IN COLLABORATION with my professional guest, Mats Dreyer

Most of us are quite obsessed with Dark and Moody food photography and styling. I personally love to do these scenes in comparison to light and airy, because my eyes love the vibrant deliciousness against these dark tones.

But how do dark and moody scenes conquer the food photography world?

After the overly clean and bright shots and modern-design-ruled food-related visual collections, restaurant menus, ads, and recipe card illustrations, a new trend came in place when stylists started to re-discover the vibes of the great Dutch artists' still life paintings, and the beauty of the rustic, texture-rich environment, and apply this mood to the modern ways we preserve the moment instead of the canvas... more likely on SD cards.

Get the Best Out of It

  • The moody feel comes with definite shadows, directional lighting techniques, and contrast.
  • Experiment with the distance between your hero and the light source to find the right size of shadow-highlight proportion.
  • Try and create a spotlight effect by directing and blocking the light, this will elevate your dish to superhero level by creating a good contrast against the rest of the dark tones and the light area of the image where your hero is placed, so it will get the first attention from all viewers.
  • In this case, dark, or even harsh shadows are your friends, allow dark tones to thrive on the scene, do not kill them by adding too much fill light by a white card, and do not even go the other way, where everything turns to pitch black because that way you will lose the shadows which means you lose the 3-dimensionality of your photo too!
  • Do not feel the pressure of styling food on the high-end advertising level. Go with the good old editorial style, bite into the deliciousness presented, leave the crumbs around, place the cutleries randomly on the table.
  • By using the right props and backdrops, your hero dish can truly stand out! This styling path does not mean that you cannot include light food such as a cheesecake, souffle, or a Pina Colada. Use dark, textured props, and by doing so you did the biggest part of creating a Dark and Moody image. Vintage metal items will give you beautifully modest highlights without overpowering your hero.
  • Vibrant colors pop against the dark environment, so let those greens, yellows, reds, and purples play the main role on the stage of your studio!
  • Sauces, honey, icing, chocolate, and many other beautiful toppings will catch amazing specular highlights that definitely catch everyone's eyes!
  • As with any other photos, make these images more interesting by adding a movement. Read more about the tricks and tips about adding a human element to your food photos in this blog post.
Semla Hetvägg - Photo by © Reka Csulak

Semla Hetvägg - Photo by © Reka Csulak

Exercise: Dark and Moody Food Photography

Next time, when you are planning a photoshoot, try Dark and Moody styling:

  • Select dark backdrops and rustic props, texture is everything in this case!
  • Do not be afraid of shadows
  • Create an eye-catching contrast between the hero and the surrounding area
  • Just because we are creating Dark and Moody scenes, it does not mean that they need to be overly dark! Make sure to get the hero perfectly exposed.
  • Play with the lighting of the surrounding area around the hero, by using black flags to block and direct the light.
Cocoa Coconut Roll - Photo by © Reka Csulak

Cocoa Coconut Roll - Photo by © Reka Csulak

I invited a professional photographer friend to process this topic by digging deeper into the topic of dark and moody food photography, so welcome Mats Dreyer on board!

Who are you and what is your photography specialty? 

Photography specialty is pretty easy, that's food and always been! But we can start from the beginning. My name is Mats Dreyer, born and raised as a Viking in Norway, the capital. (I actually did take a DNA test for fun, I'm 100% Scandinavian). I've always been interested in drawing and computers. I'll skip my boring few years and just take you back approx 5 years. I've worked a bit freelance within the gaming industry in my early years and it gradually turned over to graphic design. I ended up designing a few cookbooks, which I guess kickstarted my career as a food photographer and stylist. Being able to be on photoshoots, watching stylists, chefs and photographers work together to create something eyecatching was always fun.

I started experimenting as a stylist on my own time, buying in a few props or use the ones I had at hand. I was terrible! so please don't scroll to the bottom of my Instagram, you have been warned!

The only problem I had, as I wasn't great at taking photos, so it was hard to show off any skills as just a stylist (yes my plan was to only be a stylist) that's where learning photography comes into play. I must say working with lights, shapes and textures in the gaming industry really helped, so learning photography didn't take long at all. It also helps if you have a natural eye for it. But this can be taught!

I've worked with a lot of chefs, done a few cookbooks as a stylist and photographer. I feel like a photographer you should have more feet to stand on, so picking up a few skills from stylists or graphic designers really helps to bring in more work, be more versatile towards your client. It always amazes some clients when you know multiple skills and they can get everything from one person.

Now I work as a fulltime photographer and stylist with my own studio in Oslo. I've also picked up ceramics in my spare time which is really fun and totally different from what I usually do! I've always liked creating things with my hands, so this is something I will probably end up doing when I'm 90 years old.

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Dark and Moody photography is a great way to present a certain mood. What messages or feel do you normally deliver to your viewers by using this popular styling and photography method?

I remember when I first started doing professional photography and I fell naturally within the dark and moody theme, I got constantly heard that dark and moody is overused, it has already been done, etc. But I guess that can be said about every photography style.

It's more of what you bring to the table yourself. You have the classic dark moody food shots, but if you bring your style/touch to these images, they can really stand out from the crowd. I don't think I deliver some type of message to my viewers, it's just something that really fitted my type of style. But I love how fast a photo can change when it comes to dark mood, either from soft shadows, hard shadows, lines, backlight, sidelight, spot, etc. I don't feel I get the same when I'm doing lighter photography. so versatility is the keyword here.

My biggest inspiration when starting out was actually Katie Quinn. She also had a background as a graphic designer and also worked as a photographer and stylist. It was very fun when she ended up contacting me! (her biggest fan) and wanted to do a workshop together!

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Is there any prop or colour that many photographers afraid to use on Dark and Moody images but it works perfectly according to your experience?

Ah yes, props question! if you want to be a stylist/photographer you need 745kg with rusted forks, spoons, plates! just kidding of course! I own a lot of different types of props, but most of it is 80% rusty, dark, metal or dark wood.

I thought at first I'm going a bit overboard with my purchases, but there's a big market for dark photography shots with these types of props, so keeping a few of these at hand is always a plus!

Sidetracked to your question a bit fast there, when it comes to props/color and being afraid to use a certain prop or color, I'm mediately drawn to the word NO, don't be afraid to use anything. In the end, it always comes down to the type of work you are doing. Let's say you are during a dark moody photography, let's say a fresh pasta dish, you probably wouldn't put in a big red cup next to it, but this is something that comes with learning, and obviously most of the time you see fast that something takes way to much focus from the star itself (the dish).

So I would say, just experiment, have fun and you can always learn a lot from Pinterest. I've stayed away from those youtube videos where they 'teach' you styling with props etc. I wanted to learn by myself, see what works and what doesn't work, I think this is really important, so you don't fall into 'the regular' category (am I allowed to be so blunt`?) There's a lot of photographers that are missing that little extra touch. So get inspired but don't copy! I did it once, I still feel ashamed!

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

What are the main camera settings you focus on when capturing a Dark and Moody scene?

I'll be sending you my pdf with 47 pages on this. Just kidding!

This also highly changes depending on the look and light, diffuse background or sharp background. I do most of my work with studio lights. 70% its just one key light and a filler card. But I do a lot (!) of editing in Lightroom and some Photoshop, this is mostly because I love doing after work on my images, this goes towards my clients as well.

I think it's very important to be able to edit and use Photoshop as a photographer. So if you don't know Photoshop, learn it now!

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Which editing software do you use during post-processing? What main adjustments do you make on Dark and Moody photos?

Lightroom! Lightroom! I've used most of the editing software out there. Remember I was stuck with Capture one when I worked in an advertising company, dreadful. but it comes down to YOUR workflow and what you are comfortable using.

The only plus side with Capture one is the live view...but you got a screen on your camera so no big deal.

When it comes to settings I use contrast, blacks, maybe tone down the highlights a bit, depending on the light.

Exposure, depending on your light as well. A tiny bit of Clarity and contrast mixed can give it that touch of a dramatic look.

But brushes are your best friend when editing, where you can control the tiniest thing.

When I do Instagram shoots, things that I know won't go to print for sale, I edit pretty quickly with my own made presets, and just change some settings to what I want to achieve. I didn't bother to learn setting up my own presets until a year or two, I downloaded a few presets. But making your own, based on how you mostly shoot images, is just amazing! speeds up your workflow.

You can see a photo below of a dish before and after with edits only from lightroom, and you can see how drastically you can change a photo with edits. This was one of those nights I threw something fast together and didn't really care for the light, and just edited it to my feeling. I don't do this often, just when I want to post something I made/was having for lunch, and my setup was already rigged for something else.

So, learn how to edit! don't just take good pictures and do nothing and send to your clients.

'Experiment' is the keyword here!

RAW Pasta Image - Photo by © Mats Dreyer

RAW Pasta Image - Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Edited Pasta Image - Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Edited Pasta Image - Photo by © Mats Dreyer

Be sure you check out the other masterpieces of Mats by visiting his

Show me your food photos by tagging @rekacsulaK on your social media posts.