Bread and Cheese with black flag. Canon 5D mark II, f/1.6, 50mm (EF 50mm f/1.4 USM) (post-processed in Lightroom) ©Ilva Beretta
Last time, I talked about the importance of creating moods, particularly seasonal and holiday moods. This time I will talk about how to create a photo with a darker mood. A dark mood can elicit many different reactions. Speaking of photography in general, “dark” photos can convey moody or sinister associations. In food photography, it is usually associated with rustic settings, and the darker seasons of autumn and winter. When you decide to make a darker, moodier shot, there are several things to think about when you prepare the setup. These decisions involve colors and props but, above all, light.
Light is, as we all know, fundamental to photography. Without light, there are no photos; it is as simple as that. So as fundamental as it is to use light, you need to know how to bend it to your will if you want to make great photos. This is absolutely valid for food photography as well as any kind of still-life photography. In a dark-mood photo, you usually use light only from one direction, or if needed, a white bounce as a faint fill light — the further away the bounce is, the more diffused the fill light gets. Or if you want to have even darker shadows, you use a black card on the side which will absorb the light and deepen the shadows.
Props and colors are very important, too. You need to tone down the color scheme and select the lighter items (dishes, fabric) with care. Usually, you will use darker props and colors, as seen in these photos. However, you don’t necessarily have to use dark colors. You can create a dark mood with a lighter color scheme as well by playing with the light.
Here we have quite a simple setup with bread, cheese, a wine glass and a few bottles. When you are going to play around with light and shadows, it is important to choose interesting textures. Here I decided to use cheese and bread, because cheese almost always has interesting textures and colors that the camera loves, and the same goes for bread. The background is an old metal fire screen, originally black but now quite faded and rusty. I added some dark bottles, dusty but still reflecting a little light, to give a little life to the background. As you can see I have used very dark props. The wooden tray on which I put the bread and cheese is something I found in a photo studio I often work in, and they gave it to me when I asked. So keep your eyes open for props; you never know what will work in your next photo.
By using toned-down props, the food stands out more and I get a darker mood. The light source is a large window on the right. There is no light from the left where I put a dark board. The best dark surface is black velvet, because it absorbs light like a dream, but you can use almost anything black as long as it isn’t shiny, because then the light would bounce off of it instead.
You can also direct the light by using screens (also called “flags”). In that way, you get a darker background, but you will still throw light on what you want to focus on in the forefront.
Bread and Cheese with screen. Canon 5D mark II, f/1.6, 50mm (EF 50mm f/1.4 USM) (post-processed in Lightroom) ©Ilva Beretta
In this photo, I used a screen to the right of the setup in order to direct the light on the food only, leaving the background in deeper shade.
I used a black Styrofoam sheet to screen off the light. Styrofoam sheets are great because they weigh next to nothing, and they are cheap, but you can use whatever you have on hand. As you can see, the bottles in the background are now only faintly seen — you know that they are there but you don’t really see them. You can decide how much of the background you want to screen, but be careful about where the shadows fall. As you can see in the photo of the setup, the line of the shadow falls right behind the bread. If that shadow line had cut across the bread, it would have disturbed the composition and attracted the eye. If I had put something of a lighter color in the dark area, it obviously would have been more prominent in the image.
I suggest that you try out different props, textures and colors in the same setup to see how they work and to find what you like the best. Remember to play around with different apertures and exposure times to see what happens. Explore the light and the lack of it. But above all, have fun!