Creating Low Key Portraits with Off Camera Flash

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Low Key Portrait Example
2 Flashes and a Softbox from the Right

Creating a dramatic low key portrait is much easier than you might think and is a great way to add some depth and focus to your subject. low key portraits create a darker or moodier feel and add an emphasis to shadows to contrast.

As a wedding and event photographer, I shoot a lot of varied subjects. Not only do I have to be able to capture candid and spontaneous moments, I also have to be able to give the ideal settings for an image if I'm presented with the time to prepare. Often I end up shooting different creative portraits because the same techniques I use for weddings are applied to a ton of different genres of photography.

I got bored in our living room one evening and decided that instead of sitting around watching Netflix, I'd mess around with some portraits. With a couple of flashes and softbox in hand, I ended up with what you see. The main thing you want to think about is what exactly you are trying to create. Everything starts with an idea or a vision and goes from there.

Low Key Portrait Example

The basis of this is setting the right combination of shutter speed, iso and fstop along with your off camera lighting.

You don't need a studio to do this and the you can get this effect easily with just a few off camera flashes and a soft box. For this, as well as the shot at the top, i used two godox flashes and a soft box. The light setup looked was the below. (directions are as it is looking at the image)

- Constant light from softbox from the right angled downward shooting from above

- 1 Flash from below shooting through a glass table, a translucent reflector to diffuse the light.

- 1 flash sitting on the table angled upwards from the left side of the image ad about elbow height for her

For camera settings, it all depends on the setup that you have. Things like how much ambient light you have, how much light is coming from the softbox as well as how strong you have your flashes set play a part. It's all different and the reason why a good understanding of the exposure triangle is a absolute must for photography.

Pretty much you want to start with iso as low as possible, F8 and a shutter speed around 250. I'm using Godox full size flashes so i always start around 1/16th.

Before your flashes go off, you should have a fairly underexposed image. Your only light source is going to be your ambient light and softbox which really is used as a basic fill light.

Once you've dialed it in so that you have most of the exposure dark, Add your flashes and see where you need to dial light back from. Photography is literally drawing with light. If a part is over exposed, dial that single flash back. In this case, my only constant was the softbox so all other light could be modified.

Don't worry if your background isn't absolutely 100% black in the image. Once you get your exposure with the background darker, that's all correctable in post with Lightroom. A little masking and brushing in some darker exposure to smooth it out an that's it!

Go out and try it. It's a nice rainy day project and as a photographer, especially a wedding and event photographer, the more tricks and options we give ourselves the better.

Low Key Portraits Ambient Light
You can see the cutoff from the flash in this image so it wasn't a usable one but it demonstrates the amount of ambient light was actually around.