low-key lighting

Capturing Magic: Finding Inspiration For Captivating Portraits

Capturing Magic: Finding Inspiration For Captivating Portraits

Portraiture has been around for many centuries. Before the digital age and even before the age of film, portraits had been created through other mediums such as paintings and sculptures. A portrait is a treasure that people keep around for a lifetime. A great portrait embodies the essence of the person and tells his or her story without saying a word. How can you make your portraits stand out from the rest? Getting creative. Doing something different. But then, where do you find the inspiration for such types of portraits?

Here I created an artist set to get the look of interrupting an artist at work.

Model: Shoko Fujita


The idea for a portrait can revolve around many different things, such as an overall theme, maybe a piece of clothing, a location, a prop or the person you are photographing – among many other things. You can generate ideas for a portrait through music, art, books and more. It becomes easier to find inspiration the more you become aware of your surroundings and most importantly, familiar with your subject.


What’s the Purpose of the Portrait?

The first thing you should think about when deciding how to tackle capturing a portrait of someone is: what is the purpose of the portrait? A portrait might be a senior portrait for a teenager getting ready to graduate high school in the next year, an individual’s portrait, a couple’s portrait, family portraits or even glamour or boudoir portraits.

A senior portrait.


Determining the purpose of the portrait can help guide you toward the characteristics your client might be looking for in their portrait such as a couple’s portrait might want to display their love for one another, a senior portrait might symbolize hope for a bright future and for a boudoir portrait, the idea is “sexy”.

Glamour portrait in my hallway.

Model: Sietzka Wiersma


Below are several characteristics that you may find can help jog some creativity into your portraiture.


Background Choice

In a car. A sixteen-year-old boy just got their first car. He is proud of achieving the passing of his driving test and as a typical sixteen-year-old boy, his car is his most prized possession. This is a good opportunity to suggest shooting a few portraits with him in or standing next to his car.

Outdoors. Shooting a portrait outdoors offers an infinite number of possibilities for backgrounds. Find out your client’s favorite area of town and meet them there for the shoot. If they like the beach, shoot at the beach. Are they avid hikers? Strap on your hiking boots and let them guide you to their favorite spot and photograph them in that environment. If they’re unsure of an outdoor location, it’s up to you to scout out an interesting backdrop.

We shot this portrait outdoors in my neighborhood.

Model: Bonnie Byrnes


In a studio setting. Many portrait photographers opt to shoot in a studio so that they can better control the light. You have options for backgrounds in the studio such as seamless paper, canvas, muslin or you can even build a set. Below I used a Savage Mocha seamless paper background along with dramatic lighting.

Background choice in the studio against Savage Mocha seamless paper.

Model/Actress: Celeste Smith


Work Your Angles


Shoot From Above. Savage Floor Drops can make for an interesting background when you shoot your subject from above. Having materials around such as fur and silk also add texture and sheen to the image. In the image below, I also added pillows and lit tea candles as well as a guitar to create an “At Home With the Musician” type of portrait.

Get on a ladder and shoot from above.

Model: Daria Komarkova


Give your subject space to look into. As a good rule of thumb, when shooting a portrait, especially “landscape-oriented” (horizontally), frame your subject on one side of the image or the other (use The Rule of Thirds as a guide) and make sure that he or she has space to stare into. When you have a subject facing outside the frame closest to him or her, the image generally evokes a bit of tension within the viewer.

Placing your subject on one side of the image and giving them a lot of negative space on one side gives them space to look into.

Model: Maria Iodice


Shooting Orientation. I generally ignore the idea that portraits should be “portrait-oriented” (vertical). I generally shoot a portrait both portrait-oriented and landscape oriented (horizontal) for variations.

Vertical orientation.

Model: Sietzka Wiersma


Remember the best way to shoot landscape-oriented people photos is to give your subject space to look into by placing them on one side of the image or the other with their face facing into the image center.

Horizontal orientation.

Model: Sietzka Wiersma


Tight Shots

When I shoot, I generally have my subject hold for 2-3 shots and capture the same photo a few different ways, such as full body, ¾ shot, waist up, headshot and a tight shot. Tight shots can be an interesting choice to create a unique portrait. It especially comes in handy if your subject has a receding hairline or a double chin.

Tight shot of a friend.


Play With Light & Shadow


Mixing Multiple Light Sources. I remember I was once told that mixing different types of lighting could be tricky or disastrous. I did an experiment once in outdoor shade next to a building doorway where there was a combination of ambient daylight, my speedlight and a tungsten bulb in the doorway and came up with the portrait below. Don’t ever be afraid to experiment and create things someone else told you that you couldn’t.

Here I blended ambient light, the tungsten bulb light in the doorway to the right and my speedlight to get this shot.

Model: Andy Mizerek


Use Shadows. Whether it’s shadows created from mini-blinds indoors or from trees outdoors, or even shadows you create with studio lighting, shadows can transform such a humdrum image into something very extraordinary.

I used a tree to break up harsh lighting and got some interesting shadow patterns.

Model: Daria Komarkova


Create Silhouettes. A portrait doesn’t necessarily need to capture all the details of a subject. Sometimes just a silhouette outline of your subject can make for a creative portrait too.

Silhouettes can make for interesting portraits.


Go High-Key or Low-Key. High key portraits evoke a feeling of lightness, innocence and purity. The key to creating a high key portrait is a lot of light, while still managing to maintain a true black point.

A high key portrait always has a light and pure feel to it.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Low-key portraits are a good choice for music and athletic portraits or any type of portrait where you want to create a lot of drama as the images are very dark and the light is very focused on a particular part of a subject such as their face, hands or maybe even just a baby’s feet. In the image below I added a rim light to create a separation between my subject and the background to add dimension.

Low-key lighting can add drama.

Model: Baron Jackson


Use window light whenever possible. Many photographers are a fan of natural light and prefer daylight studios to just any ole studio. There’s just a quality of softness about light that comes through a window, which can serve as a little bit of a diffuser itself. Window light can be recreated artificially, but there’s just something striking about natural window light.

Window light makes for a beautiful dramatic portrait.

Model: Bonnie Byrnes


Add Movement


Spin, Spin, Spin. I recently wrote an article on getting more creative with your self-portraits and experimented with spinning and shooting with a slow shutter. I managed to create the image below on the second try. Here you can see my face in profile and full face. Just a unique “spin” to a portrait.

A slow shutter offers a nice motion shot.


Blowing confetti/glitter. You’ve see the images. A girl with a party hat (or not) blowing confetti toward the camera lens. It’s a nice shot to try to capture for a birthday portrait, but it does take practice and a tripod to capture the confetti in the air prior to its descent.

Sports portraits. You might be hired to shoot some portraits during a child’s sports game. Anticipation of movement is the key to a sports portrait – that and a fast shutter speed. After the game you can slow down and capture images of the athlete in his or soiled uniform holding the football, catcher’s mitt, baseball bat, or whatnot. It provides much more character than a stark, sterile, clean uniform.

Dancing portraits. A photographer can capture beautiful portraits of ballet dancers who are  quick, agile and can hold a pose for a pretty long time. I actually added movement into the image below by shooting the dancer through a piece of Plexiglas wrapped in Saran wrap.

I shot through saran wrap on Plexiglas here to create a sense of movement.

Model/dancer: Shoko Fujita



A different way to approach shooting a subject is through the use of a mirror. If you can find a room with a full length mirror on one side, this can make for a stunning image – especially the more dramatic the wardrobe they are wearing. No mirror wall? A stand-up mirror can also work to capture a person in a just little bit of a different way than just a “smile and say cheese” portrait.

Use of a mirror for this portrait.

Model: Colleen Rose Careri


Composites & Double Exposure


Composites. A composite, if done right, can add a new dimension to a portrait. I’m not an expert with Adobe Photoshop, nor do I have the patience to spend hours and hours to do outrageously amazing composites, but taking your subject and placing them on a different background can sometimes make the image more interesting.

A composite created from a studio shot on white seamless and an image borrowed from Google.

Model: Shoko Fujita


Double Exposure Images. A double exposure image is another process that can take a little bit of time but can fun and can literally share your subject with something they like. I’m a huge fan of sunflowers so we created the double exposure of me in a sunflower field. The sun just happened to be in a perfect spot to generate an even deeper meaning to the portrait.

This is a double exposure self-portrait amongst my favorite flower.


Introduce Props


Flowers and foliage. Whether you add flowers to your client’s hair or put flowers in their hands (which can also help to relax your subject by giving them something to do with their hands…!), adding a client’s favorite flower to their portrait not only adds an additional piece of beauty into the image but it also adds yet another hint to the viewer as to the subject’s likes and preferences. Beyond the example below, the self-portrait above also showcases this.

Giving my subject flowers gave her something to do with her hands too.

Model: Larissa Byrd


Food. Yes food… but make it fun food! A portrait of a child blowing out candles on a birthday cake makes a nice sentiment. Combining a lollipop or even a piece of fruit into a portrait can make the portrait a little more fun and interesting. If your subject is holding the object, even better! Giving them something to do with their hands helps to relax them a little in front of the lens as it helps take their attention of the camera and places it on the object they are holding.

Add a lollipop for a twist to the semi-monochromatic image.

Model: Bonnie Byrnes


Materials and Lace. Exaggeration is okay not only in fashion, but portraiture too. In the image below I draped a piece of beautiful jade lace over my client’s hair and gave her a bouquet of black calla lilies to create a little bit of a darker portrait. Adding various materials or lace to a portrait set whether it’s on your subject or they are laying on it, adds a nice touch to the final result.

Here the props were the lace made into a veil and the black calla lillies.

Model: Shoko Fujita


Incorporate Accessories


Hats. Hats can be a fun addition to a portrait depending on what they are wearing and your subject’s personality.

I added a cowgirl hat to complete this ensemble.

Model: Bonnie Byrnes


Scarves. In addition, a scarf can also be a nice addition to a subject’s look in a portrait. In the image below, my subject has an Eastern European background and actually asked me if we could incorporate a scarf into some of her portraits.

Because of her ethnic background, the scarf helps lend to her story.

Model: Maria Iodice


Add Embellishments to Makeup


Feathers. While feathers might be a little overboard, they can make for a fun and dramatic portrait if you have a great makeup artist on hand. In the image below, we went with a beautiful peacock theme.

We created a beautiful peacock theme for this shot.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Jewels. Adding jewels to makeup, especially around the eyes, can really bring out the feature they are near. The colors and sparkle also really stand out.

Adding jewels to her eyes draws your attention to the most important part of the portrait – the windows to the soul.

Model: Lizbeth Sawyers


Various Facial Expressions & Emotions

Rather than a typical, “say cheese” portrait, you may be able to evoke several different emotions in your client and capture them. Teenagers are notorious for being a bit reserved when it comes to professional portraits when it’s not their idea and the parents are the ones demanding them. A serious expression is quite fine though! Try to conjure up different expressions from your client. A sly or coy smile here, a bright cheery smile there, a pensive and thoughtful expression there – it all works!

It’s ok to capture a normal beautiful portrait.

Model: Chelsea Jackson


If your client is a bit of a jokester, even capturing capturing silly facial expressions really captures their essence and shows the viewer their personality.

Sometimes different facial expressions can show a fun side of someone in a portrait.

Model: Chelsea Jackson


Shoot Candids Between the Posed Shots

Of course, capturing candid shots in between the posed shots can also be a huge bonus as you’re capturing unposed, true, expressions of your client when they are being themselves and are caught off-guard. I managed to capture this candid portrait below during a pause between poses. I thought it was a bit calm and serene (almost meditative) and the client loved it.

I caught this shot between poses.

Model: Shoko Fujita


A Last Word About Gaining Creative Insight…

Finding inspiration and coming up with creative ideas for captivating portraits can be very easy. The more aware you are of your surroundings, the more you will realize that the possibilities for ideas are endless. One of the great things I’ve learned over the past few years that has helped my creativity is self-portraits. You learn a lot not only about being in front of the lens, but how to tell your own story.



Posted by Dawn Wayand in Workshop, 0 comments
The Art of Portraiture Part 2: Light

The Art of Portraiture Part 2: Light

Light is a vital part of portraiture. Heck, it’s a vital part of photography period. The word “photography” literally  translates “to draw with light”. There are many ways to introduce and use light in a portrait and we’ll go into some of those ways and more in this second installment of my series: The Art of Portraiture. In case you missed the first article, check out, The Art of Portraiture: Composition, Depth of Field and Background.




Daylight and a Reflector

Daylight is the cheapest and easiest way to light an image because most of a day, it is always there. The quality  or characteristics of it may change due to the weather, but it is always available. A photographer’s optimal daylight situation is partly cloudy or overcast. This is mainly because when the sky is sunny and there are no clouds in the sky, first, there is no texture in the sky which is the result a cloud will insert into an image. Second, a sunny day tends to wash out colors. An overcast day will enrich colors.

A reflector was used on the left as I wanted to play with shadow and bright sunlight.

Model: Daria Komarkova


Typically, you will want to position your subject with their back against the light source. A reflector is key to have on hand regardless of the weather since there is nothing to bounce light back onto your subject like a white ceiling or wall would. Whether you are creating a headshot, ¾ shot or a full body shot, a large reflector is a terrific tool for bouncing a lot of light back onto your subject to fill in the shadows that appear under the eyes, nose and neck.



Speedlights are an inexpensive light source that can be used on- or off-camera. They tend to be a versatile tool and a more convenient solution than a monolight or strobe.

My Nikon SB-700 Speedlight.


While they are a tiny little light source, there light can be spread through the use of tilting its head and bouncing its light off of a wall or ceiling onto a subject, or it can be combined with a modifier such as an umbrella or softbox to widen its effect.


Continuous Lights

Continuous lights are as they are titled: continuous running lights. They do not flash like a speedlight, monolight or strobe would. Some of the benefits for using a continuous light are that many subjects tend to relax more under continuous lighting rather than a flash and that you can shoot wide open for a shallow depth of field. They are also great for shooting people that blink a lot. The downside to continuous lights is that you are limited on modifiers and a tripod is almost a must for the sharpest image when setting the shutter slower than sync speed. Continuous lights come in a few flavors: tungsten, fluorescent and LED lights.

Left to Right: Lowel Rifa 66ex – 750 Watt Light, Westcott Spiderlite TD6 and the Fiilex P360EX Variable Color LED Lights.

Images by Adorama.


A few good recommendations I have tested and used in the past for continuous lights and that are available at Adorama are:



Strobes are generally the lighting tool used in studio portraiture as they emit a great deal of power and light your image for capture in a split second. They can work with almost any modifier that is compatible with their make (and sometimes, model), usually using a speedring adapter.

Flashpoint Rapid 600 HSS Monolight.

Image courtesy of Adorama


I recently found the Flashpoint Rapid 600 HSS Monolight with Built-in R2 2.4GHz Radio Remote System (Bowens Mount) to be a great find as they work seamlessly with other tools in the R2 family such as R2 Zoom Flashes when using one of the following transmitters:


Flashpoint R2 i-TTL Wireless 2.4 G Transmitter Remote for Nikon,

Flashpoint R2T 32 Channel 2.4GHz Manual and HSS Transmitter for Canon, or

Flashpoint R2 TTL 2.4G Wireless Remote and Triggering System – Sony


Other good systems that are a little bit pricier but offer superb quality are the Broncolor Siros 800 Basic 2 Monolight Flash Kit, WiFi which includes a great starter kit. I am personally in love with the Profoto B1 500 Air TTL Battery-Powered 2-Light Location Kit. These can be used in the studio or outdoors on location as they are battery-powered and they can come with the transmitter and do include a convenient backpack for travel.

Profoto B1 500 Air Location Kit.

Image courtesy of Adorama



There are many different lighting uses for monolights and strobes in a studio. Let’s jump into some of the main uses of these when shooting portraits.


Key Lights & Fill Lights

When working with multiple lights, a key light is the main light used to illuminate a subject. A fill light is sometimes used to fill in the shadows created by the key light to make up a more evenly lit portrait.

A key light was used on the right and a fill light was used at a lower power as fill on the left.

Model: Lizbeth Sawyers


Background Lights

A background light is used to illuminate a background and can be placed in several ways. I typically either place a floor light directly behind my subject angled up and shining on the background to create more of a circular effect on the background behind my subject or I’ll place a light on each side of my subject aimed toward the background either at different heights or the same height to evenly light the entire background.

Here I used a floor light aimed up at the background behind my subject and attached a red gel to it.

Model: Deeksha Chawla


Rim Lights

A rim light is typically placed behind a subject aimed at the back of the subject and does just what its title suggests: it creates a rim around the the hair and shoulders and arms of a subject.

Use of a rim light.

Model: Deeksha Chawla


Floor Lights

While floor lights can also be used as background lights and rim lights, they are typically used when lighting full body shots to illuminate the legs and feet of a subject.

I used a floor light to illuminate my model’s legs and feet here.

Model: Baron Jackson


Hair Lights

Hair lights are used to create separation between your subject’s hair/head and the background or another subject in an image.

I used a hair light above my subject to illuminate her hair and to give a little rim to separate her head from the background.

Model: Deeksha Chawla



We all aim to make our images look unique from others and while there are a lot of choices in how to shine some light on your subject, below are some lighting techniques to help get you creating more interesting portraits.


Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting came to be known by its name through study of works from the artist, Rembrandt, and how he portrayed light in his paintings. In most, if not all, of his works, he worked light into his masterpieces much like we shape light in our photographs, but with one interesting niche that became a “tell” of his work: he would show light shining on his subject in a position that made one side darker than the other and that darker side would contain a triangle of light on the shadow-side cheek.

Rembrandt lighting.

Model: Tara Virada


Loop Lighting

Loop lighting is a lighting technique called such as its “tell” is that it leaves a loop pattern under the nose. The loop lighting setup is very similar to Rembrandt lighting setup except that the triangle on the shadow side never closes and the shadow of the nose appears to be pointing to and/or just touching the corner of the lips.

Loop lighting.

Model: James Karl Campbell


Split Lighting

A split lighting setup results in one side of the face being lit and the other side of the face being completely in shadow. This occurs by placing a light on one side of the subject or the other.

Split Lighting.

Model: Celeste Smith



Underlighting, sometimes referred to as “movie” lighting is a quick and easy one-light setup that reels in (no pun intended) a dark, dramatic effect and will help to sculpt a subject’s body and face. Typically, a subject is wearing darker colors, though a mix with whites or reds can also lend to a character’s look.

Underlighting example, sometimes referred to as “movie” lighting.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Doubleback Lighting

Doubleback lighting, which I also found to be also called as “badger” lighting is a creative two-light setup that helps to emphasize shadows which adds angles to the face and body. Depending on the power and modifier used, the shadows can range from harsh (which works for chiseling a man’s face) to soft (like in the image of my beautiful model, Kathryn, below).

Badger or Doubleback Lighting.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


The tell of this type of moody lighting is that it leaves inverted color markings rendered by the lights similar in look to those of a badger.


Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting can be as little as a one-light setup (more if you want to light the background) positioned above and in front of your subject – high enough so that it creates a shadow under the nose similar to the shape of a butterfly.

Butterfly Lighting.

Model: Shoko Fujita


Clamshell Lighting

Clamshell lighting is a form of beauty lighting that pretty much eliminates shadows on a subject’s face as the lights are positioned to cancel out the shadows each would create. It is generally used to emphasize natural beauty or to highlight makeup (usually for a skincare or makeup ad…) We used it artistically in the image below to highlight the creative color work that my hair/makeup artist, Gil Aldrin, created on my model.

An artsy example of clamshell lighting using two lights for the clamshell and two background lights.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


High-Key Lighting

High-key is a lighting style that is a results in little-to-no shadow on your subject, based on the level of brightness of your lights hitting a subject. High-key is based on lighting ratios. It’s not a lighting pattern – which is based on light direction. Many lighting patterns can work for high key lighting so long as there is minimal to no shadows. High-key lighting can be achieved when your fill light(s) project(s) the same level of brightness as your key light to fill in shadows. This creates a 1:1 ratio eliminating all shadows.

High-key image of my model, Kathryn – extremely soft shadow transition,

light-color clothing and a strong black point using two background lights.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Low-Key Lighting

“Low key” lighting is a more dramatic form of lighting that focuses on form and shadow. It is typically a darker image where the focus can be on part of your subject whether it’s their face, a body part or a certain amount of their whole body. It can be much more interesting when adding a little bit of rim lighting behind your subject.

Result image of my model Baron based on a low-key lighting setup.

Model: Baron Jackson



Lighting a portrait can make all the difference between a good portrait and a bad one. As you can see here, there are several light sources available to you to use for different uses and to light in different ways. You can develop your own style just in the way you light an image. While I can light an image in any way (as shown above), my personal style, be it woman or man, is more on the darker side with lots of shadow – creating a moodier image. What’s your style?

Posted by Dawn Wayand in Workshop, 0 comments
From Light to Dark: High-Key and Low-Key Lighting in Portraiture

From Light to Dark: High-Key and Low-Key Lighting in Portraiture

Turn on the lights! Depending on lighting, portraits can run a gamut of fun, bright, light, airy and upbeat to dark, moody, serious, mysterious and dramatic. This is why studio lighting can be intensely difficult for some and fun for others. How you light a portrait can make or break the image, so it’s important not only to do it, but to do it well. I wanted to focus on a couple of creative lighting styles used not only in portraits, but in fashion, beauty and even television and film. So let’s get to the studio!

High-key image of my model, Kathryn – extremely soft shadow transition,

light-color clothing and a strong black point using two background lights.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


High-key is a lighting style that is a results in little-to-no shadow on your subject, based on the level of brightness of your lights hitting a subject. High-key is based on lighting ratios. It’s not a lighting pattern – which is based on light direction. Many lighting patterns can work for high key lighting so long as there is minimal to no shadows. High-key lighting can be achieved when your fill light(s) project(s) the same level of brightness as your key light to fill in shadows. This creates a 1:1 ratio eliminating all shadows. We’ll discuss high-key more in depth in just a moment, but for now, let’s jump into lighting ratios to get a better understanding of high-key lighting later.


Lighting Ratios

Before we move into key lighting, it’s important to understand how to achieve high-key and low-key lighting, which involves knowing and understanding a little bit about lighting ratios.  I go into great detail on lighting ratios in my article: Understanding and Using Lighting Ratios in Studio Portraiture. I encourage you to take a look at that article to get a better understanding of the math and tools behind some impressive lighting techniques.

Simple Table of Lighting Ratios.


Lighting ratios are basically the mathematical ratio relation of light that falls onto a subject between two light sources, typically a key light on the highlight side and fill light on what would be the shadow side.

Another high-key portrait example.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins

High Key Lighting

High key lighting is a lighting style that results in low contrast and soft shadow transition through the use of a lot of soft, diffused light. Sometimes photographers slightly overexpose an image as an artistic choice with this type of lighting, but do not confuse high-key lighting and a just plain ole’ blown out image. A light, bright and airy image of a subject containing a true black point (such as the pupil of an eye or a subject’s eyebrows or eyelashes) or some form of contrast is often a good mark for the image to be high-key whereas an overexposed image will not show a true black at all.

Another example of a high-key portrait.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Fashion and beauty photographers often use high key lighting since the extreme amount of soft light and lack of shadows flatter a subject’s features. Pores and wrinkles are eliminated by this form of beauty lighting.


Capturing a High-Key Image

High-key lighting is generally achieved by having a key light and a fill light, opposite each other, with the key light set twice as bright as the fill light. In addition, you will want to have two lights set at 45 degree angles illuminating the background. I have also found that one background light hitting the background directly behind the subject to also work well in this type of lighting style.

One high-key lighting style that involves a key light, a fill light and two lights serving as background lights.


The subject of the image would typically be wearing lighter colors – in most instances, white – to lend to the portrayal of a pure, happy, upbeat, light and airy image, such as in the image below.

An example of high-key lighting using two background lights.

Model: Kathryn Hopkins


Below is an alternate lighting setup used to yield nearly the same high-key result.

An alternate high key lighting setup.


The setup above yielded this image of me below…

High key with an intentional slight overexposure for artistic effect.

Image courtesy of Yann Bizeul


Low-Key Lighting

“Low key” lighting is a more dramatic form of lighting that focuses on form and shadow. It is typically a darker image where the focus can be on part of your subject whether it’s their face, a body part or a certain amount of their whole body. It can be much more interesting when adding a little bit of rim lighting behind your subject.

Low-Key profile shot.

Model: Celeste Smith


You’ll find low key lighting used a lot in television and movies to relate the feeling of mystery and darkness of characters.


What is Needed for Low-Key Lighting?

For low key lighting, you’ll want a dark background to start. I generally like to simplify and use black or gray seamless paper, though those shades will also work well in muslin and other background choices too. I like to use two light sources for my low-key lit portraits: one for my key light for use on my subject’s face and one for a rim light behind my subject.

A low-key light setup.

Model: Baron Jackson



What type of modifiers work well for low-key lighting? Since you want light to hit only a certain area of your subject and not let light spill all over the place, a modifier with controlled directionality is generally needed for either your front light, your back light or both light sources depending on the result you are going for. When shooting a portrait, especially that of a woman where low-key lighting may not be the most flattering, I generally like to use a softbox or beauty dish with a sock positioned close to the face for the front of my subject to soften the light, thereby filling in light in shadow areas instead of showing every flaw. For the rim light, I would use a beauty dish with a grid, or a snoot (with a grid), depending on what modifiers I have on hand. The grid or snoot placed directly behind your subject and inline with the softbox in front – aids in controlling light spill and to keep light flowing in one direction with virtually no spill.

Result image of my model Baron based on the low-key setup above.

Model: Baron Jackson


How To Capture a Low-Key Image

For the example image of my model Celeste below, I used a softbox for the frontal lighting at a 45 degree angle from where I was standing with the camera and I used a beauty dish with a grid behind her as a rim light. I had Celeste standing in front of black background paper to make it easier for me to achieve the darker background needed for the low-key image. If using anything other than a grid, you may also need a black flag positioned to the side of your subject where the rim light is located to control light spill from hitting your camera.

A softbox almost face on with a subject and a grid light source behind to create a rim light.


While there are a few different variations to create a low key lighting setup too, the setup above is the setup used to obtain the resulting image below.

Final cut for Celeste using Low Key lighting.



Lighting doesn’t have to be a stressful tool to use when composing images. When it comes down to it, there are a plethora of ways to light an image. I hope that you’ll incorporate – or at least try – these and other lighting techniques to see what amazing results you can create.

Posted by Dawn Wayand in Workshop, 0 comments