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.