LOW KEY PORTRAITS : Drama and Emotion. | Warren Marshall | Skillshare

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LOW KEY PORTRAITS : Drama and Emotion.

teacher avatar Warren Marshall, Passionate Photographer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

7 Lessons (26m)
    • 1. Introduction to Low Key Photography

    • 2. Background, Subject and Lighting

    • 3. Controlling your Lightsource

    • 4. Low Key shoot with a Stripbox

    • 5. Low Key Shoot with a Speedlight

    • 6. Low Key Shoot with a Flashlight

    • 7. Your Project and Wrap up

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About This Class

Skillshare student Sarah Endres said:   "This class exceeded my expectations!"

What is Low Key?

A low key photograph is one that has predominantly darker tones.

It is not an underexposed image. It still has a full range of tones from pure black to pure white.


In this class you will learn the process of shooting a low key portrait. We will discuss the elements that go together to produce a low key result including background, subject tones and lighting.



There are “degrees” of low key just as there are “degrees” of high key. Some photographers prefer a very dark image, others prefer a less dark result. It is purely up to you.


Most subjects can be given the low key treatment. It will work with landscape, still life, product, portrait and street photography. I shoot mostly people so many of the examples in this class are people shots.


When shooting low key, your camera’s histogram will appear a bit different from the usual shape. The left hand side of the graph will predominate with just a small amount of tones reaching the highlight end of the graph.


The reasons why we shoot low key are generally to impart a degree of drama to our image. Low key is a great medium for expressing emotion in a photograph.


Lighting and contrast control are most important in this style as you will see in our three studio sessions with our model “Cassidy”.


It is also very possible to produce low key images outdoors. You just need to recognise or seek the kind of hard light that works so well with this genre. Look for dark backgrounds with sunlit elements in the foreground and be careful with your exposure.


Low Key is one tool that the photographer has to help tell our stories.

It can be beautiful, threatening, artistic, serene or impactful.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Warren Marshall

Passionate Photographer


Hello, I'm Warren Marshall.

I am owner and head photographer at “Imagine Studios “ in Newcastle, Australia.

I am also owner and principal of “Newcastle Photography College”.


I have been a photographer for the past 40 years and a full-time professional photographer for the past 26 years.

I am passionate about image making. I also have a thirst for learning new techniques and love experimenting with my photography.

Our studio specialises in people photography from Weddings, Portraits, Headshots, Glamour, Lifestyle, etc.



In my time I have photographed many celebrities, politicians and entertainers but it is the average people that I enjoy working with the most.

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1. Introduction to Low Key Photography: Good, I monomers. Warren Marshall. This class is about low key portraiture. Good. I, as I said before the intro, this is a class about locate portraiture. Now, what is loci? Loci is a misunderstood concept amongst photographers. Loki is an image that has mostly dark ketones. It's not necessarily an image that's underexposed. It's not an image that has everything black and a couple of things that are a bit brought a, it's an image that has mostly dark ketones. Now, it can be constructed in a number of different ways. Generally we shoot with a darker background and generally we shoot with darker clothing. Most importantly, was shoot with a particular kind of light source. Because we want to confine that light source to a particular area of our image. Locate portraiture can be amazing. Locate portraiture can give you dramatic results. It can show emotion in an image. It can be really impactful. As you can see from some of the images here, low k portraiture is something that takes a little bit of skill. It takes a little bit of preparation, but you can get amazing results. What you'll learn in this class is how to light loci portraiture. How to organize a low-key portrait. We're gonna teach you the correct way to pose a model in the right situation so that, that light is working really well in that low-k portrait shot. You can do locate portraiture in a lot of different situations with a lot of different equipment. You don't need anything special. You can share it with your phone. You can shoot it with a compact camera, or you can shoot it with an SLR camera. You can do it indoors or he can do it outdoors. It's simply a matter of thinking about the shot, thinking about the effect that you want and controlling the light in your shot. So sit back and have a look at this class on Loki portraits. And I'm sure you're going to learn a lot. 2. Background, Subject and Lighting: Good, I welcome to our class on Loki portraits. Now, I low-key portrait can mean different things to different people. It can contain a lot more darker tones for some people than others. It can be a little bit less dark than others. Locate portraits tend to confine the light to a particular part of the image. They tend to look very dramatic. They tend to have emotional content in them. The lighting is very contrasty. We have predominantly dark tones in our image so that the lighter tones are contained, contained in a way that our composition stands out much more than in other types of photography. The brighter parts of the image former shape. They show contours, they show textures. All of the things that make dramatic photography what it is. To create a low-key portrait, we need to think about it. We need to prepare a little bit beforehand, particularly with our background. Their background tends to be darker tones. We could use black, or we could just use darker tones, which mean shooting at night or in a dark shaded area is an ideal situation. The other thing we need to think about is our subject. Do we use a subject that has darker tones? If I'm shooting a portrait, I prefer my subject has darker clothing, just so that I can use that Loki clothing to work with this locate type of portrait. If you're shooting a still life for any other type of image, you need to be careful about having too many bright tones in that image so that it's just a bright subject against a dark background. When looking at using the light to extend our subject, we're looking for the lighting to tell the story of our image. And that brings us to the lighting. Lighting in a low key image is crucial. With loci, we tend to shoot with small light sources. Light sources that give us a hard light. An example of a headlight or a small light source will be sunlight. So we can shoot with sunlight against the shaded background and create a lower key image because the sunlight is lighting are subject, whereas our background is disappeared into darkness. We can also use LED lights, constant lights that are small light sources. We can move them further away if they are a little bit large so that they produce a harder life. The further away a lot is from our subject, the heart of the lightest because the smaller the light is compared to a subject. Or we can use flash speed lights are ideal for this sort of thing. Speed lights are a very small, hard light source, so we can control them quite well. We can put them on an angle. It's going to work dramatically where they're subject. The issue with speed lights is that we can't really see what our image is going to look like before we shoot it. So we need to position our light position now, subject and shoot a shot, Have a look at it and just modify it afterwards so that we get that a lot in the right spot. And shooting with low-key lighting is fairly critical. It's much more critical than shooting a high key image, for example, where the lights is flooding over the scene. A small light source needs to be precisely placed in relation to our subjects. So if your subject moves a little bit or your light source moves for any reason, then the lighting has changed on your image. So be careful about where you place your light. So a dark background, Docker subject, small light source there. The three key elements to our loci image. 3. Controlling your Lightsource: Now when we photograph a low-key image, a histogram on our cameras screen may look a little bit foreign to us. We're used to shooting images where our histogram is fairly full across the bottom axis of our graph. But a low-key image tends to be more towards the left end of our histogram, more towards the darker end. A good loci image is not underexposed. Or good loci image still has a full range of tones from pure black right up to pure white. The tones in between those do tend to be compressed a lot more. So our contrast tends to be greater. Turns are more compressed, so we have less meat graze, more blacks, darks, Brighton white rather than those midterms. So your histogram is going to look a little bit strange, but look at your image and check it that way. Just make sure that you do have some bright highlights and some really deep dark blacks and there, as I said in the last lesson, launching is critical to our loci, result. We need to have that small lot source. We need to have a control fairly carefully. Now we may choose to have a more contrasty image or slightly less contrasty image, depending on your subject and how you want the feel of the image to be. So we can expose their image to give us a little bit more detail in our shadow areas and maybe not as bright areas in El highlights. We want to customize this Loki image to suit the sort of purpose that we want in our image. Now when we're shooting loci, as I said, we can do it inside or we can do it outside. When we're shooting outside. You might think that we're pretty much at the mercy of the lot that we have available AppData. If we're shooting with available lot, which would probably tend to be sunlight during the day and straight loading or some other artificial light source at night. But we can control that lot quite easily. We can move S subject into some dark shade so that they just have the sunlight glancing off them. We can use this technique at night where we have a predominantly Dhaka back ground. We have a straight line or we have some other artificial light source, just glancing off as subject or just loading a subject in a particular way. We can use flash outdoors or continuous light, but we need to control that light. So we would tend to use a snooty flesh. So we could, if we had a spade light, we could zoom in your speed light to a narrower cone of light so that it just throws a small area of light onto our subject. If we have it zoomed out broadly, it's going to throw a bigger spread of light over your subject. If we're using LED lights again, we can use a snippet of some sort just to contain that light so that it's just thrown in one particular spot within our image. And we can control it quite carefully. When we shooting indoors, like the shoot that you're going to see. After this lesson. We were shooting in a studio that was quite what. We had. White walls, white ceilings, light colored carpet. So we needed to be quite careful about hell, a lot. Bounced around the room. We shot against a dark background. We had Cassidy and model dressed in darker clothing. And we used a snoop on the front of our spade line just to contain that light to a smaller spread. We had a narrow beam of light coming down onto Cassidy. So we needed to control that fairly carefully. We moved it into various different positions. We also did some work with the torch by light painting Cassidy, which is a great way to contain, like you can do this the outdoors or you can do it indoors. You simply turn your lights yet if you're indoors, shooting a darker spot, if you're outdoors with a longer exposure may be 51015 seconds. And if your subject is quite still leaning up against something or sitting on the floor, you can use that torch to paint onto your subject, which allows you to be very controlled in that light source, how it hits your subject. So it's terrific for this low-key lighting effect. So have a look at this video. See the style of lighting that we use. Have looked at the results that we get and the way that we get them. And hopefully you'll learn a lot more about low-key lighting. 4. Low Key shoot with a Stripbox: Ok, we're doing locate shoot in the studio today. We've got Cassie as our model. When we're shooting loci, we're looking for predominately Dhaka towns. It's not an image that's underexposed, hits an image that still well exposed. But most of the times in the image are Dhaka. We've got a dark background. We've got Cassidy dressed in Dhaka clothes and a launch. It's a little bit more control than we would normally do. We want to have lot that's narrow or confined so that we can launch our model with that lighting the background, what's throwing too much other light around the studio. Now I've got a studio that's got what woes and what ceilings. So I need to be careful about like bouncing off other surfaces, particularly when I'm doing this Loki stuff. So where we've got a strip box off to the side loading Cassidy from this side. We need to be careful about the lodge on her face because we need to make sure that we do lot of vice properly with that narrow lot that we've got. And we need to be careful of our exposure. We wanna have dockets lines in the image, not, not necessarily black, but Dhaka tones. But we still want to make sure that her faces well exposed and her skin tone is well exposed. So even now you shooting a lucky shot, we still need to have a dynamic range that covers brought what through to dark black. It's not a matter of just documenting everything down. So the loading is critical. We tend to use small source Lots, had lot when we doing this lowercase stuff because we can confine it and we can make it look a little bit more moody and a little bit more dramatic. So we're going to do a few shots of Cassidy here sitting on the stool. And then we'll move around, do a few different loading setups and various different options here. Alright, here we go. We're gonna take a shot of Cassidy here we've got this strip box off to the side of giving a narrow band of lot. We've tried to keep the light off their background. So we'll do a couple of shots and see how we go. Ik Cassie, just sitting the way you are is great. Just focusing on her face. Composing my shot. Okay, here we go. Lovely. And we get a really nice shot. You can see this image here that has gotten nice lighting straight across Cassidy. We didn't we wouldn't want her turned away from the light the other way because we would lose lot on her legs, on the front of her body. So this looks terrific though ideas. So what we might do Cassidy is just tilt your head a little bit to the side. Yeah. That's it. Lovely. Here we go. Okay. I'm just going to move in a bit closer for a three-quarter shot. Focus again. Here we go. Now we're going to turn Cassidy is face right to the side, so we get a profile of a face. So I'm going to get her sit in the same position they get that's good. And just looking straight across there. Yeah, lovely. Ok, here we go. Lovely. And you can see that beautiful profile shot of Cassidy against a dark background makes her face stand out against the dark background. A beautiful location. We've moved the stool away, so Cassidy standing up now we're doing a full length shut off her with district lot, which is a very narrow band of light that's coming across from camera right? Now, I'm going to show you how the lot will vary depending on where Cassidy standing. If she stands back a little bit, that lots gone to be glancing across the front of if she stands further forward, it's going to be locking in the side of a body a little bit more. So we'll do a couple of shots to show you that. So I just weigh you are Cassidy, just turn that face a little. Yeah, that's it. Okay. Cytosine. Here we go. Okay. Lovely. Now I just want you to take half a step back for me. Yeah. That's good. Okay. Lovely. Here we go. Okay, great. Now, a little bit for 2.5 steps forward. Yes, that's great. And 25s a little bit more to the side. Yeah, that's it. Okay. Here we go. Alright. Lovely. And they can see how that light varies on Cassidy, depending on her position in the shot. Now we're going to change the lighting around a little bit and we're gonna do some different effects, low-k effects. 5. Low Key Shoot with a Speedlight: We've changed our lighting setup for this shot. We're using just a single speed light flash off to the side on a light stand. And I've put a homemade snoop on top of that speed light, just made out of a Potidaea Chris packet that fits onto the front. It's going to narrow the beam down of that flesh so that we can lot Cassidy without lighting our background or anything else in the set. I've altered the power of must be a lot just so that I can get the correct exposure on Cassidy while keeping that background Lawson dark. So we're gonna do a few shots like this now, when you do need to be careful because we're using a fairly hard light now. So the position of Cassidy is face is fairly critical because we're going to have fairly distinct shadows on her face. So we need to heard to turn a face towards the light a little bit more so that we get that nice. Rembrandt's style lighting on her face. I can't really go Cassidy. I'm gonna shoot down on you a little bit here just so that we can get the nasa perspective. Just keep your face that way. Yep. Ice to me. Okay. Here we go. Lovely. You know, maybe tilted head a little bit more. Yeah. Great. Okay. To stretch your food at a little bit more. Keep their toe pointed. Yep. That's it. Here we go. Lovely. Now what should a turn your face this way and look at the light stand there for me. Yep. That's it. Alright. So I'm just going to move in a bit closer with museum. Okay. Can you turn your eyes to me? Is that possible? Yeah. Great. Sometimes radio. When you try and do this too much, it looks a little bit, little bit too much, but that looks terrific. Okay. So can we change your position, maybe spin around so that your legs without decide this time, please. And we'll turn your face back to the light still. That's it. I want you to take a lot to any facial and this way yeah. That's it. Extend one foot just a little bit more. Yeah. Okay. Great. Now this lot still should be IK we'll just check it because the pool of light is fairly small, we might have to adjust it a little bit if Cassidy is out of that lot pool. So we've changed this setup slightly. We've taken the Snoop off the speed light, and we've just zoomed the speed light in to its maximum zoom, which is a 105 millimeters, which means that it's pushing the light forward rather than out to the side. So it's confining that light to a smaller spread, which is not going to be quite as tight as the Snoop was. So it's going to allow a little bit more lot around Cassidy so that we can light up around her a little bit more and make it a little bit easier to pose her face and her body in this shot. Okay. So we're gonna do a couple of shots here of Cassidy with this speed light zoomed in to a 105 millimeters. That's it, Cassidy, you know the drill by now, you've got that pose down perfectly. Okay, here we go. Lovely. To turn your face around to look at the light stand for me. Yep. That's it. Right now I want you to tilt your head back and look up towards the flesh. Ok. Hopefully it went blind you when we take it. There we go. Okay. Alright, great stuff. Okay, you can see the difference in those shots. The spread of the light is a little bit more, but it still has got that low-key sort of feel about it. 6. Low Key Shoot with a Flashlight: What we're going to do now is we're going to like Cassidy with a torch, light paint the light on her so that we can be a bit more precise with where the light goes. We need to shoot this in a dark environment. So we're going to turn all of the room lights off. And we're going to use this light just to trace the light onto Cassidy. My exposure is F8 at two seconds at 100 ISO. So it's gonna give me enough time to trace up and down Cassidy with this torch. I'll show you the results that we get, but it's still a low-key result. It's a hard lot that we're using here. We're just going to be able to paint this latch onto Cassidy wherever we want to. Okay. We'll turn the lights out and we'll show you what we get. Okay. Here we go. That wasn't enough. I got up to Kesey's foot, so I need to be a little bit quicker when I do this. Here we go. Okay? That's looking at k, but we need to, we need to be a little bit more creative for there without lighting. So I'm going to move to the side a little bit more. And like has a little bit more from the side. So 25s over this way, a little bit more, Cassie, here. That's it. Good. Here we go. Ready? Good. Okay. Terrific. Now we're going to get you on the floor place, just sitting there while you were before. It doesn't matter which way. Now we've got Cassidy sitting on a floor. I've increased my shutter speed to six seconds to give me a little bit more time to move away from the camera. We're gonna get you to turn your face to your left, Cassidy. Okay. Here we go. Okay. That looks great. Now I'm going to just like Cassidy and then I'll let the background a little bit. I'm going to use a smaller torch beam. Ready? That's terrific. Now, we'll just do one from the other side, Cassidy. So just turning your face to look over that side. Here we go. One last one, just in case. Yep. Terrific. You're good at holding still. Thanking. The last thing we're gonna do today is we're going to use the speed light and we're going to light the wall behind Cassidy and have her up against the wall so that this light is going to come down onto her face. We're going to zoom the flesh in as far as we can go, which is a 105 millimeters, which means it's going to narrow the beam of light down. So we're going to get a beam of light coming down that wall onto cast studies face. So I'm just gonna put this over there against the wall and will be ready to go. Okay. A little bit. Right? That's good. Okay. Cassidy, What I want you to do is to turn your face to the side, just look over that side wall there. Yeah, that's it. Great. Just going to focus. And here we go. Okay. Lovely. That's great. We've got a really nice light coming down onto Cassidy or down to zoom in a little bit closer to that face around again. Yeah, that's it. Good. Okay. That's good. That light beams coming down onto Cassidy shoulder. It's still loading her face quite well. But what I'll do is just lifted up a little bit just so that we get a little bit more light on her face. Really. Lovely. Yeah, that's great. Here we go. Okay. Now I'm gonna do a full length shot getting Danilo. Okay. Yeah. That looks terrific. Okay. Cassidy, can you turn around away from me? Yeah. So that you're facing into the wall? Yep. That's it. Yep. And just turn your face to look over that worked for me place. Yeah. It's great. Just moving in a bit closer. Okay. Good. Now, just turn your face so that you can just turn your eyes to me. Yeah. Yeah. Let's get cleared. And one last one, just like that. K maybe bring your hand up next your face or something. Yeah, that's it. Good. Okay. Terrific. You can see that light looks like a street light coming down onto Cassius face. And it works beautifully for great located shot. Alright, so thanks to Cassidy for being a fantastic model, you've seen a whole lot of variations on the loci theme, and I'll see you in the next lesson. Fantastic. Thank you. 7. Your Project and Wrap up: Your project for this class is to produce a low-key image. It doesn't need to be a portrait. I shoot mostly portraits because that's what I do, that's what I love. But you can use this technique for still life photography, for product photography, even for landscape. Night photography is great for this sort of technique. So after you've looked at the class, getting there, give it a go and send us your projects, upload it so we can have look and I can give you some feedback on what you've produced. And if you're pleased with the results or you're a bit puzzled why you didn't get the results that you wanted. I can give you feedback on it and help you to improve next time. Thank you for finishing this class on Loki portraiture. I'm sure it's given you some insight into a dramatic way to take portraits or to take any other kind of photography. As I said, locate can be used in a number of different photographic genres. But it tends to be more emotional, it tends to be more dramatic. It can be really autistic. It can be threatening. It can show expression in images. And if you can put feelings and emotion in a photograph, that's the first thing that I tend to look for when I'm looking for a great photograph. Something that can convey me some emotion or some feeling in an image. Low-k photography does that, and it doesn't really well. So give it a go, try it, and I'll see you in the next class.