If you follow my work, you’ll probably notice that I gravitate towards dark and moody food photography images. I love the depth and richness created through shadows, texture and contrast. This post shares some dark food photography tips to help you explore a dark and moody style in your own photography.
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Dark Food Photography Tips
First, I want to clear up a little misconception about dark food photography. “Dark” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re shooting in the dark or with low light. While dark is the opposite of light, photographers still need light to see the subject. It’s how you control the light that creates the mood.
For all of my photo shoots, no matter what the creative vision is, I make decisions about the following things:
- CAMERA SETTINGS
- WHITE BALANCE
- TETHERING & TRIPODS
- SURFACES & BACKDROPS
How To Shoot Dark Food Photography
Tip 1: Adjust Your Camera Settings
Whether you’re shooting with natural light or artificial lights, your camera settings play a big role in how your image is exposed. I always push photographers to shoot in manual mode so they can take full control of the exposure and sharpness of their images. If you’re not shooting in manual mode yet, I have a blog post that talks all about it to help you get started.
READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT IN MANUAL MODE
Tip 2: Play with White Balance
Your white balance is incredibly important because it controls the overall color balance of your images. If you shoot with natural light, it’s easy to assume that the light will look natural. But, sometimes images can actually look too blue or too yellow which throws everything off. Adjusting your white balance will help you achieve the color balance you want. I usually start off testing my white balance in Auto to see how my images are appearing. Sometimes they look great and other times they look off color. I usually correct this in camera, but can also make some adjustments in editing if I need to.
Tip 3: Shoot Tethered
One of the best tips for improving your images and getting the mood you want is to shoot tethered. This is when there’s a cable attaching your camera to your computer so you can see your images on a larger screen. Being able to review the details of your image on a larger screen will help you make the best decisions during your shoot. I used to review the images on the back of my camera. But, this caused me to take WAY more images than I needed to and I would miss fixing important details during the shoot because I simply couldn’t see the image very well. Tethering is efficient and one of the biggest game-changers if you want to improve your food photography.
Tip 4: Use A Tripod
Using a good tripod will definitely come in handy for your food photography. Sometimes a tripod can feel limiting in a way, especially if you want to shoot at different angles. My advice is to hold your camera to test different angles and then set your tripod to capture the specific angles that will work. It’s totally ok to start freeform and then reign it in. You can always readjust and reposition your tripod for the other angles you want. You’re never locked into “one” position. Ultimately, stabilizing your camera on a tripod helps you create sharp images and beautiful compositions because your camera is set and you can adjust everything around it to build a beautiful image.
I own and recommend this tripod by Manfrotto because it’s sturdy for my home studio and is easy to travel with if I have to shoot on location.
EXTENSION ARM FOR OVERHEAD SHOTS
For overhead shots with this tripod, I highly recommend getting this extension arm, because the center arm on the tripod isn’t very long and may not extend far enough over your table.
MY FAVORITE OVERHEAD SETUP
If you want an alternative (and really cool) overhead setup recommendation that doesn’t require a tripod or an extension arm, check out this post that shares a simple overhead setup for food photography. It results in gorgeous overhead shots every time and allows me to use my tripod for other angles separately. 😉
READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Tip 4: Use Dark Surfaces & Backdrops
Now that we’ve covered some of the photo shoot and camera set up tips, a fun and easy way to really start experimenting with dark and moody food images is to simply use darker surfaces and backdrops.
To demonstrate this, I used the same bowl of eggs with the same camera settings and the same lighting lighting. I set the bowl of eggs on two different surfaces, one dark and one light. Isn’t it cool how using two different surface colors can change the mood of the image? You can start by using a black piece of foam board and a white piece of foam board and watch how the mood changes.
Tip 5: Use Dark Props
Using darker food photography props is another easy way to create dark and moody food photography. Some foods (like salads, for example) are constantly shot on lighter surfaces with brighter props to emphasize the colors and freshness of the food. But, it’s important not to get stuck in one way of thinking. In the salad image below, I wanted to demonstrate that you can also use darker props and still capture the beautiful colors and freshness of a salad.
For the food photography styling I arranged the spinach leaves and tomatoes on a black plate on top of a black surface. Then, I lightly sprinkled some feta cheese on top. I love how the colors pop off the dark prop and surface.
Tip 6: Experiment with Lighting
How to light dark food photography can seem challenging. But, whether you’re using natural light or artificial lights, there are three ways to control your light for a dark food images:
1. CAMERA SETTINGS
Just like I mentioned in Tip 1, adjusting your camera settings allows you to control the exposure of your food images.
For example, in the spinach salad image above my camera settings were f14, 1/200 shutter and 100 ISO and I used artificial lights to compensate for these settings. Your camera settings will always vary depending on your surroundings and your light source.
2. LIGHT MODIFIERS
Light modifiers will help you control how powerful or intense the light is when it hits your subject.
For example, in the spinach salad image above I used an artificial light with a large soft box to soften and spread the light evenly over the salad. I also could adjust how powerful my light was by turning the power up or down.
If I was using natural light, I might consider use a large diffuser over the window to spread the light over the salad.
Some examples of light modifiers include:
- BLACK & WHITE FOAM BOARD
- SOFT BOXES
3. LIGHT POSITIONING
Where your light source is coming from and how close it is to your subject affects the mood of your image.
For example, in the spinach salad image above, I shot overhead. I used one strobe with a softbox and positioned it towards the top right of the image. I played with the position of the light until it was hitting the salad just right to keep the surrounding areas dark and the food bright and colorful. You’ll notice how you can see the light hitting the black plate in two spots to see the direction the light was coming from. Move around your light source and see how the light hits the food differently creating a different mood.
Try creating different moods by playing with side light vs. back light. This means your light source will either be on the side of the subject or behind it. A backlit image will create a different mood than a side lit image.
See the examples from my Easy Pomegranate Salsa and Ricotta Flatbread recipe below. The first image is shot overhead and is lit from the side. The second image was shot at an angle and lit from behind. Notice how the different position of the light source creates a different mood for each image?
Natural Light for Dark Food Photography
If you are shooting with natural light, the light source is your window.
Depending on how much light is coming in, you will need to adjust your camera settings according to the type of exposure you want.
You may also want to diffuse the light from the window if it’s too bright. I usually diffuse the light using these types of diffusers. Then, I can use these dark foam boards to direct shadows and add contrast.
Since your window can’t move, you will need to physically move the food around so the light is hitting the subject from the direction of your choice.
READ MORE ABOUT: NATURAL LIGHT FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
Artificial Light for Dark Food Photography
If you’re shooting with artificial lights, your light source(s) are your light(s).
When you adjust your camera settings with artificial lighting, you usually don’t have to change them again. This is because artificial lights are consistent, unlike natural light which is always changing.
You can shape and modify the lights using different soft boxes, umbrellas, grids or diffusion papers. This helps you create the mood you want.
With artificial lights, you have the ability to move the lights around as you need, so you can light the food from any direction you want.
READ MORE ABOUT: ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Tip 7: Find Your Editing Style
Editing is a very important part of the photography process. Without editing, images can appear flat. I use Capture One, Lightroom and Photoshop for my photography editing. Use the ad below to get Lightroom and Photoshop bundled together for only $9.99/month.
Photography Editing Tutorials
There are some amazing editing tutorials on CreativeLive and eventually, I’ll share my favorite editing tips in another post. Here are a couple of great tutorials to get you started learning how to edit in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Dark and moody food photography is absolutely gorgeous, but it does require practice to create the mood you want. No matter what level you’re at, just remember that we all started out as beginners and we are all still learning something new during each photo shoot. Keep practicing and reach out with questions anytime!
READ MORE ABOUT: LIGHT AND AIRY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2020.