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How to Achieve Dark and Dramatic Food Portraits

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, you can’t have missed the growth of food portraits. They are everywhere, from the high-budget advertising of supermarkets and artisan food brands to amateur photographers on Instagram.

If you’re even slightly interested in food photography, wherever you look you’ll be presented with sensuous images of beautifully-styled food portraits. From burgers with perfectly placed drippy cheese to vintage-styled cakes laden with fruit, it sometimes seems that the photography world has gone food-mad.

What is a food portrait?

One competition with a food portraiture category says that they want to see images of food that are “good enough to eat.” But a look through their gallery of previous competitions suggests something more.

food portraits
A food portraiture before and after images.

Fujifilm X-T20 | Fujifilm XF 35mm f/1.4 R | 35mm | 1/50 sec | f/8.0 | ISO 200 | Window Light + Reflector

In food portraits, the food is the hero. It’s not about the farmer, the shop, or the packaging; the photograph is unapologetically about the food. And it should make you want to reach right into the picture and take a bite.

There are many styles of food portraits. Sometimes it’s about the hero ingredient and other times it’s about the finished dish. But it’s never about the person who made it or the place the food is being served.

Some photographers love a bright and airy feel to their images. Their shots wouldn’t look out of place in a designer loft apartment. Others prefer a darker-styled shot. And it’s this style that I’m going to focus on in this article.

(If you’d like some inspiration, just search “dark food photography” on Pinterest or Instagram and start scrolling.)

Choosing a subject

Not every piece of food makes for a great subject. If you’re shooting an ingredient before it’s prepared, then don’t be afraid to look for the most perfect or characterful examples you can find in the shop. Every flaw or imperfection will feel like it has been magnified by ten when you photograph it.

Of course, sometimes you might like to deviate from images of perfect ingredients! The potatoes I photographed in the pictures for this tutorial were delightfully gnarled. They come from a period in UK food production called “the hungry gap;” during this time, the last of the winter vegetables are on the table while we wait for the fresh spring produce. Always look for a story in your images.

If you’re planning on shooting a finished dish, then it needs to be plated both beautifully and creatively. This takes practice, and many professional photographers hire food stylists to help them with the job. Don’t be disheartened if it takes a while to get the hang of cooking and plating food that looks good in photographs (besides, you get to eat your attempts while you practice).

food portraits

Take your time composing your scene. As you can see from the screenshot of my Lightroom catalog above, I knew roughly what I wanted from the start, but ended up making many minor adjustments to the potatoes I was photographing.

Don’t forget to think about your props and background. They are as much a part of the shot as the food itself. You can make your images even more unique by painting your own backdrops.

Keep it simple

To shoot dark food portraits, you don’t need an elaborate, complicated, or expensive setup. These potatoes were simply shot on a tabletop with a painted background and a fake wooden surface. There is natural morning light coming from the left-hand side of the image. On the right, I positioned a piece of cardboard with some tinfoil wrapped around it to act as a reflector.

food portraits

Once I’ve shot a photograph that I’m happy with, I like to apply a general Lightroom preset to add contrast and color grade the image. This kind of subtle color grading can really help to set your photo apart.

Changing the color tones in this way is something that people who aren’t photographers often don’t do with their images, and so it adds a more polished look in the eyes of many viewers.

Take it to Photoshop

Once I’ve set the basic color that I want in Adobe Lightroom, I open the image in Photoshop. Photoshop lets you use layers, which ultimately allows you to have greater control over the image you are creating.

Apply sharpening

The first thing I always do when I’m opening an image in Photoshop is apply some gentle sharpening. It just crisps up all the details so that you can get to work.

food portraits

My method for this initial sharpening is to first duplicate the background layer. You’ll need to get a copy of your image onto a new layer in order for this method to work. You can right-click on the existing layer in the layers panel and choose “Duplicate Layer.”

Apply a high pass filter with a radius of about 1.5 on the new layer that you just created. The high pass filter is found in the “Filter” menu (look in “Other” at the bottom of the list). The radius you need will vary, but if you look closely at the image above, you’ll see that the “ghost” of the image is barely visible when you preview the effect that the high pass filter is having.

Once you’ve done this, set the layer’s blend mode to “Overlay,” and you should see the effect of the high pass filter that you just applied.

Dodge and burn

You can make dark food photographs really come alive by using dodge and burn creatively, and that’s the technique at the heart of the example image above.

food portraits

Rather than using the dodge and burn tools built into Photoshop, try this method instead. First, create two new layers. Name one “Dodge” and one “Burn.” In the “New Layer” dialogue box, make sure that you check the option to fill the layer with an overlay-neutral colour and set the blending mode to “Overlay.”

Then, using a soft brush set to 100% opacity but with a low (2-3%) flow, you can start to bring the image to life. Use a black brush on the burn layer to deepen the shadows and a white brush on the dodge layer to brighten the highlights.

Go gently and try not to lose too much detail! The trick with dodging and burning is to build up the effect slowly. Use brushes and layers like a painter uses light and shadow to shape the food portraits that you have photographed.

food portraits
Before and after dodging and burning.

You can always turn down the opacity of a layer if you go too far, or you can even delete it and start again altogether. If there’s just a small bit that you’re not happy with, you can apply a layer mask and just mask out that small section.

Finishing the food portrait

To finish off the image, I added a digital texture to the background and faded it until it was almost invisible. It had the effect of softening the painted backdrop slightly, which is a look I preferred.

food portraits

This basic approach of editing colors in Lightroom (perhaps using a preset), sharpening the image in Photoshop, and then dodging and burning the photograph is one that can be applied to many different kinds of photographs.

I’ve used the same approach in architectural photography as well as portraits, but I feel that it really shines as a technique when it comes to dark and dramatic food portraits.

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Charlie Moss
Charlie Moss

is UK based photography journalist with experience shooting everything from historically inspired portraits to e-commerce photography. Her passion is history of art, especially contemporary culture and photography. You can follow her on Instagram or catch her over at Patreon to find more of her teaching and mentoring resources!

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