The Art of Low-Key Lighting

Lighting defines a scene just as much as props and subjects. Sometimes it’s not enough to set up a camcorder and just tape the scene exactly as you see it.

As videographers, we are frequently asked to create a mood rather than simply record a scene. A client may provide a storyboard that calls for a dramatic interpretation of a common scene or perhaps they may require a segue from a serene outdoor environment to a mysterious narrow hallway. As professional artists, we are expected to deliver unique footage. We can do this in a variety of ways ranging from extreme camera angles, zooming techniques, pans, fades or dozens of other filming and editing techniques. However, there are less obvious and more aesthetic ways to accomplish this; ways not usually considered by average videographers because they require advanced skills, patience and perhaps an eye for details that many have yet to develop. Low-key lighting designs are one good way to do this.

Chiaroscuro – The Shadow World

The term “The Dark Ages” was coined in early 17th century Europe, and represented exactly how the European population of the time felt. It was a time of great frustrations and struggles for a developing European people and from those struggles was born a style of painting called chiaroscuro, made famous by Rembrandt’s paintings. The word chiaroscuro is an interesting term because it implies clear (chiaro – Latin for clear) while at the same time says obscurity (obscuro – Latin for obscure). How can one be clear and obscure at the same time? Rembrandt painted common subjects such as classic portraits, people in everyday settings and items like boats and scenery. But Rembrandt’s use of low-key lighting designs in illuminating these subjects was anything but common. They were powerful, dramatic paintings filled with intrigue, shadows, dramatic lighting and mystery. Many of his subjects were rendered “obscure” or ambiguous through his effective use of deep shadows. Yet there is never a question of subject matter because there was always enough light to provide “clarity”. Over time, this style of low-key lighting became known as Rembrandt Lighting. It is a famous example of a lighting design that uses low-key lighting to add mystery and drama to a work.

Add Drama to your Scene

Everyone loves a good mystery. Tom Cruise as the character Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder was basically a race-car driver. No mystery there, however when you are introduced to this character, there is an is an ambiguous, and intriguing treatment of the scene, not because he’s riding a motorcycle but because it’s a big, slow, cumbersome Harley. The lighting in this scene is wonderful because all you catch is a glimpse of the character, the headlights of the bike and the long rail of the racetrack. It’s that ambiguity, and that mysterious, low-key lighting that makes this scene work. Tony Scott, the director could have chosen a super fast “crotch-rocket” style of bike, especially given the film is all about racing and speed, but he chose to be a bit contrary and unpredictable. That is what great directors do. They choose the less obvious path to tell a story, even if only for a few scenes.

Back to our storyboard, which calls for a more dramatic approach to our videography. Armed with the vigorous convictions of the iconic people mentioned above, we can choose to use low-key lighting instead of just the average lighting one usually encounters in videos. We can be a bit ambiguous in our approach to lighting. That’s what low-key lighting is all about: ambiguity, which is a wonderful way to invoke a sense of mystery and intrigue in your audience.

Add Mystery to your Scene with Low-Key Lighting Designs

So, how do we go about creating low-key lighting? Well, the good news is it’s pretty easy. Remember the K.I.S.S. Principle; you know: Keep It Simple, Stupid! You can do this with any existing lighting situation, provided you turn most of them off. If there is no existing lighting – even better. Set up your lighting designs with the idea that less is more, because with low-key lighting you are lighting for shadows. One light in the middle of a room and you have all the shadows you could ever want. Move that light around and you can put the shadows wherever you want. Use a reflector along with that one light and you can create all the drama one could ever need in a scene. The point here is that low-key lighting involves shadows just as much as it does light.

It’s what you can’t see in the shadows that create “mystery,” it’s the light that creates shadows, and it’s your creativity that interprets all that into great videos. Too many lights, however, and you loose the shadows along with the mystery. A good example of this is the scene in All the President’s Men where the two reporters are briskly walking along the newspaper office floor to meet their editor. The place is lit up like it’s daylight indoors. There are no shadows, anywhere. The scene is designed to evoke confidence and clarity; it’s a big well-lit office. The are hundreds of lights in this scene and they even show in the camera. The director, Alan J. Pakula, created a huge office with the look of existing lighting.

In contrast, there is a scene in this film where one of the reporters is talking to a key figure in the film known only as “Deep Throat.” The scene takes place in a dimly lit parking garage. The lighting designs here use a soft rim light and lets a bit of fill light fall on the reporter but “Deep Throat” is bathed in a mysterious shadow with one little splash of light on his eyes and a bit of rim lighting from the lights in the parking lot. The reporter – barley visible – is dimly lit with one main light and one fill light which you could easily duplicate with one 300-watt tungsten behind a large scrim and one large fill card. “Deep Throat” is lit with one light and a small rim light with no fill at all. This lighting design evokes unease and mystery.

This famous scene is often duplicated in other movies, and you could easily duplicate this “cameo lighting” yourself with one 300-watt tungsten and a couple of flags placed in such a way as to cast shadows across his face. Place a large shiny reflector just behind the subject and you get a rim light just like in the scene. The great thing about low key lighting is that you rely more on your creativity and less on your equipment so you don’t need to use a lot of lights.

Practice Makes Perfect Mood Change

A great way to understand low key lighting is to set up a single lamp on a table in a well-lit room. Place a few items on a table like a martini glass, a coffee cup, a pair of glasses and a book. Arrange them in a natural way and turn on the lamp. While recording with only the lamp on, leave the rest of room dark, wait 25 or 30 seconds and turn on the all room lights. You will notice how the scene changes from a dramatic, perhaps somber mood to a completely different less emotional mood. The operative word is “mood” as in “mood lighting.” Don’t be afraid to explore your own mood to understand how to create mood lighting designs and you will be prepared for any assignment that may come along.

Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

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