Capturing and Editing Dark and Moody Photography


Notable for its deep and dramatic tones, moody images are always captivating in their own ways. On one hand, dark and moody is the way to go when your shots don’t have good lighting. On the other, it’s the way to go when you want to create dramatic images with deep and intense emotions. Either way, it’s a vibe that today’s businesses are beginning to embrace.

The shadow-cast ocean at golden hour. Image via Pedro Fonseca Giafferis.

Shutterstock’s 2021 color trends includes tidewater green, a shade that definitely adds moodiness in a photo. But, this is so much more than a color trend. Moody processing or moody photography is here to prove that even when toning down the lighting, you can still end up with emotive and striking images that captures one’s attention and makes a statement. And, we’re going to deep-dive into how you can create exactly that.


On Camera

Create a Concept

A good image is all about having a good concept. No matter how perfect the lighting is or how expensive your gear is, if you didn’t spend enough time conceptualizing your shoot, you still won’t get the kind of images you’re hoping for. That applies to moody photos, as well. Whether you’re planning to shoot outdoors or in a studio, it’s best to allot energy and time in formulating the concept of your images.

Create Emotive Images
In order to create a solid story, it must involve emotions. Image via everst.

Keep in mind that photography is an artform. It’s a way to tell a story. And, for a story to be good, it needs to have emotions.

This is one thing many photographers often miss. Don’t just focus on what stays in the frame and what doesn’t, or what angle you want to shoot. Those, too, are important. But, so are the emotions you pack into every still frame.

Shooting Wide Open Makes Soft Photos

Shallow Depth of Field
Create moody images using a shallow depth of field. Image via Krivosheev Vitaly.

Large aperture, or commonly referred to as an open aperture, helps a lot in creating moody images. It gives you a shallow depth of field, a great element to have for this kind of shoot. Using a shallow depth of field simply means you will have a smaller area put in focus. This will blur the background but will keep the focused part of your image crisp—exactly what you want. For some, they may call this “dreamy feels,” which is quite accurate. Blurred background plus smaller, solid focus subject plus good lighting is definitely dreamy. And, as much as possible, have only one subject in your photo so you can really capitalize on the beauty of a wide open aperture.

Consider Dark Backgrounds

Add a Dark Background
Create a moody feeling with a dark, moody background. Image via Frankie and Marília.

When prepping a shot list or conceptualizing your images, it’s best to go for dark backgrounds, mainly because they look perfect for moody shots. If you check Instagram for #folkphotography or the many other folk hashtags, you will notice that a lot of them are forest shots. This is because, while it’s an outdoor shoot, forests are basically greens and browns. These dark shades give that good moody feeling.

For indoor shoots—be it at home or in a studio—you have more control and it’s advisable to opt for a darker background. It doesn’t always have to be black or blue, nor does it always have to be plain, but knowing the background shade to use is helpful in achieving the outcome you want.

Know Your Lights

Experiment with Lighting
Make the most of your lighting. Image via Philippe Degroote / Addictive Creative.

Lights are super fun to play with. However, the thing about lighting is that it can be fun and challenging at the same time. Natural lights are harder to control, so you may want to shoot late afternoon during sunset. Yes, we’re talking about the golden hour. When manipulated correctly, it can give your image that darkness and dramatic effect every moody image needs. If you have access and if it fits the concept, you may also want to shoot at a location where there are dark shades, like thick, green leaves.

When doing an indoor shoot, seek a good source of natural light such as windows. This time, you don’t necessarily have to wait for late afternoons. But, you do have to know where to position your subject and where to position the camera. One directional light source is what you’re aiming for, having it cast on the side of your subject. Other light gears—like ring lights and fairy lights—can also help, especially if you’re really nailing the dark setting.


On Editing

Ease on the Exposure

Experiment with Camera Settings
For a moody vibe, play around with your camera settings. Image via kizuuuneko.

Dropping down the exposure is a good start to playing around with your camera settings to get a moody vibe. By doing so, you’ll notice that it’ll darken the image, which is what you’re aiming for. This step is pretty easy and always feel free to play around with the exposure tool in whatever editing software you’re using. But, despite it being a pretty easy step, it’ll have a massive impact on the moodiness of your shot.

Don’t Be Afraid to Use the Shadow Tool

Experiment with the Shadow Tool
Don’t be afraid to experiment with the shadow tool. Image via Andrea Quintero Olivas.

Another editing tool to play around with is the shadow tool. Obviously, this is all about adding or lessening the shadows in your image. Often, we’re too afraid to play around with the shadow tool, but for this type of image vibe, it’s highly advisable. Consider the shadow tool your new best friend. However, keep in mind that you’re aiming for moody, not just dark. You still want to preserve a good amount of light and color in your image.

And Also Vignette

A Vignette Background
The vignette tool can add a classic touch to any image. Image via FXQuadro.

We don’t use the vignette tool as often as others in basic editing, but it’s there because it helps. And, it can help create a dramatic effect on your image. This tool often works best for portrait shots—not so much on landscape shots. It’s just a matter of exploring and learning what tool works well for the kind of image you’re editing and what doesn’t.

Avoid Too Much Contrast

Add Contrast
Create that dark, dramatic vibe through contrast. Image via LanaUst.

Lastly, we have the contrast. You’ll find this tool on Photoshop or Lightroom or basically any other photo editing software there is. And for good reason—contrast is super helpful in giving an image the effect you want it to have. For a dark and dramatic vibe, you’d want to dial down on the contrast and pay more attention to the shadows. This, of course, depends on the lights, shades, and overall look of your image. When necessary, don’t be afraid to increase the contrast a bit.


Cover image via Krivosheev Vitaly.

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