From Woolworth’s double page spreads to Plum magazine, the world of food is being dominated by dark, moody photography styles. With an emphasis on muted tones and rich textures, this photography style adds drama to photos; conjuring feelings of rustic farm kitchens and intimate bistros.

The beauty of this style lies in its use of natural light – there’s no complicated equipment, no strobes or softboxes. All you need to achieve dramatic photos, aside from your camera and lens, is a generous-sized window, your subject, and maybe a 5-in-1 reflector. What’s more is the techniques used to achieve the dark, moody look can be applied to indoor portrait and still life photography too.


Cookies and a spoon full of peanut butter with a dark background and soft light

What you’ll need

Light Quality: The key to all good photography is a keen understanding and eye for light, and to achieve the dark, moody look is no different. However while this style is termed ‘dark’, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be working in low light but instead with a single, soft light source.

The perfect source for this being a window that has light streaming in, diffused by net curtains or a scrim, or even light reflected off of light-coloured buildings nearby can work.

Light Modifiers: At best you might need a 5-in-1 reflector to bounce, scrim or block light; however you can get away with using all manner of household items to do the job: net curtains over a window make a great scrim, cereal boxes can act as impromptu flags and a silver tray or tin foil can help bounce light back onto your subject. Get creative with what you’ve got!

Lenses: The style we’re looking to achieve often uses window light, which means working indoors in whatever space you can get. Often that space is rather tight, which means using a shorter focal length.

Beloved of food bloggers, you might find the nifty-fifty the perfect lens for the job. With its wide aperture and shorter focal length, it is perfectly suited to working in cramped spaces while still achieving the gorgeous bokeh characteristic of modern food photography.

Props: Browse through Pinterest boards featuring this style and you’ll notice a common theme in the props department- vintage is in. The more well-used the kitchen utensils, the better. Pulling off this style calls for rich textures and muted colour palettes that leave the food to stand at center stage.

Heavily patina-ed baking trays, worn wood boards, neutral toned muslin cloths and dinged tin cups; all of these are props that will add that textured ‘vintage’ feel to your photos.

Setting up the Shot

Food photography light setup example with a reflector and natural light

Looking at the setup image you’ll see the main light source is from a window to camera left. A 5-in-1 reflector, with the black side facing our subject, has been set up on a light stand on camera right to create shadows on the subject matter (which in this case are a few eggs).

Directly behind our subject matters is a dark-coloured, large container lid; this is to act as the background and to block out light. Another make-do flag in the form of a baking tray has been set up at camera right to help add extra shadows on the eggs.

Camera Settings

Again, you might be working in a tight space, so a shorter focal length is a must. For this shot a Canon 50mm f/1.4 was used to fit with the working area and for the creamy bokeh it’s capable of achieving.

An ISO of 100 was used to reduce noise and to cut the light for a more contrasty image, as well as a faster shutter speed of 1/320 of a second to work handheld and a wide aperture of f/1.4 for a super shallow depth of field.

However those were the settings used to create this shot; yours will differ depending on your style and light conditions.

Post Processing

Two eggs lying in muslin cloth,a side by side comparison of before and after post processing.

With the shot captured, it’s time to open it up in your editing software of choice; for this tutorial that would be Photoshop CCC 2015. The aim of editing this image was to increase the contrast between shadows and highlights, as well as add some subtle colour toning. Let’s start!

Step 1: Open your image in Photoshop (if you shot in RAW then you can process your image). Create a duplicate working layer, then crop and sharpen to suit your preferences.

Screenshot of duplicate layer in Photoshop

Step 2: Add a levels adjustment layer to punch up the contrast and bring a bit of ‘pop’ to the tonal range.

Screenshot of levels adjustment in photoshop

Step 3: Depending on your white balance settings your image may need a bit of colour correcting for a clean edit.

White balance adjustment settings in Photoshop

Step 4: Time to start colour toning. For this image cool tones were added in the shadows and warm tones in the highlights. The first step of this was playing around with the red, green and blue channels of a curves adjustment layer; but it wasn’t enough, so on to step 5.

Screenshot of curves adjustment layer in photoshop

Step 5: Blues were added to the shadows and yellows to the highlights with a colour balance adjustment layer. And that’s it, we’re done!

Screenshot of colour balance adjustment layer in photoshop