key Lighting

Here we will look at how to shoot using low key lighting. Here are a couple of tips to help you when setting up a scene using low key lighting. 

Use a fast lens

Use a fast Lens

As mentioned above, you will need to shoot with a fast lens. Shooting in darkness means you need a lens that’s quick enough to cope with the shadows and overall darkness of a shot. 

If it’s too slow, you will get a lot of noise in the shot, leaving the scene unwatchable and potentially needing to be re-shot. There’s only so much you can do in post.

Use good quality lights.

When shooting, you will want to use a light that is of an excellent standard. Most filmmakers prefer to use a softbox when shooting to ensure they light the subject correctly, and keep the majority of the shot in darkness.

Shoot in RAW

You will want to shoot your scene in RAW. This is because you will want to edit this in post-production. This will give you the flexibility to sculpt the footage to your liking in post-production by filming in RAW. 

Monitor your histograms carefully.

This is incredibly important. The reason for monitoring your histograms is to ensure that your subject isn’t either over-exposed or under-exposed. 

Your histograms will look a bit different, which is normal for low key lighting, but you must check the pixel information. 

If it is a little off, you can edit this in post-production.

You may also like: Lumetri scopes functionality: A beginners guide

Try to use negative fills

Using negative fills is to use a board or a piece of fabric that’s placed behind your subject. You need this to be a dark colour (Black or dark grey). 

This is important when filming in low key lighting, as you will need to control the soft lighting entering the shot, as not to light up the background as well as the subject. As this would damage the lighting set up and ultimately, ruin it.

Examples of Low Key Lighting in Film

Here are a couple of examples, when low key lighting has been used in a film with incredible results.

Hopefully, these examples, crossed with the advice above, will help give you an idea of how to set up the shot to perfect the ultimate low key lighting set up.

The Conjuring

Low Key Lighting setup in the Conjuring
The Conjuring

This image from The Conjuring is an excellent example. Isolating the subject allows the audience’s eyes to fixate on the subject, creating suspense and tension. 

This is done using a singular light, with a soft set up to control the light to create the low key lighting effect.

There will be blood

There will be blood
There Will be Blood

This is another, slightly different method of using low key lighting. It’s not as dark, but it uses dark tones and shadows to provoke ominous thoughts from the audience. 

Our final thoughts

Low key lighting is underutilised and is a form of lighting that can create mystery and tension as well as the more common “fear” element in filmmaking.

It’s a great tool to create contrast from scene to scene, and filmmakers should use it to deliver important messages within their movie. 

Also make sure you check out our article on three-point lighting, as this will help you create a great base for the low key lighting setup and allow you to establish the shot correctly. Three-point lighting is easy to set up and perfects to experiment with to allow you to achieve the perfect low key shot.

Here’s the article in full: Three-Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film

We hope this article was helpful to you today. Let us know in the comments your thoughts, and scroll below for our latest articles. If you prefer video tutorials, hop on over to our filmmaking channel on YouTube. You can find us here, on the iFilmThings YouTube channel.

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