For quite a while now I’ve been entranced by the dark n’ moody school of food photography (no surprise to anyone who’s seen my food photography Pinterest board). I’ve tried it a few times, just guessing at what to do, and of course never got anything like decent results. Now I really want to master this, and these Thai peanuts seemed like an ideal dark n’ moody subject – hey, they taste pretty intense! So I consulted some professionals, got some great, easy to follow advice and put it to work. I also had a butt-saving second day fit of inspiration. Here’s how it happened:
There are about a zillion posts out there on moody food photography, but the one that spoke to me the most on Monday was Learning Your Camera and How to Shoot Moody Images with Peter Georgakopoulos, which appeared on Gourmande In The Kitchen. I seriously recommend you check it out because it’s loaded with excellent info, but here are some highlights:
1. Use dark backgrounds and backdrops. Seems pretty obvious, but I needed to be told this.
2. I don’t think this is crucial but if you’re using a DSLR and feeling frisky, dig around in your menu, find your exposure metering method and switch it to spot/partial metering. On my happy little Canon Rebel T3, I found the metering mode under the second menu tab, and my choices are evaluative (the preset), partial and center-weighted average. So I tried partial, which is as specific as the T3 will let me get (I get the impression fancier cameras offer spot). According to Peter, this can allow your subject to appear well-lit and your background to remain dark and moody. I was so excited about this new-to-me metering mode I forgot to take shots comparing it with evaluative, but hopefully next time I’ll remember.
3. Use stuff to block off portions of your light source. This lets you keep the background dim and your subject highlighted. His light source was a window; mine is a softbox which was way too close to the food because of how I had the room arranged but I’ve fixed that now. Anyway, putting stuff over your light source is an option that had never occurred to me, and it made a huge difference.
So here’s how the shoot went!
My first idea was the nuts spread out on a baking tray, main flavor in the background, with a cool sort of Southeast Asian fabric involved. And maybe that wasn’t a bad idea, but I’d never know it from this shot. Too much light, the jar is dwarfed by the tray and the fabric is making everything look orange. Plus, it’s folded neatly which seems kind of boring for these wild and crazy peanuts.
I unfolded the fabric and draped it around messily on the table, put the peanuts on it and tried again, just focusing on the peanuts this time. Better, but still too much light and that color cast is all over the place.
I took the fabric away, put some more foam board over my light and tried again. Still too light – this would have been a great time to play with my shutter speed but I didn’t think of it – and the whole Thai feeling’s gone. Also, there’s something weirdly funny about the paste on the spoon, and not in a good way.
I scrap the whole tray idea and pull out this little bowl and stick mat, two of my trustiest Asian-feeling props, and take this very plain shot to see if I’m on the right track. I also switch the black and wood backgrounds around just to see what that’s like. I guess I wasn’t feeling the stick mat, because guess what…
…I took it away and put that damn fabric back! And it immediately threw enough orange tone to make the backdrop look like scary 70’s basement wood paneling. Also, still waaaay too light! I’m getting weary at this point so I take a couple more shots and try to convince myself that maybe I’m the only one who’ll think that looks like scary 70’s wood paneling.
The next day I’m looking through old scarves for something for another recipe when I stumble upon this gem! It’s giving me the Thai feel I want only way better and I haven’t eaten all the nuts yet, so I decide to try another round of pics. It was wadded into a tiny, wrinkly ball so in a true food blogger move I iron it on a cutting board I had handy.
Eureka! I think the shininess of the other fabric was throwing light around, because this is way better. I thought the delicate white bowl would look cool with the wild batik fabric and it did! Also, I take no chances and put black fabric on the rearmost foam board (you can see it pictured earlier). I’m getting much closer to dark and moody territory!
So I decide to put the jar and spoon back in, tinker with it to get it into a nice visual place and I’m done. Thanks to this fabric saving the creative day, I’m feeling pretty good about my dark and moody self!
So that up there is the RAW file, which I edited as usual and made into a JPEG. This is where it gets interesting: another point I took from the post is a little fancy post-editing is okay. In his words, “Think of it like makeup. Adding a little here and there will enhance your best features. Start overdoing it and you end up looking like a clown.” So I added a little makeup in PicMonkey, trying to be careful not to go to clown town.
So this was my first foray into taking a serious shot at dark and moody. Whew, I’m exhausted just reliving it! But it was sooo much fun and I’m pretty proud of what I made. And I can’t wait to do it again, but it’ll have to wait…I’m planning to try bright, light and rustic for my next project, so stay tuned!