Dark and Moody Food Photography

Moods in food photography

The dark and moody food photography style, also called chiaroscuro - a term borrowed from the art world, refers to the use of strong contrast between light and dark. I love to create and shoot this kind of image that create a strong visual impact and sometimes transmit a little melancholy but in a good way, something that translates into a longing in the viewer. Well, those of you who are following along know that I actually love both dark and bright images. As I love them both too much to just focus on one, I alternate a dark and a light picture on my instagram grid for instance.

In food photography, there are 4 basic moods:

  • light & bright
  • light & moody
  • dark & bold
  • dark & moody

Most often people in food photography only talk about two moods and oppose dark and moody to light and bright. I don’t completely share this, as I think that bright images can be moody and dark pictures don’t have to be. When I say moody, I think of a kind of twilight, a kind of mystic light that can have something almost melancholic. The mood is related to the kind of emotion you want to evoke with your picture.

Bright, but moody

Light and bright


I sometimes start to conceptualize my shoot thinking about a mood I want to achieve, and I build the lighting around it. I also decide on a food that I think goes especially well with the mood I’m going for (summer berries wouldn’t be my first choice for a moody picture, whereas a chocolate glazed bundt cake, might work pretty well - although on the flip side the contrast created by showing a bright lemonade reminiscent of heat, light and summer in a dark, moody way can elicited that strong reaction we might be aiming for). At other moments I already have an ingredient or a dish I want to shoot and make up everything around this dish. So I think about what this special dish transmits for me ideally (the scene I’d create for a traditional rustic recipe with a homemade feel might be very different from something more creative, stylized and contemporary).

For a dark and moody shoot I usually use dark and matte props, dark grey and black ceramics and cutlery that I bought on a thrift-market, vintage, with that patina that doesn’t shine or sparkle, but rather gives it a rustic and used look. I use dark linen napkins too, to really lend prominence to the food.

It's all about the light

Now, of course it’s really about the light. So, when I shoot dark food pictures, I most often block a lot of light out, so as to get an accent on my hero subject and a lot of darker areas and shadows around. To achieve that, I position some foam board or similar in front of the window (or softbox) to just let a little light through where my main subject is positioned. In some moody pictures, the part that gets no light is really black and fuses into the background without a clear transition. That creates a bold feeling of the subject manifesting from the dark. Other times the shadows are not as dark and some detail is distinguishable even in the darkest part of the food. A third category are the dark and bold images in which a dark background is used and shadows are present, but not that strongly and the food is pretty bright and really pops out. This is not actually moody photography as while it creates a strong impact, it doesn’t elicit the emotions associated with dark and moody food photography.


Dark, but less moody

Out of the dark...

To create an image where the subject comes out of the dark, you’ll need black fill all around your subject to absorb the light that otherwise might bounce onto the food. There should be a black fill card on the opposite side to the light source and eventually more around it to prevent light that comes bouncing from any white walls that might be around you.

The artichokes manifest from the dark (the shadowy parts fuse with the dark background)

Final image


To create an image in which detail is recognizable and there are no underexposed parts, you might leave out the black fill card or even put a white fill card on the opposite of your subject, but play with the distance at which you position it.


While the light is the most important component of dark and moody or chiaroscuro food photography, editing can make a huge difference and help a lot to bring out the mood we want to express with our image. I recorded my kind of first video ever on how I edit a chiaroscuro shot (also see before and after below). If you like this kind of videos, please let me know in the comments (of the video) and I’ll create more including composition, setup, recipes and more. Making me happy today is easy: become one of the first subscribers to my new youtube channel!

Out of the camera

After editing

Using Format