Lowkey Portrait :: A How To Guide

The low key technique used can be defined by a single light source to illuminate the subject, but allowing the background to remain unlit and black. It can be practiced on a sunny afternoon outside in the shade, and in most indoor locations.

Basic rules are keep ISO at the lowest level to avoid noise in photos (ISO 100 or lower if your camera is able), adjust only aperture and shutter speed to create the desired effect.

Settings of aperture and shutter speed depend on the intensity of the flash or speedlight. Just be sure your background is not lit. Low key photos creates an image that makes the viewer want to keep looking.

Below is a diagram of our simple light setup.


Camera settings are simple.

  • Switch to “M” mode
  • Set aperture to f/3.5 – f/11 (depending on the desired depth of field) and to keep the background dark.
  • Shutter speed depends on the light you have, so you should experiment. I used 1/250 of a second which is the fastest my speedlight will sync's but anything above 1/25th will do. This also helps while hand holding the camera and your subject moving around. 
  • ISO 100

BGHS Junior, Caroline Kelley