How To Shoot Dark & Moody Still Life Photography: 7 Essential Tips

Dark and moody photography, also know as Low Key Photography, can be challenging but also incredibly fun and rewarding. In my first years of photography, I was only shooting images in the bright and airy style, so when I started playing with the dark and moody style I struggled. It took me about two years to really master this style, and I almost gave up along the way.

Today, I enjoy this style so much, and it gives me so much creative joy. So let me share some quick tips to help you get started with dark and moody images. It doesn’t matter if you use your phone camera or a mirrorless/DSLR camera. You can shoot the moody style with any camera, as long as you consider the tips below.

7 Tips For Dark & Moody Still Life Photography

1. Use Good Light

Just because you’re going to create dark and moody images, it doesn’t have to be in a dark room. You can create this style almost everywhere. You still need soft and bright daylight to light up your scene. This will also help you avoid graininess and keep your images sharp and clear.

Soft light is what is preferred for this kind of photography and hence an overcast day can be one of the best days for moody photography. If you are shooting indoors, you can use window light and if the light is a bit harsh, you can diffuse it using curtains, blinds, or other diffusing material.

Look at how light falls and illuminates the subject and then make changes by moving the subject near or far away from the light source to get the desired mood. Using a black reflector will help to absorb light and reduce the amount of light falling on your subject.

2. Experiment with Camera Settings

To achieve the dark and moody look, the most important thing is to not overexpose your image. By nature, dark and moody photos are less exposed than ordinary ones. As a result, you’ll want to slightly underexpose the pictures you take on your camera. When underexposing your photos, try not to go too far. Otherwise, you’ll add unwanted grain and lose important details.

Camera settings to consider when capturing moody images are:

  • Use shallow depth of field to make the subject stand out and soften the background. I often shoot on f/2.8 or f/2.0. This also allows more light into your camera.
  • The higher your shutter speed, the less light will enter your camera. I recommend starting with shutter speed 1/100 and then raise it until you get the look you desire.
  • ISO will help lift the shadows and let in more light – which can be helpful on overcast and rainy days. Use it only if you need it.
  • If you find that autofocus is tricky in low light, then put your camera on a tripod and use manual focus.

3. Stick to a Dark Color Palette

Black, brown, and gray colors are often the staple of dark and moody photography, but you can also experiment with other dark colors, like green and blue, to create moody and atmospheric scenes. Some of my favorite backgrounds are made of wall paper or canvas. Canvas has a fine and natural texture that adds dimension to an image without distracting the viewer from the subject. I often paint them in the desired colors using chalk paint.

When I use wallpaper, I cut out what I need and tape it to the wall with masking tape. This helps change a scene in an instant. Items that you may already have around the house to use as backdrops can be tablecloths, scarves, fabric, cardboards or even a backing tray.

Make sure your choice of props complements the background as well as the surface. You don’t want any color to stick out too much. Be careful to add white plates and cups; instead, go for more beige/brown tones. This will calm the image and make everything blend better in harmony.

4. Embrace Shadows

Shadows are key! They add depth, texture, and drama to your images. Try to use it to your advantage. This will also help you achieve a deeper contrast. Dark and moody photography often relies on high contrast to create an intense atmosphere.

You can add shadows simply by placing a dark object next to your scene. This could be a piece of cardboard, a dark curtain or just a person blocking the light.

5. Use Negative Space

Negative space, or the empty space surrounding your subject, can help create a sense of isolation and moodiness in your images. It’s also a place for the eyes to rest and helps make an interesting composition.

The space around your subject is just as important as your subject, so make sure to give it some attention. Also consider the parts of your image that you most want to bring out and make sure your star is in focus.

If you’re shooting using the camera’s “Live View” function this will help you compose your shots because you can clearly see the overall composition and look.

6: Play with Details

The best dark and moody images often have a story behind them. Think about the emotions and atmosphere you want to tell and experiment with expressing this.

Slow down and take time consider how you can use interesting details and textures to create an atmospheric scene. Do this by paying attention to layers, textures, props and shapes in your scene.

7: Edit Your Photo

Editing is a HUGE part of getting moody style right, but you often only need to do a little to enhance the dark mood in your images. Digital files often look “flat” straight out of the camera. This means that you have to add contrast in post-processing.

You can do this in Lightroom or Photoshop in various ways. You can tweak the contrast slider. Deepen the shadows with the curve tool or level tool. Reduce the highlights and lower exposure if needed. Try playing with white balance to see if your photos looks best with a warm glow or a cooler look. What works best for your scene is often a matter of personal taste.

There are also many great editing apps for smartphones and my favourite is the VSCO app which comes with a bunch of beautiful presets perfect for the moody style. Remember, doing just a little bit of editing can make a significant impact on your photo.

Lastly, have FUN and don’t be afraid of experimenting. When you are learning a new style and new techniques the most important thing is being playfull and allow for charming imperfections.

With love, Christina

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About Christina Greve

Christina Greve is an experienced Photographer, Educator & Mindset Coach with a passion for flowers, decorating & country living. She's the founder of The Lifestyle Photography Academy + The Empowered Creative Show. She provides tools, education and inspiration designed to help multi-passionate women, artists and creative souls find direction, push through self-doubt + make a living doing what they LOVE.She is known for her elegant storytelling photography and draws much of her inspiration from the Nordic countryside, travels, food and still life.Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, blogs and books worldwide. After a decade of working with psychology, Christina's passion for photography evolved into a full-time photography and coaching business.Today she runs a thriving + fast-growing international empire specializing in professional online training, motivating and engaging female photographers, designers, bloggers, makers and creatives. She has coached thousands of fabulous women from more than 40+ countries.With her Podcast "The Empowered Creative," her popular Instagram posts, and quickly sold-out workshops, Christina has become the go-to person for many creatives seeking like-minded sisterhood, real support and heartfelt encouragement.