What is High and Low Key?

Too many new photographers get low key lighting mixed up with high key. It really shouldn’t be that hard get straight, so we’ve got some little tips to iron out these confusing terms.

Low key lighting is invariably used a lot in portrait photography, but it can be applied elsewhere.

It’s a means of creating atmosphere through lighting and not location.

This is why you’ll see it used more commonly in a photography studio. The problem we’ve been finding is that too many people are getting high and low key mixed up.

So, if it’s one of those confusing photography terms that’s always got you guessing then let us tell you how to unravel the riddle!

High / Low Light Levels

high low key portraits split

Let’s start off nice and simple with some clear mnemonics.

OK so think of high key lighting needing a HIGH light. Think about the highest light you can see – it should be the sun. It’s the highest point of light for everyone.

And when you’re taking pictures outdoors your shots are probably going to be more high than low key. You won’t get low key shots from bright sunshine.

Therefore, with that approach in mind think about how low key lighting needs a LOW amount of light. A low amount of light sounds very dim, very dark and that’s exactly what you need.

Consider a candle and how it’s not very bright, it’ll cast some light, but it never really brightens a whole room. That’s the type of light you need for low key lighting.

If it’s not totally clear yet, then let’s explain it another way…

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High & Low as Colours

Let’s assume the words high and low are colours. High sounds like a loud bright colour, something like white whereas Low conveys ideas of darkness and shadow, so maybe we should associate it with black.

It’s a simple thought process, but when you see a high key black and white picture, you’ll notice there’s more white than black. Of course, it’s the opposite for low key – more black than white.

Fingers crossed it’s really starting to hit home now, but if not let’s put the whole thing in to practise and we’ll show you how to take a high and low key shot.

High Key

We already know high key lighting is bold and bright. It will conceal most shadows and really bathe your subject in light, so the easiest way to do that is with sunlight. Head outdoors on a sunny day and position your subject so they are facing the sun. You’ll notice that there’s only a couple of shadows maybe under their nose and chin but otherwise that’s it.

With your subject posed, meter your exposure but maybe open your aperture one stop wider to overexpose your shot. This will really hide any shadows and focus on the bright highlights. When it comes to editing, simply add a little more contrast to make the image really pop.

high key lady on beach
low key lady in room back facing

Low Key

You could technically shoot low key shots outdoors, but you’ll need to some external lighting. But the simplest way is to shoot low key is at home.

Block out all the ambient light, close the curtains but leave the door slightly ajar for a ray of light to peak through. Low key light should reveal and disguise your subject at the same time. Hiding parts makes it seem sinister whereas revealing features helps frame the story.

Don’t feel that you need to get your subject’s full face in the light. Try just lighting part of their face to leave more questions lingering.

You’ll find that low key lighting will be awash with shadows. The long gradual transition from light to dark areas is what signifies low key lighting. The longer the transition the more low key it is. Short transitions are more akin to high key lighting.

Figured it out yet?

Hopefully that’s helped you out a little more, if you needed the help that is. It may seem simple now but when you’re starting out there are so many photography terms that seem confusing and backwards. Don’t get us started on why a big aperture is a small f/stop number! OK, one last reminder:


High Key =

Bright, Light & White

Low Key =

Dark, Black & Shadows

If you’ve got any more tips, tricks or hacks regarding low and high key lighting then let us know, you never know who you’ll be helping. Don’t be embarrassed if you want to ask us directly about some terms or acronyms that bends your mind sometimes. This is what we are here for!

Our iPhotography tutors are always around to help you out. Just drop us a message on the chat wall, forum or Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Of course, you could just leave us a comment, and we’ll get back to you asap. If you’ve found this guide useful then we’d love to know!

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