Everything you should know about dark and moody photography
In general, you can divide food photography styles into two categories: bright and airy or dark and moody.
Bright and airy photos usually show soft lighting and well-lit subjects. This style is the most common in food photography because it’s showing all the elements of the food.
Brighter scenes would always be associated with fresher, lighter vibes and with a more feminine feel.
Bright images evoke an inviting, appetizing and clean look.
Meantime, dark and moody food photography is a style that has become very popular over the last few years. This technique adds character and beautiful contrast to photos.
It recalls emotions and shows in a very attractive way the textures in your subjects.
Darker scenes create a more mysterious mood, sense of strength and intimacy.
a little bit of history
Dark and Moody style was very popular in the art world. It’s simple the interplay of light and shadow. You can find it in the paintings of Vermeer or Rembrandt.
Vermeer - Girl With A Pearl Earring Rembrandt – self-portrait
This style is often referred to “chiaroscuro” photography. It sounds more complicated than it really is. It means “light-dark” and refers to the contrast between the shadows and light in an image. Chiaroscuro's lighting technique is painterly and elegant, adding an arty and a little bit extravagant touch to a food photography shoot.
Like Caravaggio himself, this is a style of photography that is moody and dramatic.
Still Life with Fruit by Caravaggio (c.1605-1610).
Try it when shooting rich, earthy flavours, chocolate, red wines or rich dishes.
Remember, that dark style won’t necessarily suit every image. Sometimes a dark, moody and dramatic feeling is not appropriate to your subject. Developing strong food photography requires thinking about your lighting, props, accessories, background, but also camera settings. It all must work together perfectly to tell the story you are trying to show.
Props and accessories
The selection of props, such as plates, linen or cutlery, is extremely important in dark photography. The idea is to keep the background dark and to place the focus entirely on the main subject—what in food photography we call the “hero”.
That is why we should use a selection of dark or muted props, surfaces, and backgrounds. Bright props won’t focus the eye on the food and might create too much contrast.
When searching for props, look for vintage utensils, which will not reflect the light as much as new ones. Matte plates will also be less reflective and are best in darker and neutral tones.
Good places to hunt for vintage accessories are flea markets, charity shops or Etsy. The accessories may also provide interesting structures to look at, such as rusty metal which subtly reflects the light without being too bright.
When you choose a background for dark food photography it shouldn’t be bright of course. Ideal colours for dark food photography backgrounds include dark blues, dark grey, dark brown or blue and of course black.
You can also try anything like old baking tin or chopping board for your dark photography background. Just make sure that whatever you use isn’t shiny.
Feel free to use backgrounds with texture as well. Placing food on textured background helps enhance the food’s appearance. Wood or tiles are also a great material to use, both in the background and as props. It is easy to work with and lends a rustic feel. You can use a tabletop or vinyl backdrop.
With dark and moody food photography, it is very important to avoid making the food look artificial. The food should always make your viewers believe they would love to grab a piece of cake or take a sip of a cocktail from your photograph.
Remember, there is a difference between advertising photography and editorial food photography. The first one is meant to look perfect, with highly stylized food.
However, editorial food photography, such as that found in cookbooks and foodie magazines has a more truthful style. The food is often perfectly imperfect. A few crumbs scattered across the table used cutlery and half-eaten dishes bring the photograph to life.
But always control the chaos and do not cross the line. In the end, it always should look tempting and inviting.
When planning your styling, think about the ingredients used in the recipe you are shooting. Think about how you can include some of them into your image in a way that enhances your hero.
In the scene of the salad, you can see some lettuce leaves around the plate, walnuts or dressing drops on the surface. There is a freely put napkin in a corner and cutlery above the plate. In the real world, you would have a napkin and cutlery on the right-hand side.
The whole composition looks inviting and tempting.
Light is absolutely the most important factor in food photography. Light and the manipulation of it is the key to every photograph.
To create dark food photography with natural light you should move further away from your window and move your camera a little bit higher to make sure the window is a few degrees behind your subject. It also helps if the room where you’re shooting is not so bright. You can use thick curtains to darken the set, if necessary.
Always remember when you create dark images, it is mandatory to shape the light to bring attention to your hero subject.
What do you need to expose your main subject? Bounce cards.
To make them you can cut black cardboard or poster board into squares. Then, place them where you want to increase the shadows, you do not need to buy an arsenal of professional collapsible reflectors. A piece of polystyrene, foam rubber or stiff cardboard sprayed black or
white will do the trick just as well.
Fill cards help cut down reflection, they tend to stop the light from bouncing back onto the food and create a more dramatic and mysterious scene.
You can block the light by placing black cards around your set like a fence. Don’t forget to keep some parts open for the light to come in.
To lift the chiaroscuro effect, I mentioned before, try to use a backlight for your composition. It will create an interesting and moody tone but also brings out the texture of the food and add beautifully highlight liquid.
When you create your composition, don’t forget to include a couple of supporting elements together with your main subject. These objects should be of different sizes to keep the proper balance in your photo.
The most common, and best composition to start with is The Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds works by dividing your frame into 9 equal rectangles, using two vertical, and two horizontal lines that are equally spaced.
This technique applies to the overall composition of a photograph and where the main subject lies within the shot. Through this composition you can improve the visual interest of your photo, but also allows you to show your artistic abilities.
Even if this is the easiest technique it is still great to present your food photography in a very interesting and balanced way.
The other popular composition is The Rule of Odds. This rule is also simple to start with and will immediately help you frame your subjects in your composition. The rule of odds states that when you’re including a group of subjects in your photo in an odd number. It will produce a more interesting composition.
In food photography very often, you can see a group of subjects, whether it’s cupcakes, several bowls of pasta or anything else, so it’s a rule that can be applied often. When you use the rule of odds to place one main subject in the frame, with two or four other supporting subjects, your eyes will naturally fall to a middle subject, giving your photo a focal point, so you can combine it with The Rule of Thirds.
equipment and settings
For food photography, in most cases, you should work with a tripod. If the lighting is poor, you do not need to increase the ISO, which can cause noise to appear in the picture. Instead, you can simply increase the exposure time. I personally recommend focusing your camera manually, to ensure that the image is pin sharp exactly where you want it to be. You shoot food, it won’t run away.
My favourite lens for food photography is the Sigma 105 mm F/2.8 Di VC USD MACRO. It produces pin-sharp images with gorgeous bokeh and brings the food nicely up close. Unfortunately, the 105mm focal length won’t allow you to get everything in the picture. For bigger scenes, I use a 24-70mm Tamron lens or my 50mm Nikkor.
To achieve the dark and moody effect, a different way of editing is also required. Mandatory is always to shoot in RAW file format to ensure that all options are available to you during editing, JPG file loss in quality. With RAW photos, you can always focus on details even in dark areas, however white and overexposed image areas are usually lost for good, even in RAW format.
The food in your image should be bright, so the viewer focus on it at first look.
Use global and local adjustments when brightening your moody food photo. Going high with the exposure can cause your shadows to look flat. If you can work more with luminance sliders instead of saturation in Lightroom or Camera RAW. It helps you brighten the colours individually.
Working with dark props, allow you to work with white balance and tint creatively. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the tones.
Working with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom lets you apply exposure selectively, as well as any saturation and warmth effects you may need. You can easily make your food lighter or more saturated. This enables you to produce almost surreal dramatic effects, which highlight the food perfectly in the foreground.
Rustic and muted accessories, vibrant and contrasting food styling, but also specific manipulation of light and shadow can always help to achieve the perfect dramatic and mystic photograph.
Finally, I recommend adding a bit of a vignette to increase the shadows and draw the eye to the food.
Remember - there are no strict rules. Be creative, be spontaneous, and find your way and your style.
We all had a Day 1.
If you have any questions or struggle with any subject, send me a DM on my Instagram or email me. I will do my best to answer and help.