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How to Make Dark Aesthetic Photos

It is in the interplay of light and shadow that the art of photography thrives. While composition and posture are important factors in creating a photograph, our use of light and shadows will ultimately determine the shot’s overall look and feel. Light and airy photographs, for example, are likely to be recognizable to you because they often feature flat light with low shadows. The flattering approach is one that photographers employ on a frequent basis in a wide range of images. However, on the other end of the lighting spectrum are dark artistic photographs that rely more heavily on shadows to create a striking visual impression. As more photographers grow adept at managing and changing light both in-camera and in post-production, this style has experienced an increase in popularity.

As a way of introducing you to this amazing, low-key style of photography, I’ve put up a list of photography ideas for dark and moody portraits that you can use for any type of portraiture, from engagements and weddings to maternity photos, fitness photos, and even landscape photos.

Dark Aesthetic Photography Tips for Moody Pictures

  • Use the Best Gear for the Job
  • Shoot Raw and Expose to the Left…or Right
  • Keep Your Subject Brighter than the Ambient Light
  • Know When to Shoot

Tip 1: Use the Best Gear for the Job

Dark aesthetic photographs are more about how we use or adjust light than they are about the specific equipment we use, yet each piece of equipment we use can have an impact on the ultimate product of our dramatic portraits. Here are some of my favorite pieces of photography equipment for capturing melancholy images:

Camera Body and Lenses

  • Camera body: While a smartphone can be used to take dark and aesthetically pleasing images, it may be limited in terms of maximizing the dynamic range in your photographs. Even a workhorse camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV can only capture a limited number of shadow and highlight details, which we want to keep in order to have more flexibility during post-production. However, even a workhorse camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV can only capture a limited number of shadow and highlight details. A mirrorless camera like the Canon EOS R5 or R6, the Nikon z6 or z7, the Sony Alpha a7 IV, or the Canon EOS R6 would be preferable in this situation, if the money allows (or any comparable mirrorless body). Of course, I’m not advocating that you go out and buy a new camera body in order to experiment with this method. I simply believe that these solutions will provide you with the finest outcomes.

  • Lenses: Any focal length will suffice for photographing dark and sombre portraits, but I favor wide angle prime lenses in the 24mm to 35mm range, with the rare 50mm lens thrown in for good measure. Two things are possible because of the wider angle. First and foremost, I have the ability to capture environmental pictures in a single frame, which is particularly useful for dark and moody photographs. When I go in closer for medium or tight shots, I can also employ a wide perspective to make the viewer feel more “in the action.” I also explain that I prefer to use prime lenses for this method since I appreciate the look of a shallow depth of focus when photographing people.

Lighting Options for Dark Aesthetic Pictures

  • Lighting: You can capture dark aesthetic photographs in natural light if you know how to handle your angles and exposure (which we’ll cover in more detail below), but adding a little light via flash can open up a whole new world of creative possibilities. Again, portability is essential so that you can concentrate on taking the shot rather than worrying about the limits of your surroundings. The B10 flash unit from Profoto is my go-to light when I’m on the go. In reality, you can utilize whatever on-camera or off-camera flash setup you already have available to you.
  • Choosing Light Modifiers: There are many different types of light modifiers to pick from, but for this method, we’ll want to concentrate on those that allow us to adjust light direction while also limiting light spill. Whenever I use a softbox, I use Profoto’s 3′ RFi Softbox Octa (with baffle) or the MagBox (both with grid options), both of which are available from Amazon. In order to gain more control over your lighting while working with a smaller flash unit that does not include a softbox, search for grids, flags, and snoots. I recommend that you maintain a 5-in-1 Reflector on hand for usage in any situation, whether you’re using natural light or strobes.

Other Accessories

A tripod is recommended whenever you’re shooting in low light, which is likely to be the case when utilizing this approach. A tripod will help to reduce the amount of camera shake that occurs while shooting at reduced shutter speeds. Make sure you have something lightweight and portable with you, such as a Peak Design Travel Tripod, to save the inconvenience of lugging around extra equipment. I’ve used one on a number of on-location productions, including ones for Adorama’s YouTube channel, and I’m planning on using it on more.

Tip 2: Shoot Raw and Expose to the Left…or Right

When taking dark aesthetic photographs, it is beneficial to record raw image files in order to have greater freedom in post-production. When working with a compressed file, such as a jpeg, you simply won’t be able to recover as many details as you would otherwise. Also crucial is understanding how your camera operates so that you can make informed decisions about whether to expose to the left or right (based on the histogram) in order to maintain sufficient information. It’s easy to understand if you’re not familiar with this concept, which is as follows:

  • The term “exposure to the left” refers to the fact that we will limit the amount by which we underexpose our image in order to avoid clipping our shadows, even if this means that we will blow out some highlights. If your camera (such as a Canon DSLR) only does a mediocre job of keeping shadows, you can use this method to prevent the ugly noise and colors that result from elevating your underexposed shadows in post-processing mode.

  • Make sure that all of the highlights are kept by exposing to the right. This may necessitate cutting some shadows in order to achieve this result. Some Sony and Nikon mirrorless cameras are fine for this because they tend to perform well when it comes to maintaining shadow details, even when the photographs are underexposed, thus it is acceptable to do so.

If you expose to the right or left, keep in mind that the overall goal is to retain as much details in both the shadows and the highlights as you possibly can. Looking at the back of your camera, on the other hand, can make it difficult to evaluate whether or not you’ve achieved the maximum dynamic range. As a result, I recommend that you switch on your histogram and highlight alert, and that you refer to them during the shooting session.

Tip 3: Keep Your Subject Brighter than the Ambient Light

It is our use of shadows, and more specifically, how we use shadows in relation to our topic, that is responsible for most of the drama in our imagery (albeit not fully). Capturing dark aesthetic photographs is most effective when the subject of the photograph is substantially brighter than the surrounding ambient environment. In both natural and flash photography, we can obtain spectacular images with the same results.

If you’re looking for a way to alter how bright or dark the ambient light in your background is, you can make basic modifications. In order to begin, you must adjust the distance between your subject and the light source. The greater the distance between your subject and the light source, the more you’ll need to increase the brightness of the light or increase the ISO setting in order to properly expose for your subject. If you opt to increase your ISO, however, the overall exposure will rise as a result of the increased ISO. If you watch the movie below, you will be able to see this theory in action as we use a homemade strip box to produce dramatic portraits. Take a look at it.

Tip 4: Know When to Shoot

There’s a considerable probability that you’ll identify night photography with images that have a dark vibe to them. In actuality, we can make dark and sombre portraits at any time of the day with our lighting equipment. Having said that, shooting in low light is critical in the creation of this sort of photography. It is as a result possible that some times of day are more conducive to taking moody photographs, particularly depending on whether or not you intend to use natural light or flash. You can create more dramatic portraits with natural light if you photograph your subject closer to sunrise or sunset (also known as golden hour). If you photograph your subject closer to sunrise or sunset (also known as golden hour), you will be able to take advantage of natural light direction and the resulting shadows for more dramatic portraits. You may achieve dramatically diverse appearances when photographing with natural light at this time of day depending on how you position yourself and your subjects in respect to the sun.

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