Dark Photography

Moody food photography uses the Chiaroscuro technique. It’s an Italian term referring to the contrast between shadow and light. You can find it in a lot of paintings, including Vermeer’s and Caravaggio’s. For the most part, it’s quite easy to work with bright and airy photos.

Dark food photography has become wildly popular over the last few years. But while dark food photos look amazing, they’re not so easy to create – unless you have a bit of insider’s knowledge, that is!

That’s why, in this article, I share my favorite tips, tricks, and secrets for moody food photography, including:

  • How to select the best props and backgrounds for that stunning “dark” look
  • How to light your food photos for a moody effect
  • How to determine the right settings for top-notch image quality

I also share plenty of dark food photography ideas and examples along the way, so you know exactly what you can achieve in your own food images.

Check out my 5 Tips below

3. Shape and carve the light

If you want to produce moody food photography, you must shape and carve the light to achieve a dark effect while bringing attention to your subject.

I recommend you work with sidelight and/or backlight to create a lovely moody look. use a softbox with a diffuser to prevent harshly lit areas, you should use indirect lighting so that no light sources are pointed directly at the set or the food. (If you plan to do naturally lit food photography, then place the food set up at an angle to the window so that no light streams in and hits the scene directly.)

You should then add in small black reflector cards – you can use black cardboard or poster board cut into squares – to kick in shadows as needed. Simply place these around your set where you want to cut down the light. Note that you will need to play around with different sizes and placements of the reflector cards to get shadows that work with your story.

5. Spice up your dark food photography with post-processing

Dark and moody food photography generally looks great straight out of the camera, but if you want the absolute best results, then you should spend a bit of time post-processing your food images.

In particular, use color luminance sliders to brighten colors individually, and use global and local adjustments to bring out the best in the food. Avoid bumping up the exposure of the whole image, which may cause your shadows to look unpleasant; instead, use the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders to make global exposure corrections, and consider using adjustment brushes, graduated filters, and radial filters to make more targeted adjustments.

1. Use dark, non-reflective props and backgrounds

In dark food photography, you should aim to keep the background in shadow and draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject. Therefore, it’s essential that you choose dark or muted props, surfaces, and backgrounds.

You see, white or light dishes and props will draw the eye away from the food and create too much contrast, which is distracting (plus it can be difficult to expose correctly).

So when sourcing props, look for vintage utensils with a patina, which will limit reflections. Matte dishes are also good – the matte surface dampens down reflections – and are best in darker, neutral tones.

4. Don’t be afraid to underexpose

Photographers, especially beginners, often obsess over nailing the perfect exposure…

…but for dark food photography, I’d actually recommend you underexpose deliberately for a shadowy effect.

You don’t want to underexpose too heavily – the shadows shouldn’t lose detail completely – but it often pays to drop the exposure by a fraction of a stop or even a full stop. The edges of the frame and the background will fall into shadow, and you’ll get a beautifully moody look.

For the best result, you’ll need to place the main food items in the brightest part of the frame; that way, they’ll remain well exposed even as the rest of the image goes dark. (Make sure that the highlights aren’t blown out, however!)

A couple of additional food photography settings tips:

You’ll want to select your aperture based on artistic considerations (i.e., do you want the entire frame to be sharp? Or do you want a shallow depth of field effect?) and keep your ISO low to avoid noise. If you’re working with natural light, you’ll generally need to adjust your exposure with your shutter speed.

Therefore, it’s best to use a tripod, especially if you’ll be shooting in natural light. With a tripod, you can increase the exposure time to a second or more – and as long as you have some light, you’ll get a properly exposed picture (or properly underexposed picture if you follow my advice!).

If you do shoot at a shutter speed below 1/80s or so, I’d recommend using a timer or a remote release to prevent camera shake and keep your images tack-sharp.

2. Keep your styling authentic

You’ll generally come across two types of food photography styling:

  1. Clean styling, where every item of food is carefully positioned (often atop a pure-white surface!), and all extraneous elements are removed.
  2. Organic styling, where the food is perfectly imperfect, with scattered crumbs or artfully placed smears and drips, as if the food has only just been freshly prepared.

And while clean styling tends to work great for advertising photography, organic styling is better for creating a looser, more organic, more authentic style, and that’s what I’d recommend for your dark food photography.

Don’t get sloppy, of course – every food item should be placed deliberately – but try to make the styling look casual and random, yet still artful.