There was a time when capturing engaging food shots made most people think about vibrant colors, light-toned hues, and bright luminosity. But today moody, dark food aesthetics have taken the photography world by storm and became extremely popular among the creative communities. And with good reasons! It’s artful, immensely impactful, and dynamic. By encapsulating the light in moderation and surrounding it with beautiful shadows we add depth to the frame and achieve an almost painterly result that evokes emotion and makes a vivid, long-lasting impression.
Borrowing the ‘chiaroscuro’ effect from the world of painting and drawing, to create a contrast between the lights and the shadows, we achieve a powerful, creative photograph.
Today, we are going to talk about the Dos and Don’ts of Moody Food Photography to help you bring your ideas to life and create stunning low light images.
Preparation is key to a successful photoshoot. Make sure that you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. To envision that, I recommend putting together a mood board that will help you with the conceptualization of the photoshoot. Pinterest to the rescue! Gather a small collection of pictures that you gravitate towards and study them to figure out the elements that you find attractive.
Heading to a shoot unprepared can be a frustrating experience that could cause the photographer to lose confidence and enthusiasm. And we surely don’t want that!
Natural light gives a soft and airy quality to your photos which are particularly helpful with moody images. It also affects the tone of the food colors, making them look more natural and scrumptious!
Artificial light can be easily controlled and will save the day when needed. The important thing is to experiment with different techniques and be flexible while having fun with it!
Choose a one-light setup or a single source of natural light. This could be a window for example. Next, use dark foam core or cardboard to block and direct the light, creating rays of light enveloped by rich shadows.
When light is being reflected it bounces around creating a bright scene, which we are trying to avoid in this case.
Idea to try: Backlit your subject! Subtly illuminating the back of your subject creates depth and separates the object from the background enhancing it even more. We call that ‘depth or separation’ and it’s a brilliant technique to add drama and highlight the delicate details of food.
While it’s not entirely impossible to shoot moody images with lighter props, darker shades would enrich the final result and make your life a lot easier. Wood surfaces, rusty metal, granite make great backdrops. Think rustic, shabby chic, and choose dark accessories and props, such as plates, cutlery, baskets, containers, and fabrics, and always go for the matte option that won't reflect the light.
Avoid bright intense shades and if you feel like adding color opt for pastel, muted hues which absorb some of the light. You want to avoid having the light bouncing from one surface to another as this translates to a less lambent photograph.
Manipulating the shadows and the light post-shooting, using editing software like Adobe Lightroom, is a surefire way to achieve a perfectly moody image. Highlight the areas where you want to draw attention and intensify the shadows to reinforce the contrast.
Every photo is unique and devoting a few minutes to editing is worth it. Decide and selectively pick which areas would benefit from highlighting and which shadows would look stunning enhanced.
Vignette: Vignette darkens the periphery of the image, allowing the central subject to steal the spotlight. It’s a very useful tool for moody food photography as it frames your subject with beautifully fading shadows.
Split toning: The Split Toning tool lets you use two different colors for the highlights and shadows of a photograph that comes in handy for food photography. Try using warmer tones for the food and ingredients, like soft yellows and magenta, and cooler tones for the background like a greyish blue or muted green hue.
Radial filter: This is a brilliant filter that creates dark circular or oval shapes around your subject. Adjust the circle to tailor it to your needs and create a stunning image!
The following image has been enhanced with radial filter:
Adjustment brush: Applying local adjustments with the brush gives you total control of your editing process. Lightroom’s adjustment brush basically lets you paint with light or shadow on specific areas. I also like to add some extra clarity to the darker areas to enhance the texture and soften the parts where the light hits the subject to create a dreamy, flowy vibe within the same frame.
Artificial shadows: Cast artistic shadow overlays to your image and do some visual storytelling. Source free shadows from rawpixel.com and play with the opacity to achieve a natural, effortless result. We have a post that explains the technique in just a few simple steps and you can find it right here.
The above image has been enhanced with two different shadow overlays to enrich the moody tones
Leave enough space unoccupied. This allows you to play with the shadows even more, without risking stealing the attention from your main focal point. Negative space also helps to create tranquil, soothing images while emphasizing the food composition.
Adding too many props could make your image look cluttered and messy. Moreover, in moody food photography, specifically, you will end up 'losing' some of the extra props in the shadows. Let the food, the light, and the shadows have the final word here. We have an entire post explaining the best ratios for food photography composition that will help you make the most of those three elements, and you can find it right here.
As always, have fun with it and experiment with the guidelines, breaking the rules, and thinking outside the box when necessary. Create a delicious story with food that would make Rembrandt nod proudly!
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