The art and technique of creating brooding food photography using simple techniques and minimal materials.

Food Photography by Don Urban. Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm. 1sec at f/10 ISO 250
Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm. 1sec at f/10 ISO 250

USE NATURAL LIGHT

My biggest tips is to shoot with natural light. It is free, beautiful and (mostly) always there. When you are tired of natural light, you are tired of photography.

Natural light is the easiest and cheapest way to light your photographs. 

Once you harness natural light, and understand how it falls on subjects, your photos will improve immensely. Experiment with reflectors to bounce light onto your subject. Or not. Try a black reflector to produce deep shadows on your subject. Black cardboard works perfectly.

Just position yourself near a window. If you have direct light coming in, you will need to diffuse it with a $500 diffuser- just kidding! A white shower curtain hanging over the window is all you need!

Natural light is easy to use. Just make sure it is not direct sunlight, otherwise the images will be too harsh.

Food Photography by Don Urban Photography

Food Photography by Don Urban. Natural window light from the right, found object background with Bok Choy and vintage French linen from Paris flea markets. Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm

EAT YOUR VEGGIES

You are going to get veggies for the week? Well, they are your subjects for the day. If you go to the local farmers market (and you should support them!), look for produce that is photogenic. That’s right, photogenic. Purple kale, beetroots, potatoes with the dirt still on, mangoes and pomegranates. Look for colour and texture.

The crazy thing is, you will eat differently that week than just buying your standard produce. 

“What will make a great photo?” It’s a great place to start. 

It all starts with good produce. Great looking food is going to make everything a whole lot easier. Limp lettuce or that batch of cookies that you overcooked just ain’t going to help a whole lot!

Speaking of that, I found it hard, but not impossible, to cook and photograph at the same time. If you are doing that, make sure all your photography equipment is set up and ready to go. Working in a team will make it easier. And honestly, a store-bought cake or cookies in not cheating, like a thought it was for so long! 

Food Photography by Don Urban Photography

Food Photography by Don Urban Photography. Eggplants on old linen with natural studio light. Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Pretty much a golden rule in photography: How can I simplify this image, so the subject is the focus? (Not just in focus!)

Refine your narrative. Too many objects in the image, or too many distractions or patterns are just going to confuse the viewer. Solid dark colour or dark, textured backgrounds are going to work best. 

Keep linen or other fabrics simple, neutral and unpatterned. Let the food do the talking.

Food photography by Don Urban

Apples, French linen on old stool and found backdrop. Natural studio window light. Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm.

GETTING DARK AND MOODY WITH PROPS

Old bread boards, black cardboard backgrounds, some white or grey linen, a wooden bowl,  or old jars: these are things you probably have around the house. Utilise those objects before going crazy buying stuff. Charity shops are perfect for picking up single plates, old chopping boards and linen.

Some of my best props were taken from the sidewalk. Look out for council pick-up days. Hell, I even stole a piece of weathered old plywood from a building site it was that good. (I don’t condone or recommend theft…cough, cough) 

Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm

Food Photography by Don Urban

The thing is, to use whatever you have on hand. Kitchen bench? Good. Hand-painted bespoke painted backgrounds? Good for you. Look in junk shops, local charity shops or the back alleys for any suitable flat surfaces. 

One thing though, make sure they are matt. Gloss surfaces will just blow the whole dark and moody vibe.

Keep all you use to muted colours, use black plates if you have, dark backgrounds etc. For this look, white plates are just not going to cut it.

Food Photography by Don Urban Photography 2019

Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm. Large ceramic tile, old chopping board from the side of the road, linen napkins and my lovely handmade Japanese kitchen knife. Except for the knife, total cost $10. 

SHOOTING AND PHOTO EDITING

Use a tripod to take one thing out of the equation. You will now have free hands to arrange your food and props.

There is the choice to shoot with a shallow focus (like f2.8 for example) or as I like, shoot at f22 and get as much in focus as possible. This will make it a longer exposure- which is fine because you are using a tripod. 

Food Photography by Don Urban

Food Photography by Don Urban

To achieve the dark and moody effect, a simple approach is required for photo editing. Generally you will just want to darken the shadows while maintaining the highlights. 

Of course, you should always shoot in RAW file format to ensure that you get the most out of your images without having any loss in image quality. 

Subtlety in editing (like everything in life) is going to be your best friend here. 

I will assume you are familiar with the basic sliders of any photo editor, in my case I will be using Adobe Camera Raw for its pure simplicity (if you want) and its advanced features (if you prefer).

As you can see in the screenshots below, it doesn’t take much to tweak your image just using the basic sliders. For this photo, I brought in a little more contrast, darkened the blacks, used the new ‘Texture’ slider to give it a little more grit,and used the dehaze to bring the contrast nicely into what I envisioned.

At the bottom, the original image that lacks ‘punch’ and contrast- normal for shooting in RAW mode. The top, finished image, is stronger in every way. 

As always, I strongly urge you to only ever desaturate images and never increase saturation. I don’t think any image can be improved by pumping the colours up. But that is just my opinion of course.

Don Urban editing

Jamie Oliver Vegan Donuts. Photography by Don Urban.
Food Photography by Don Urban. Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm. 1sec at f/10 ISO 250
Nikon D750 w/Tamron SP 90mm. 1sec at f/10 ISO 250

I hope this has been of some help and given you some ideas of photographing dark and moody food.

Best wishes until next time,

Don

PS: Most of these images are available to purchase from my Etsy store. Use the coupon ‘WEBSITE’ at checkout to get 20% off!

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