Doing dark and moody food photography with natural light is very challenging for a lot of folks. I’ll show you how I did this shot and give you some tips on how to do this at home.
There are always several challenges using natural light in the first place for any shot. The sun is constantly moving, so your exposure will change as a result of that. Then, if you are in an area like I am near the beach, there will be clouds moving through the sky all day, which will make your color balance shift radically as well.
So if you are struggling with just those two things, welcome to the world of natural light shooting. It’s just part of the deal I’m afraid.
The image above is a composite of three images – not to make it dark and moody, but for the action. I have one shot for the pancakes, one shot for the sugar explosion, and one shot for me holding the sugar sifter. My compositing had nothing to do with the dark and moody feel. That’s just the way I designed my set. When you are compositing shots like this, they all have to be the same exposure so that they blend nicely together. I’ll be showing you all this in another post.
Dark and Moody Food Photography Tips
Ok, all that being said, here are some tips to help you with your own dark and moody shots.
- You have got to make all your props, surfaces, and backgrounds dark – meaning pick dark colors. I see so many students struggling trying to make an image dark and moody when their plate is white, their napkin is very light pink, and the surface is a really light color. This will NOT work for a dark and moody shot unless you do some heavy post processing on this image. Make it easy on yourself, get a set of gray and black napkins, surfaces, and plates. You will eliminate the problem of your props being too light this way.
- The food must be the brightest color in the shot, or the only color in the shot. Successful dark and moody shots have food that stands out. Your eye goes right to it. It doesn’t have to be super bright in color, it just has to be the brightest color in your image.
- Control your light source. If you are in a room that has several windows at different positions, block off all the light but for one window. You want only one light source for this type of natural lighting. In most cases, you will not be using any fill light (light that you pop into the shadows to lighten them up).
- Keep it simple! Good lord, I see all sorts of shenanigans online with food inside home made wood boxes, and tons of cards blocking light. For cryin’ out loud, if you follow the step above and control the light to make it come from only one source, you won’t need any of those stunts. I shoot in a room where every wall has a window. I simply close every blind except for the window I am using. If I am still getting light bleeding into my set from another area, I just rig a card on a stand with an A-clamp to block it. That’s it.
- Do NOT severely underexpose your shot to make it dark and moody. I see this all the time. People take a regular shot and just make it really dark in Photoshop to try to make it dark and moody. They end up just making a dark and muddy shot instead. You have to plan for this type of shot in advance. You can’t make a regular shot with light colored props dark and moody by simply making it dark overall in Photoshop or Lightroom. The only way to do that would be with a ton of Photoshop work, which is what I’m trying to have you avoid here. I might underexpose my image by a half a stop of light, that’s it.
So the only thing that is different with this set is the surface, background, and all the props are dark. That’s it. I don’t have any cards blocking light. I’m not using a fill card. This is the same natural light that I use for all my shots that I shoot at home.
About the food styling
Alise, my food stylist here did a few things that made these pancakes looks great.
First off, to have the pancakes all be the same size, she measured the batter to 1/2 cup for each pancake. She simply used a boxed pancake mix here.
She says she loves cooking on this little electric grill. It’s the Cuisinart Griddler for about $70. This is my Amazon Affiliate link for that (should you buy that product, I will get a small commission at not cost to you).
To make the syrup not sink into the pancakes, she sprayed them with Scotchgard. Do this outside.
Alise also used waxed paper in between each pancake so that she could move them easily when they are stacked on top of each other. If you don’t do this, they will stick to each other and be difficult to move around on set.
She also used Poligrip, a white cream for dentures, yep, that’s right denture cream to stick the berries on top of the pancakes. It’s great for sticking food together. We use it all the time. Make sure to get the white version and not the pink. You can hide the white version easier.
The other trick up Alise’s sleeve is she uses Piping Gel mixed with pancake syrup, and applies it using a squeeze bottle onto our pancake stack. This mixture is very thick and will stay right where she puts it. Then she can use a brush to manipulate the syrup afterwards. Remember she sprayed the pancakes with Scotchgard? This makes a protective barrier between the syrup and the pancake so that she can just use a brush and white off what we don’t want.
So there you have it. A simple dark and moody shot with simple natural light. Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll be showing you how I made the final shot with a composite in another post.
If you want to see some great food styling demos on video, check out our digital version of the Food Photography workshop. I am offering this digital version at a discounted price until November. We are still editing the final product right now and it’s looking beautiful.
Click the image below for more info: