How to photograph and style moody food photography

July 28, 2023marissamakes

These techniques and tips will teach you how to manipulate light and choose props to give your food photography a moody feel.

I’ve always loved moody food photography. Something about the deep shadows and darker tones completely captured my attention, and I was absolutely enamored. When I first started my photography journey though, I STRUGGLED to emulate the dark and moody style that I loved so much. I had a lot of difficulty in understanding how to properly light my scenes to get the mood I wanted, and how to choose props that would tell the story I wanted to share. With a lot of trial and error, and tons of learning, I finally grew very confident in creating moody scenes, and even in creating a moody vibe with light colored props. Read on to learn some of my top tips, techniques, and advices on how to style moody food photography.

How to use light in dark and moody photography

I think there’s a common misconception that dark and moody photography means an absence of a strong light source. This is the opposite of the truth! It’s absolutely crucial to have a good light source for moody photos. This light can be either natural, or artificial, depending on what you prefer to work with. A lot of moody food photography is not so much minimizing the light, but manipulating it. By telling the light exactly where to go and where to stop, we can create moody scenes with deep shadows. Let’s dive in to what this looks like in practice.

As you can see, this fall scene is very moody, with lots of deep shadows and some more muted colors. It might surprise you then to see just how much light I used to achieve this photo.

I used tons of light! I don’t have a studio, so all my photographing takes place in front of a large sliding glass door in my living room. As you can see in the behind-the-scenes photo, the entire right hand side of the table is fully lit. To create the deep shadows on the left, I used a black fill. I like to use a 4-in-one diffuser because you get 4 lighting modifiers plus a diffuser in one piece of equipment. For this photo, I have the black side facing the scene. This effectively stops the light from traveling any further, and bounces deep shadows back onto my scene. Let’s look at another example.

The image above was photographed on a super bright summer’s day, with tons of light pouring in. This was before I switched my curtains from plastic vertical blinds, so as you can see, I had to get a bit creative with creating shadows for my scene. I used the black fill to block out the extra light coming in from the edge of my window, and a black backdrop to create extra shadows behind my scene.

Key Takeaway: A common mistake in moody food photography is to under-light your scene. Not using enough light will make your scene very flat, and not dynamic. Make sure to use plenty of light, and then to supplement with dark colored modifiers to help create shadows where you want them, and to block light where you don’t want it to go.

Choosing props for a moody vibe

When styling a dark and moody scene, it’s important to choose props that will work well with deep shadows. Generally speaking you want to stay away from lots of stark white, but this is not a hard and fast rule. More on that later!

For my dark and moody scenes, I like to choose things that are rustic and have plenty of texture, but not so much that they’ll take over a scene. Good choices for props include darker colored and lightly textured ceramics, textiles, old book pages, and cutlery. I love sourcing my props from antique stores, local artists, and Etsy. I find that vintage items with a little bit of character always work splendidly in moody frames.

Natural colors also work extremely well to give a rustic vibe, and tend to be my go-tos for moody styling. Wood tones are versatile in both light and dark scenes. They’re great to have on hand if you like to work with both types of styling. In the above image, my props are all relatively light colored, but thanks to the relatively neutral color palette and deep shadows, it still has a strong moody vibe.

Whatever props you use, make sure they serve a purpose, and tell a story!

Key Takeaway: Choose props that have a bit of texture and character. Texture will catch the shadows, and emphasize the moody quality of the frame.

How to incorporate color into moody photography

Contrary to (maybe) popular belief, moody food photography does NOT mean a lack of color! I LOVE incorporating strong color into my work, as well as creamy shadows. The trick to maintaining this balance is to really control the lighting and shadows as we discussed in the first section. It’s also important to choose your color palette carefully. I like to pick one or two main colors to focus on, with a third to help compliment. This helps keep the color palette clear, and pleasing to the viewer.

In these images, there’s plenty of color, but lots of moodiness as well. I recommend picking a limited color palette, with one or two main colors, and then one complementary or analogous color. This helps keep your styling focused, and your composition from getting too complicated. Then, focus on the areas that you want to be accentuated by shadow, and use your modifiers to help block out that light. As you can see, you do not need to sacrifice color to create a moody image!

Key Takeaway: Don’t shy away from using color in moody photos. Pick a focused color palette, and manipulate the lighting to emphasize the subject in the frame.

Creating a light and moody vibe

So what about images that are light, but still have creamy shadows? The trick here is all in the choice of background and props. While you can create a very moody image with a light backdrop and a black hanging background (see the pickle photo above), you will achieve light and moody best by using a lighter colored background or wall behind the scene.

Here’s my setup for a light and moody photo. I still have my black fill for lovely shadows, but my green backdrop is on the lighter side, and my hanging background is a white sheet. I’ve also pulled the curtain to about halfway into my scene to block out the light from directly streaming onto the white hanging backdrop.

As you can see in the final image, the magic is really in the shadows. Even though the props and backdrops are light colored, my manipulation of the light creates plenty of creamy shadows and rustic moodiness. The light this day was pretty soft and diffused, but if you are working with harsh light, I would recommend placing a diffuser between the light source and your set up, like in the example below:

This wooden table tends to make beautiful shadows on the far side without much need for a fill, but the light was very strong, so I used a big diffuser to filter it. The result is a very soft, rustic, and moody frame with deep and creamy shadows.

Key Takeaway: You can create a moody feel in your photos even by using all light-colored props. It’s all in creating creamy shadows and diffusing harsh light.

Camera settings

Of course, there’s some settings that we can use in camera to help with achieving a moody frame. While you can totally do some of this editing in post, I like to get as much right in the camera as possible. For my moody frames, I like to under expose 1/3-2/3 of a stop to help enunciate the shadows. I also keep my ISO as low as possible for my shutter speed, typically around 200.

Key Takeaway: Try to nail your settings in the camera to make editing easier, and to ensure a natural look.

To summarize

A lot of creating a moody food photo happens before you press the shutter on your camera. Thoughtfully choosing your props and backdrops, as well as manipulating your available light source are very important steps in creating a moody frame. Remember, it’s all in the shadows! Most importantly: experiment! Get comfortable with your lighting and props, and don’t stop playing with light and different subjects.

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