Low-key lighting

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This article is about a high-contrast lighting setup commonly used in film noir. For the style of photograph or painting which features predominantly dark tones, see Low key.
Low-key photo portrait of a woman
Ultra Low-Key lighting arrangement in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Note the placement of the key light (main light) off the subject, (Lillian Gish), to illuminate Robert Mitchum in the background.

Low-key lighting is a style of lighting for photography, film or television. It is a necessary element in creating a chiaroscuro effect. Traditional photographic lighting, three-point lighting uses a key light, a fill light, and a back light for illumination. Low-key lighting often uses only one key light, optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector.

Low key light accentuates the contours of an object by throwing areas into shade while a fill light or reflector may illuminate the shadow areas to control contrast. The relative strength of key-to-fill, known as the lighting ratio, can be measured using a light meter. Low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, e.g., 8:1, than high-key lighting, which can approach 1:1.

The term "low key" is used in cinematography to refer to any scene with a high lighting ratio, especially if there is a predominance of shadowy areas. It tends to heighten the sense of alienation felt by the viewer, hence is commonly used in film noir and horror genres.

In film, low-key lighting is associated with German Expressionism and later film noir.

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