Fundamentals, Light

Manipulating light for dark and moody shots

For the longest time, I associated gloomy days with the impossibility of taking food photos. How can you make a plate of food look good on camera if it’s this dark?!?, I thought discontentedly. I live in a climate where cloudy days are relatively frequent, so you can imagine that this question came up often. But the problem really wasn’t the weather. The problem was my inability to use the available light to its full potential. When I finally pulled out the camera and actually started taking pictures on a gloomy day, it was a complete eureka moment. I saw how the soft directional light was creating a beautiful atmosphere in the shot, a nostalgic feel that I resonated with immediately. It was truly a transformational moment, and I loved shooting in low light ever since.

Feta and tomato tart f/3.2 1/30sec 23mm ISO640

Besides the value of shooting in low light, I also understood that the clever manipulation of light can help create dramatic images, with a moody, melancholy atmosphere that is so engaging. These images draw me in, light itself becomes a storyteller, and I feel both enriched, and transported. Do you like moody and dark images? Do they speak to you? Do you wonder how to create them? If you do, read on. I set up a lighting exercise to help you and me understand how to subtract light from the frame, to add drama and interest to an image.

Diffuse and bounce – encore

In the second post on understanding light, I wrote about how to diffuse, and how to bounce light. Does this setup look familiar?

Basic lighting setup with a diffuser and a reflector on either side of the subject.

Diffusing subtracts light from the frame, filtering it. A bounce/reflector adds light into the frame. When I shot the strawberries above, I wanted to get rid of harsh shadows, and I added the white board to fill those shadows, so the subject would be lit more evenly. We can play with light like this, adding or subtracting it from the frame as necessary, to achieve the particular look or mood that we are after. Bright and airy? Playful and romantic? Use a reflector! Moody and dark? Seek the low light, ditch that reflector, and deepen those shadows for even more drama.

Lighting exercise – subtracting light

If adding light back into the frame is done using a white board, then to subtract light, we use one or more black surfaces. Any black, matte surface will absorb light – think anything from a black piece of cardboard, a dark baking pan, a black umbrella, or a piece of heavy black velvet. We can also subtract light using basic physics, a phenomenon called light fall-off. What is light fall-off: because light waves scatter as they travel, the farther your subject is from your light source, the less light your subject will receive. The farther I move from my window, the darker my scene will be, and my subject will receive less light. There is a mathematical formula used to calculate precisely how much light you loose per meter, but at this point, that’s just splitting hairs.

A few days ago, we had a thin cover of clouds, and the light in my living room was soft, yet strong. I pulled from the fridge a couple artichokes I’d bought -for looks alone – a few days prior, and with the help of my toddler, I began this lighting exercise. I chose a dark background (my 10-inch well-used Lodge cast iron pan) to really highlight my photogenic veg, and started playing around with dark boards. I took behind-the-scenes pictures as well, so that you can see my modest setup, together with the images it allows for. So here is the first shot:

The first image: no black boards, just the veg sitting in the dark pan

And this is what the setup looks like: the artichokes, the dark pan placed on a support a few inches off the ground, and directional light coming in from 3 o’clock to side-light the whole scene (please pardon the exposure and composition issues in the behind-the-scenes photos!).

The next step was to position a board on one side of the subject, at 12 o’clock. A note here: although we sometimes don’t realize it, a light-coloured wall (or any other white/light surface) can act as a reflector. Sometimes this is helpful, if the colour is neutral and we need lots of light. Other times, it can interfere with the look we are trying to achieve. By the same token, shooting in rooms with brightly-coloured walls can pose another problem: the colour from the wall reflects onto the food, creating strange colour casts. I once had a bright green accent wall in my kitchen, and could not figure out why all my food shots had a weird green cast to them. The green wall is since gone (the paint was called “gecko” so you can roughly picture the colour, no?), but my living-room wall is still waiting for a fresh coat of white or grey paint. But I still pay attention to reflections. Back to the setup. As I mentioned, black foam core board in between the wall and the subject, like so:

Below is the image that I obtained. You might not see a huge difference in the images taken with these two different setups, but I added a handy animation at the end to show all four of the images in this series in quick succession; that way, you really get to see the impact of the added boards. You can also see a huge difference if you compare the first and last image, the change is more dramatic. But for now, image number two.

Image obtained with one black board at 12 o’clock in relation to the subject

I kept adding boards, and here are the next two setups: the next one with two boards, and the last, with three. I ran out of boards and as the third, I simply used a black (pliable) cardboard fastened with bulldog clips onto a white foam board. You can see that in the last setup, the subject is surrounded by dark surfaces from three sides, leaving only one side open to allow the light in.

Black boards subtract light on two sides of the subject
Black surfaces on three sides, for even more dramatic shadows

And here is the final image. I like this one a lot, although I am hard-pressed to choose between this 3-board setup, and the 2-board one.

Black boards cut the light on three sides of the subject: 12 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 6 o’clock

There is another option, too. If you have blackout curtains installed on the large windows you normally shoot near, then you can pull the curtains almost shut, leaving a sliver of light to penetrate into the room and placing your scene right in the path of that sliver of light. You’d position yourself so that your subject is side-lit, and you would expose for the part of the image which gets the most light. Exposure is a BIG topic, so I am leaving it for another time, but make sure that your image is exposed correctly – read the last paragraph about how NOT to create moody and dark images.

Here is the short video I mentioned, which shows the four images in quick succession, and allows you to get a better feel for what the boards do in manipulating the light in this scene. You decide which one is your favourite. And in any case, my own personal takeaway from this exercise is to try multiple lighting setups, and take multiple pictures. Sure, it takes more effort but it is always easier to change a few things and take the pictures while the scene is already laid out, then to start over from complete scratch for a re-do.

The recipe for a moody food photo

To sum up my points above, here is what I might call the “recipe” for dark and moody images:

  • ideally, shoot in low light. Directional light. A soft light which is nonetheless sufficiently powerful to light a scene, and coming from a single direction (ideally the side or the back of the subject).
  • subtract light from the scene and deepen the shadows as needed with the use of black surfaces like foam boards or a black umbrella. Play around, it’s fun!
  • use darker backgrounds and/or props, but keep it balanced by also adding white/light items in the shot.

Whether you have two artichokes, or a more elaborate scene, the principles of manipulating light remain the same. Just remember that the larger your scene, the larger boards/surfaces you will need to really deepen those shadows (or to reflect light, too).

How NOT to create moody and dark images

I wanted to add to the post this final bit, to explain what I think is the difference between a “moody” image, and one that is just underexposed or badly lit (or with the exposure dialed down in post-processing). If I learned something, it’s that with low light photography, I have to be even more careful with exposure than the regular shots. Improper lighting can ruin a well composed image, making it difficult for the viewer to understand the message.

This isn’t a moody image, just an incorrectly exposed one

Even though I recognize the strawberries, the fabric etc., my eyes struggle to find the light. So I re-take the shot, with the correct (in my opinion) exposure set on the camera.

It may not be moody, but it is beautiful

So friends, this is my two pence’s worth of information on creating those crowd-pleasing low light images. As always, if you have any questions at all, pop them in the comments and I’d be happy to answer them. If you use the information from this post, or you want me to see your images on instagram, tag them with #craftandmuse and I’ll check them out.

Until next time!

2 thoughts on “Manipulating light for dark and moody shots

  1. Loved reading this post! Thank you for sharing the secrets of your awesome pics! You already know one of my fav images of yours is the “honey drizzle” pic and that’s partly due to the dark-ish, moody nature of the lighting.

    1. That’s one of my favourites too! That image was an aha! moment for me, it got me reflecting a lot on what made that image “work” and just what were the qualities of light that I enjoyed so much. It was a great learning moment, and it contributed to my insights on how to achieve the moody shots I loved. And I am happy to share what I know, so glad it’s useful, Kris!

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