5 Tips for Beautiful Dark Food Photography

by John Stapel

tips for incredible dark food photography

Dark food photography has become wildly popular over the last few years. But while dark food photos look amazing, they’re not so easy to create – unless you have a bit of insider’s knowledge, that is!

That’s why, in this article, I share my favorite tips, tricks, and secrets for moody food photography, including:

  • How to select the best props and backgrounds for that stunning “dark” look
  • How to light your food photos for a moody effect
  • How to determine the right settings for top-notch image quality

I also share plenty of dark food photography ideas and examples along the way, so you know exactly what you can achieve in your own food images.

Let’s dive right in, starting with Tip #1:

1. Use dark, nonreflective props and backgrounds

In dark food photography, you should aim to keep the background in shadow and draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject. Therefore, it’s essential that you choose dark or muted props, surfaces, and backgrounds.

You see, white or light dishes and props will draw the eye away from the food and create too much contrast, which is distracting (plus it can be difficult to expose correctly).

So when sourcing props, look for vintage utensils with a patina, which will limit reflections. Matte dishes are also good – the matte surface dampens down reflections – and are best in darker, neutral tones.

utensils with a patina for dark food photography

Some good places to look for these items are thrift shops and flea markets; there, you can often find dark food photography props for a fraction of the price you would pay for them new. Many food photographers use old, mottled cookie sheets in their work, which create surfaces and backgrounds that look great and only subtly reflect the light.

Wood is also a great material for backgrounds and props. Try to find weathered items such as old cabinet doors or old tabletops, which will keep reflections to a minimum and lend a beautiful rustic feel.

Pro tip: Ensure that the wood you use isn’t too warm toned. Warm-toned wood will turn an unflattering orange in your images. A deep espresso color, on the other hand, always looks great.

a dark food photography flat lay

2. Keep your styling authentic

You’ll generally come across two types of food photography styling:

  1. Clean styling, where every item of food is carefully positioned (often atop a pure-white surface!) and all extraneous elements are removed.
  2. Organic styling, where the food is perfectly imperfect, with scattered crumbs or artfully placed smears and drips, as if the food has only just been freshly prepared.

And while clean styling tends to work great for advertising photography, organic styling is better for creating a looser, more organic, more authentic style, and that’s what I’d recommend for your dark food photography.

Don’t get sloppy, of course – every food item should be placed deliberately – but try to make the styling look casual and random, yet still artful.

soup on a dark table

For the carrot ginger soup image (above), I gently swirled cream on the soup surface and carefully placed the croutons off-center to create a focal point. I garnished the soup with pepper and thyme leaves, and I also scattered these on the background surface. While a counter or dinner table would never look quite like this in reality, such extra touches give the food composition an honest, storytelling quality, plus they frame and enhance the main subject.

My best advice?

Think about the ingredients you used in the food. Ask yourself how you can incorporate flour, sugar, spices, etc., in a way that makes compositional sense and complements your main subject.

lentil soup moody food photography

3. Shape and carve the light

If you want to produce moody food photography, you must shape and carve the light to achieve a dark effect while bringing attention to your subject.

I recommend you work with sidelight and/or backlight to create a lovely moody look. And to prevent harshly lit areas, you should use indirect lighting, so that no light sources point directly at the set or the food. (If you plan to do naturally lit food photography, then place the food setup at an angle to the window so that no light streams in and hits the scene directly.)

You should then add in small black reflector cards – you can use black cardboard or posterboard cut into squares – to kick in shadows as needed. Simply place these around your set where you want to cut down the light. Note that you will need to play around with different sizes and placements of the reflector cards to get shadows that work with your story.

For the images displayed below, I wanted the mushrooms to be bright and catch some of the light, yet I wanted shadows to fall on the plate. I used side-backlighting (notice the bright spot in the upper-right corner?) to illuminate the mushrooms, then I placed a black card at the front of the setup, angled to create shadows and absorb some of the light that was coming directly into the shot.

mushroom toast display

4. Don’t be afraid to underexpose

Photographers, especially beginners, often obsess over nailing the perfect exposure…

…but for dark food photography, I’d actually recommend you underexpose deliberately for a shadowy effect.

You don’t want to underexpose too heavily – the shadows shouldn’t lose detail completely – but it often pays to drop the exposure by a fraction of a stop or even a full stop. The edges of the frame and the background will fall into shadow, and you’ll get a beautifully moody look.

For the best result, you’ll need to place the main food items in the brightest part of the frame; that way, they’ll remain well exposed even as the rest of the image goes dark. (Make sure that the highlights aren’t blown out, however!)

A couple of additional food photography settings tips:

You’ll want to select your aperture based on artistic considerations (i.e., do you want the entire frame to be sharp? Or do you want a shallow depth of field effect?) and keep your ISO low to avoid noise. If you’re working with natural light, you’ll generally need to adjust your exposure with your shutter speed.

Therefore, it’s best to use a tripod, especially if you’ll be shooting in natural light. With a tripod, you can increase the exposure time to a second or more – and as long as you have some light, you’ll get a properly exposed picture (or properly underexposed picture if you follow my advice!).

If you do shoot at a shutter speed below 1/80s or so, I’d recommend using a timer or a remote release to prevent camera shake and keep your images tack-sharp.

olive oil food photography

5. Spice up your dark food photography with post-processing

Dark and moody food photography generally looks great straight out of camera, but if you want the absolute best results, then you should spend a bit of time post-processing your food images.

In particular, use color luminance sliders to brighten colors individually, and use global and local adjustments to bring out the best in the food. Avoid bumping up the exposure of the whole image, which may cause your shadows to look unpleasant; instead, use the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders to make global exposure corrections, and consider using adjustment brushes, graduated filters, and radial filters to make more targeted adjustments.

lentil soup arrangement

And always remember:

Warm colors move forward, whereas cool colors recede. The best food photography has a balance of both, which enhances the three-dimensional feel – so spend time playing with the white balance to get the perfect result. Split-toning can also work great as long as it’s applied with subtlety.

Finally, no matter how you carve the light, a bit of a vignette will add extra mystery, and it’ll also prevent the eye from wandering out of the frame. So if you’re after an especially moody effect, try applying a vignette as a finishing touch.

Dark food photography tips: final words

Chili on a wooden table

Well, there you have it:

5 tips, tricks, and techniques for dark and moody food photos!

Remember my advice, practice working with the light, and you’ll be capturing stunning shots in no time at all.

Now over to you:

Which of these tips will you apply first? What food do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

  • PREPARATION

  • LIGHTING

    • Five Essentials of Doing Dark Food Photography

  • COMPOSITION

  • GEAR

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • CREATIVE TECHNIQUES

  • POST-PROCESSING

  • INSPIRATION

5 Tips for Beautiful Dark Food Photography