Dark and moody photography style - how to light, shoot & edit it

Dark and moody photography style – how to light, shoot & edit it

Dark and moody photography style

What is a dark and moody photography style?

Dark and moody photography is a style of photography for any genre, but is particularly prevalent in portrait photography. Many portrait photographers describe their photography style as either dark and moody or light and airy.

To create images in the dark and moody photography style you don’t need a lot of equipment. All you actually need is a camera and a bit of knowledge on how to create dark photos any time of day.

Of course photographing at night is ideal for dark photography, but it absolutely does not need to be dark outside for dark photos. Plus, dark photography can be done indoors or outdoors.

But before we get into the how of dark and moody photography, also referred to as dark photography or low key photography, we first need to understand that it doesn’t mean underexposed. There’s more skill to the dark and moody photography style than that.

There’s also no cookie cutter way to create a dark and moody photo, but there are 5 basic guidelines. More on the how later.

Quality of light for shadows in photos

I took these photos 2 minutes apart with different camera settings and lighting. The dark and moody image on the left was lit from the front with diffused off camera flash, for the image on the right the rising sun came out to camera right. They were also processed differently in Lightroom.

PS – these photos are actually a good example of how there’s no 1 way to create moody photos. Read on to see why the lighting is unusual for a dark and moody photo.

What does moody mean in photography?

All photographs should create some sort of emotional response in the viewer so that they can engage with the image. It’s up to the photographer to create the mood in the image:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Exciting
  • Romantic
  • Adventure

However, while a mood is conveyed in a photo, it doesn’t mean that all photos are what is described as moody. For example a light and airy photograph, the opposite of dark and moody, has an uplifting, joyous mood conveying a feeling of summer and even innocence.

On the other hand, the dark and moody photography style conveys deep emotions:

  • Passion
  • Mystery
  • Intrigue
  • Mystique

This is why it’s my favourite photography style, particularly for boudoir photography.

Low key lighting dark photograph

How do you take dark moody pictures?

You can photograph at any time of day for dark and moody photos – broad daylight or at night. So it’s not necessarily about how light the scene is, or whether you’re photographing with natural light or flash. The dark photography style is created using a combination of factors:

  • Color
  • Light
  • Capture deep shadows
  • Camera settings
  • Editing photos in Lightroom or similar software

Don’t worry, you don’t have to use all these elements for every dark and moody photo!

1. Color for dark and moody photography style

When considering color for a dark photograph you need to think about:

Background

If you think dark and moody images of a bright sunny beach or virgin snow don’t spring to mind. You need a dark background to set the scene. This doesn’t mean black.

A dark forest in the background is the perfect background, or a heavily overcast sky with dramatic clouds. Anything with subdued, darker colors immediately makes it easier to create moody photographs.

Subject color

It’s not essential that your subject is wearing dark clothes, but again, dark colors do make it easier to create a dark and moody image.

So if your subject is wearing red for example, it should be a deep red, as opposed to a bright and cheery red. Not only will it make the image darker, it adds to the mood of the photo, which is the essential ingredient.

In the images below, for an even moodier impact, a darker color top would have been better.

Portrait Lighting for dramatic portraits

One light was used to camera left for the first image. For the other two I added a rim light to camera right, which also spilled onto the background, making it lighter and the images less moody. While the middle image has a lighter background, the split lighting pattern on her face is dramatic, which amplifies the mood. By angling her body and her face towards the light for the image on the right the drama is reduced with fewer shadows, making it the least moody photo of the three. 

2. Light for moody photographs

How the subject is lit is critical to a dark and moody image. It would be easy to say light a subject this way and you’d have a dark and moody image, but that’s not the case at all. It’s a combination of lighting factors that creates a moody photography style.

Direction of light

It makes sense that for a dark and moody feel you need shadows. So for dark photography most often subjects are lit from behind or the side as this creates shadows on the subject.

Further reading:
Direction of light – how to use side light
Backlight photography tips for magical photos
Rim light – the simple technique behind dramatic photos

Portrait lighting patterns

In portrait photography, because of the drama and shadows of Rembrandt lighting, it’s ideally suited to moody photography, as is split lighting.

Further reading: 

Rembrandt lighting – what is it and how is it set up?

What is split lighting in portrait photography – how to use it and why

Backlight vs front light for dark photography style

The lighting and camera settings were the same for both images, taken seconds apart. The difference is my position changed. On the left she is between me and the light, so she is backlit. On the right the light is behind me, so she is is front lit. The moody vibe of the left image would have been improved if the white cupboard and chair in the background had been dark colors.

3. Shadows of a dark and moody photography style

The most important aspect of lighting for moody photos is the contrast between light and dark in the image. For dark and moody photography style you need to have deep shadows. It’s the shadows that create the mood.

Remember, our eyes are far better than our cameras at seeing details in both the light areas and dark areas of a scene at the same time. This is dynamic range and we have a wider dynamic range of about 20 stops, whereas a high end camera can only go as far as 15 stops. An old or entry level camera might only manage 8 or 10 stops.

This apparent inadequacy of cameras is the key to moody photos and understanding that our cameras see differently helps us to create images with beautifully dark shadows that we wouldn’t otherwise see. So take advantage of it!

Further reading: What is dynamic range in photography exposure?

So, the highlights can indeed be very light, but the shadows need to be deep. To achieve this you need to expose for the highlights and let the dark areas fall to shadow.

Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

4. Camera settings for dark and moody photography style

Shooting mode

When it comes to camera settings the best shooting mode is manual mode to be in control and effectively capture a dark and moody scene. Your camera will try to create an even exposure. It doesn’t want dark shadows and bright highlights.

However, if you’re not comfortable with manual mode, you can still use program, aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode. You’ll just have to use exposure compensation as well. Whatever you do, though don’t use auto mode, rather switch to program mode. In auto mode you have no control over your camera and you can’t use exposure compensation.

Using exposure compensation allows you to override the camera’s desire to aim for 18% gray, rather than allow bright highlights or dark shadows.

Further reading: How and when to use exposure compensation

Metering mode

I use spot metering probably 99% of the time. For dark photography I highly recommend using spot metering, if you’re not using a light meter to measure the light, and meter the light area that you want correctly exposed. In the case of portrait photography this would most often be the subject’s face.

If you use matrix metering the camera will again try to even out the exposure across the entire image, which will not result in a dark and moody photo. Remember, your camera doesn’t like deep shadows.

Further reading: When to use spot metering?

Editing in Lightroom for dark photography

The same photo processed differently in Lightroom to change the mood of the photo. On the right I increased whites and highlights, lightened shadows and blacks and raised the midtones slightly with the tone curve. For the image on the left I used a classic S curve in the tone curve and also decreased shadows and blacks.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

5. Editing in Lightroom for dark and moody photography style

There’s a lot that you can do in post production to further enhance the moodiness of a dark and moody image. So much in fact that you can take quite a dull, flat lit image and create a dark and moody vibe.

How much you do or don’t do depends on the outcome you’d like to create and of course every photo is different, so will require different adjustments, depending on the scene’s colors, light and dynamic range. Whatever your starting point, there are some basics for processing photos in Lightroom (or similar software) for dramatic portraits (or any other genre).

  • Increase highlights and whites
  • Decrease shadows and blacks
  • Shift the yellow hue slider down to make the greens more brown
  • Desaturate yellows, greens and blues
  • Create contrast with an S-curve in the tone curve panel
  • Fade the blacks using the tone curve panel
  • Add a subtle vignette

Further reading: 3 quick ways to dodge and burn in Lightroom Classic

Dark and moody edit in Lightroom

Processed image on the left, using the Lightroom tweaks listed above, and on the right is the image straight out of camera.

Conclusion – How do you make a dark shadow in a photo?

  • Consider the colors of the scene and your subject
  • Position your subject with the light coming from behind or the side
  • Use spot metering and expose for the light areas
  • Photograph in manual mode or use exposure compensation
  • Adjust contrast in Lightroom
Dark and moody photography style

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