I often get asked how I create my dark and moody images, so I thought I’d share a few tips here.
I always take photographs in natural light. I work in my north-facing dining room, which has large glass doors and so plenty of light coming in.
When I create “classical” still life images, I arrange all my flowers and props on a table very close to the window, and keep the curtains wide open to make the most of the natural light.
When I want to take low key photographs I still work by the window, but I move the table a bit farther away from it, and partially close the curtains to leave just a small area in full light.
I place the main subject in the full light area, and then arrange the other props, keeping in mind the degree of light that they will receive.
Once I’m happy with the styling, I place a black reflector by the table, immediately opposite the window, to absorb the light and make the whole scene darker. The reflector also blocks any light that might come from other places (My living & dining area is open plan, with a window on the opposite side of this one, and the reflector blocks that light).
If you don’t have a black reflector, you can use some cardboard painted black, or even a piece of fabric like black velvet, which absorbs the light.
I usually take my pictures in manual, so that I can have full creative control and select the settings – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – that I want.
In this set up situation, the camera meters the light available and it automatically wants to lighten up the photo, just because it sees a lot of darkness (the backdrop and tablecloth). For this reason, I usually underexpose these low key photographs a little bit, so that they don’t turn out too light.
I always take several photographs, and if I’m not happy with the way they look on the LCD screen I make a few tiny changes – I close, or open, the curtains just a bit, to change the amount of light hitting the subject, or move the subject slightly closer to the light, or farther away, until the photograph is as close to what I want to achieve as possible.
The next step is editing. I think of editing as an additional creative tool that allows me to bring my vision to life. It’s important to get your photograph right on camera, of course, but editing really takes it to another level.
I use Lightroom for my editing, and sometimes Photoshop for some finishing touches.
Have a look at the images below: the first one is straight from the camera, in RAW format. I only cropped it square, so that it’s easier to compare it with the final image.
The original image was too warm for my taste, and the colours were too intense.
I cooled down the photograph by changing the white balance, desaturated the orange and yellow, softened the look with Tone Curves, and used a brush to make a couple of local adjustments, before finally sharpening the image.
I made a video to show you all the steps of my editing – please bear with me, I’m not exactly a natural at speaking into a microphone :D
This is not the only way to edit dark and moody photographs, of course – this is just how I do it, following my own vision. There are many different ways to edit a photograph, and there’s no right or wrong. It all depends on your own preferences, and style – your own creative voice.
Maybe you liked the image as it was before the editing, warm and with vibrant, intense colours, or maybe you like it cool but would prefer more contrast, or more muted tones…
That’s absolutely fine. The important thing is just to practice and practice, to improve your skills and create the kind of photographs you love.
I hope you found this blog post useful, and if you enjoyed it please feel free to share it with others :)
P.S. I’m currently creating lessons for my new online course “Visual Storytelling 2: photography & editing essentials”. The class will teach you how to use your DSLR camera in manual, and the fundamentals of editing. I’ll also cover natural light in more details. If you want to be the first to know when the course opens for registration, sign up here.