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Low key lighting in horror films: Four basics to know

Low key lighting uses lots of shadows and contrast thus creating a dark and gloomy ambiance. It is common to use low key lighting in horror films to imply danger, mystery, and terror. It can also conceal or show scene features such as a monster, a weapon, or a hint. You need a powerful key light, generally set at a high or low angle, and minimum fill and back lights are required to achieve this effect. Gobos, flags, and barn doors can also be used to shape and regulate the light.

The COLBOR CL220 is used to create low key lighting for portrait shooting.

What is low key lighting and its effect in horror films?

Low-key lighting is a filming and photography lighting style that focuses on shadows. The look is created by the use of harsh source lighting in the scene. As opposed to high-key lighting, it seeks to accentuate the contrast between the subject and the scene. It does this by the use of shadows and gloomy tones. It is distinguished by deep blacks, shadows, and dark tones. There are few to no whites or mid-tones.

The effect of low key lighting in horror films is the chiaroscuro effect. Its gloomy hue and shadows are appropriate for horror film customs; it produces anxiety owing to its enigmatic and dark atmosphere, regulating how much of the surroundings and people are shown. Through the shadows and dark hues, it sets the tone, and atmosphere, and develops a hazardous relationship with the enigma.

Why is low key lighting used in horror films?

It elicits feelings of anxiety and anticipation: Low key lighting may make the viewers feel apprehensive and interested about what might be hiding in the dark by restricting the visibility of the scene. This can heighten the anticipation and anxiety before a jump fright or disclosure. Low key lighting, for example, is employed in The Shining to create a dismal and sinister mood at the Overlook Hotel, particularly in moments where Jack Torrance sees the spirits of prior caretakers.

It enhances the atmosphere and tone in horror films: Low key lighting in horror films can also aid in expressing the emotional states and the general theme of the film. For example, in The Babadook, low key lighting is utilized to portray Amelia's melancholy and grief as she struggles to cope with her husband's death. The film also employs low-key lighting to create a contrast between the light and dark, suggesting the contradiction between the Babadook's reality and his dream.

It gives the horror film a stylistic flair: Low-key lighting may also be employed to create a distinct visual style for the film, which is influenced by many genres and movements. Some horror films, for example, utilize low-key lighting to mimic the appearance of film noir, a genre that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and included gloomy and murky photography.

Low key lighting example

How to achieve it?

This lighting technique highly depends on managing the key light while reducing ambient light. Filmmakers and gaffers often use simply a powerful key light to generate severe shadows with little fill or ambient light. As a result, there are more shadows and dark tones.

However, this might result in a rather flat image. Fill light is frequently used by filmmakers to provide richness and depth to their shots. It is vastly outpowered by the key light, with an 8:1 light ratio favoring the key light.

Shooting against dark backgrounds or scenarios will also aid in achieving low key lighting in horror films. When shooting against a bright or white backdrop, the lighting might bounce off the wall, resulting in unwanted fill or ambient light. This problem may be avoided by using flags or dark material to generate negative fill on the subject.

More tips for setting up low-key lighting in horror films

However, for the aforementioned setup, each light source must be identified and adjusted on screen. Here are more tips for working with low key lighting in horror films and a dark setup.

Start with key light: When setting up the illumination, the key light is always the ideal light to start with. This will guide the rest of your lighting selections.

Use natural light with caution: Low key lighting, as opposed to high key film lighting, is focused on limiting unwanted illumination. As a result, attempt to black out all windows and doors to reduce unpredictable light sources.

Hard lighting is good: While softboxes and LED constant light can still be used, low key lighting can benefit from harsh lighting since it establishes greater contrast in your compositions.

Understand the native ISO of your camera: In general, it's best to shoot video footage at your camera's original ISO to achieve the best quality (and least grain).

There is no such thing as excessive light: Even with low key lighting in horror films, the old adage "never have too much light" applies. Even if you want your character to look in a gloomy area, it still helps to add lighting with certain colors or emphasize specific components.