Trends come and go in the world of food photography, but in the last few years moody and dark photography has become a “thing” and it shows no sign of dying out.
This style is sometimes referred to as Mystic Light, or Chiaroscuro. The latter is an Italian term borrowed from the art world to describe a technique that emphasises the contrast between shadow and light in an image.
Think of the paintings of Vermeer or Caravaggio, for example.
The parts of the image that are cloaked in shadow help guide the viewer’s eye to the brightest part of the frame. In food photography, this is usually where we position our subject.
Every photographer has their own style and given a choice, is either more drawn to bright and airy images, or to a darker style. However, being adept at shooting both has it advantages, especially when shooting commissioned work.
Clients expect you to be able to produce whatever look and mood they envision.
Photographers who are used to shooting lighter images, or shooting in natural light sometimes struggle with the Mystic Light approach, but it need not be complicated. It takes a few adjustments to your workflow.
Let’s take a closer look at how to approach dark and moody food photography.
When lighting for dark photos, you don’t need as much light on your set as you do with bright and airy images.
If you’re shooting with natural light, experiment with moving away from your window. When you move further away from a light source, you reduce its power and how quickly it falls off.
Also try angling your set-up to the window instead of placing it perpendicular. For example, if you imagine the face of a clock, have your light hitting your scene at 10:00.
This side backlighting technique will not only add dimension to your light, but also bring out the texture of the food.
If you’re using artificial light, a one-light set-up is all you need for dark food photography.
When it comes to dark photography, I skip the softbox and use a monohead with a dish reflector and a honeycomb grid. I use a large diffuser and position my light a distance away. Thus, the diffuser becomes my light source–not my monohead.
This lighting technique is great for creating eye-catching contrast with long shadows and beautiful highlights.
Of course, you can use the versatile softbox, too. The important thing is that you shape the light.
In the image of the cake above, I positioned my light behind my set. I added two black fill cards to either side of my set. Lighting from the back emphasised the crackling texture of the cake and ensured that the whole top of my cake was lit.
Sculpting the Light
Your fill cards, diffusion, and bounce will all play an important role in helping you get the best shots.
When producing darker images, you need to carve and shape the light to create shadow and lead the viewer’s eye to your subject.
Use small black fill cards, like black cardboard or poster board cut into squares, to kick in shadows where you want them.
Place them around your set depending on where you want to cut down the light.
A trick for blocking the light is to roll up pieces of black poster board and staple the ends together. These rolls can stand on their own and can be placed around your set.
You can also use them to block light from hitting surfaces that are reflective and shiny, like glass or cutlery.
I recommend diffusing the light when working with artificial light. Depending on the intensity of your natural light source, you may not need to diffuse it.
One great technique is to create a tunnel of light to hit your set. This will give the sense that light is coming in from a window, as in the images below.
Props and Backgrounds
Your food background and surface should be dark. The props should also be dark or muted, so as not to detract the viewer’s attention from the main subject.
The background needs to be in shadow and not compete with your subjects. White or light dishes and props also create too much contrast and can be distracting. It can also be difficult to correctly expose images with such stark contrasts.
Matte dishes are also less reflective, and are best in darker, neutral tones. Reflections can be hard to manage in food photography.
Look for vintage utensils and props with a patina. They look interesting and won’t reflect the light as much as new ones.
Good places to find vintage items are thrift shops and flea markets where they can be bought inexpensively.
When it comes to your backgrounds, get creative. Slate makes a stunning background, as do old and mottled cookie sheets. Just make sure that whichever background you use doesn’t have a shine to it.
Wood is also a great material to utilize, both in backgrounds and props. It is easy to work with and lends a rustic feel. You can use weathered items such as an old cabinet door or tabletop, or make a faux picnic table with planks of 2×4.
Ideal colours for your paint are dark blues, dark grey, black, and deep espresso tones.
One of the best ways to add interest to your photographs is with texture. It adds contrast and detail and is great for enhancing food.
Texture occurs naturally in our food subjects, but can also be used effectively in our backgrounds, props and linens.
For the image below, I bought a piece of pine wood at a hardware store and painted it black. I used a sea sponge to dab on navy and royal blue paint to create texture. Sometimes plain black can look dull or too flat. Creating subtle texture is the way to go. We have a great article on food photography styling tools to check here.
With dark food photography, the main subject should be placed in the brightest part of the frame, which attracts the eye first.
A great approach to composition is one main subject and a couple of supporting elements. These objects should be dissimilar in size, so that they counter-balance each other.
This follows the Rule of Odds. This is a term used by visual artists to refer to a specific area of visual emphasis that falls on, or close to, one of the intersecting lines of the Rule-of Thirds grid.
You can have two or three focal points, but one must be more dominant. Focal points can be created with light, color, isolation, or contrast.
Be careful to not overstate a focal point, as the eye will not be compelled to move around and explore the rest of the image. Also, much of your image may be in shadow, you don’t want to clutter your frame.
This means your image will probably have a decent amount of negative space. Positive space is the space taken up by the main subject. Negative space is the area where the eyes can rest.
It provides balance, a bit of breathing room, and emphasises the subject. And it brings attention to the details in the food.
In the images of the Brussels sprouts below, the cut up pieces are in the focal point. The focal point need not be precise. In the general area of one of those intersecting points will do.
When shooting dark food photography, it’s a good idea to underexpose slightly in camera.
Chiaroscuro can have very bright treatment of food with very deep shadows, or the image can be low key with not a lot of contrast. Either way, make sure the highlights are not blown out and the shadows are not too black with no detail.
The focus should be on the main subject, and the image needs to be exposed for the concept, mood, and story.
It is best to work with a tripod, especially if you’re shooting in natural light in less than ideal conditions. Instead of boosting ISO and risking a high amount of noise, you can increase the exposure time.
As long as you have some light, long exposure allows you to take a properly exposed picture. Using a tripod will free up your hands to style the camera and will allow you to see how the shadows are falling on your scene.
Using the timer on the camera or a remote shutter trigger will prevent camera shake and an image that’s not as sharp as it should be.
Editing Dark Images
Post-processing is where you’ll get the most out of your dark and moody food pictures.
Focus on colour treatment and really enhancing the food. Even if you underexpose in camera, your final image should not look evenly dark throughout in the end result.
This has been a trend on some blogs and Instagram, but it doesn’t look good. It just looks underexposed. The food should be relatively bright to enhance its best qualities.
Use global and local adjustments to do this, instead of bumping up the exposure of the whole image, which can cause your shadows to fall flat.
Use the luminance sliders in Lightroom or Camera RAW to brighten colours individually, rather than the saturation sliders, which demand a very subtle hand.
Since you won’t be using white dishes, white balance and tint can be more creatively. You can also use split-toning to great effect, as long as you do it with subtlety. A balance of warm and cool tones will give your images a three-dimensional feel.
Finally, I recommend always adding a bit of a vignette to increase the shadows and draw the eye to the food.
Dark and moody food photography can be challenging, especially if you usually shoot bright and bold images, but the results can be exquisite, with a painterly quality that evokes the emotions and stirs the senses.
Try some dark photography and you just might find that it becomes a signature of your food photography style.