We are all familiar with the perfectly lit, painstakingly styled studio photos of crisp lettuce or shiny tomatoes like the ones you see in advertising or on food packaging. A new trend has been emerging in food photography for some time now, which is becoming increasingly widespread: The photos are dark with atmospheric light accents on the food and exciting rustic textures. They come across as being honest, spontaneous and have a somewhat melancholy and shabby appeal, making you feel as though you're sitting at an old oak table in the back room of an Italian trattoria having dinner with the padrone. This type of photography has several names: dark and moody, mystic light or also chiaroscuro, an Italian term that originally referred to the strong contrast of light (chiar) and dark (oscuro) in an artwork, famously used in the paintings of Caravaggio or Rembrandt, which creates an intense and often dramatic mood.
As raw and rustic as these photos may appear, they are rarely a spontaneous snapshot. Instead, they require the use of special strategies in the selection of accessories, the food styling, the photography and photo editing. The intention of this article is to give you a few tips on how to do this.
The selection of props, in other words, photo accessories such as plates, cloths or cutlery, is extremely important in mystic light photography. Since the whole idea is to keep the background dark and to place the focus entirely on the food, we select dark accessories in muted colours. The eye is drawn mostly to the lightest area of an image first, which should be the food.
The crockery should ideally appear to have been used and should be as authentic as possible, a touch shabby even, just the right amount to make us perceive the food as appetising in an everyday context. Good places to hunt for these types of accessories are flea markets, online auction houses or even granny's attic. The accessories may also provide interesting structures to look at, such as slightly rusty metal which catches the light a little or coarsely woven linen.
Weathered wood provides an ideal background, for instance, an old table top that somebody has thrown out or the old door from the garden shed. With a little ingenuity, wood stain and a rub, you can make a new shelf from the DIY store look like an antique. Alternatively, you can use an old, large baking tray that has a few signs of rust as a background. Its metallic-blue sheen will provide a lovely contrast to the mostly warmer-coloured food.
With dark and moody food photography, it is essential to avoid making the food look artificial and sterile. Rather, the food should make you believe you could sit down at the table there and then and tuck in. And this is exactly what we do with our tasty models: tuck in. A few crumbs scattered across the table, crumpled serviettes, used cutlery and half-eaten dishes bring the photograph to life. But be careful not to overdo it, otherwise the food soon loses its appeal. Controlled chaos is what you are aiming to achieve here.
For food photography, it is advisable in most cases to work with a tripod. If the lighting conditions are poor, you do not need to increase the ISO sensitivity, which can cause noise to appear in the picture. Instead, you can simply increase the exposure time. In the case of extremely long exposure times, it is helpful to use a remote shutter release or an integrated timer to prevent camera shake. Focusing the camera manually ensures that the image is pin sharp exactly where you want it to be - you can afford this luxury with food, because it does not run away (except perhaps for ice cream) and stays perfectly still.
The lens of my choice for food shoots is the Tamron 90 mm F/2.8 Di VC USD MACRO. It produces razor-sharp images with a wonderfully creamy bokeh and brings the food nicely up close. At the same time, the 90 mm focal length still allows you to get everything in the picture, even if shooting in confined spaces or from above. The maximum aperture of F/2.8 allows you to play around with the depth of field to create the right atmosphere, although for optimum sharpness, I recommend stopping it down one to two levels. If you do not have the option of working with a tripod, use the built-in optical image stabiliser.
My set consists of two old wooden boards, which were raised up by a polystyrene box to the height at which they would catch the daylight coming in through the window on the left. They are not completely at a right angle to the incident light, but angled slightly so that the light comes from behind and off to one side. As a result, it shines through structures such as lettuce leaves and illuminates them. For the mystic light photography, I have pulled back the curtain which otherwise acts as a soft box, for the incident light is allowed to be a little harsher in this case. Which leads me to my next point, namely, light...
Light is the most important factor of all - without light, there are no photos. Light and the manipulation of it is the key to mystic light photography. I try to use natural lighting whenever possible for food photos. I already mentioned earlier that the optimum angle of incidence is at a slight angle from behind as well as the fact that somewhat harsher lighting is required to achieve the dark/light contrasts of dark and moody photography.
The primary aim now is to manipulate the light using reflectors and light absorbers in order to achieve the desired results. In commercial food photography, dark shadows are avoided wherever possible using reflectors - but this is not the case in chiaroscuro photography. This type of photography requires shadows and so the classic setting shown above, with main light from the left and fill light from the right, is not ideal in this case.
In this example, for the sake of comparison, exactly the same setting and the same camera position were used. However, the white reflector on the right was replaced by a light absorber made from black foam rubber. This immediately changes the mood of the photograph and gives it more depth.
You can now set up another light absorber on the side from which the main light is coming, in our case, on the left. However, you need to take care not to throw a shadow onto the entire dish, rather just to add shadow selectively in the background. You have to play around a little here, moving the light absorber forwards and backwards until it's perfect. After all, no two sets are alike. In the sample photo above, you can see clearly that the tin can and the plate are also in shadow in the background, but there is still light on the bagel.
Incidentally, you do not need to buy an arsenal of professional collapsible reflectors. A piece of polystyrene, foam rubber or stiff cardboard sprayed black or white will do the trick just as well.
Pictured here, once again, are all three versions combined into one GIF - with the white reflector, with the black absorber, and with two black absorbers:
To achieve the dark and moody effect, a different approach is also required for photo editing.
As a rule, you should always shoot in RAW file format to ensure that all options are available to you during editing and that you can get the most out of your images without having to put up with any loss in quality.
In mystic light photo shoots, I always slightly underexpose the images with a view to editing - with RAW photos, you can always recover a number of details from dark areas, whereas white, overexposed, blown out image areas are usually lost for good, even in RAW format. Besides, we want a dark and shady atmosphere for our background anyway.
One thing that shouldn't be dark and shady, however, is the food. Mystic light photography is often confused with photos that are simply chronically underexposed. What we are aiming to achieve, however, is a contrast between light and dark. The food should gleam appetisingly and not look like it has been stuck in the attic for 40 years along with the plate!
This is why I prefer to work mostly with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom: This tool lets you apply exposure selectively, as well as any saturation and warmth effects you may need, by "painting" light and colour over your food. This enables you to produce almost surreal dramatic effects, which highlight the food perfectly in the foreground.
Here is another mystic light trick: applying a dark vignette nearly always works. It creates additional drama and draws your attention to the crucial element - the food.
Anyone who is not put off by somewhat more noticeable editing can also try the following: The Split Toning tool allows you to tint the highlights with a warm colour (yellow) and apply the opposite, a cooler colour (blue), to the shadows. This produces a more sombre background without taking any of the colour and warmth away from the lighter-coloured food, thus heightening the contrast.
Nevertheless, the following rule of thumb also applies to processing: Don't overdo it. The food should still belong to its environment and not appear to have fallen from a UFO and landed on the table in the Italian trattoria.
In summary, you should be able to achieve a good mystic light effect using rustic accessories, vibrant food styling, specific manipulation of light and shadow and by applying photo editing effects that intensify the contrasts.
As is the case with all creative disciplines: there are no hard and fast rules. Everybody has their own ideas and there are usually several ways of achieving the same thing. This article is therefore intended to inspire you to experiment yourself and perhaps rediscover food photography through the mystic light style. Have fun!
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