How To Shoot And Edit Dark And Moody Photos

a naked woman poses sensually looking up at the camera in this dark and moody boudoir portrait by Stacey Owen created with Mastin Labs Portra Pushed Presets

“Dark and Moody” and “Light and Airy” are phrases that are frequently tossed around in photographer circles. They describe an overarching look and feel that encapsulates the light, tones, and processing of an image.

There’s an often-repeated misnomer about these photography labels: that they are achieved through post-processing alone. An essential note: what your photo is before post-processing has an absolute relationship to what your photo is after post-processing. Presets and styles aren’t here to make the look; instead, they accentuate. That said, here’s how to make dark and moody images with Mastin Labs.


The shoot is where it all begins. When you’re planning your dark and moody photoshoot, these key points will give you the best raw materials to edit later.


No matter what you’re shooting, no matter what type of look you’re going for, light is everything in photography. It’s the foundation on which your work is built.

“Dark and moody” light has some notable characteristics. It’s dim, directional, and contrasty. It can have a painterly look.

Window light can be a great, accessible tool to achieve this type of lighting. There are some variables to the window you use that effect the light you get.

Windows that face North provide famously beautiful light for portraits, as their position prevents harsh light from spilling directly through them, maintaining softness all day.

If your window faces East or West, on a sunny day, it will produce hard light in the morning or evening, respectively. Hard light can be used to make beautiful photos, but it can be less forgiving than soft light. It’s not to be avoided but takes some getting used to.

The size of your window and its position relative to your subject also affect the lighting of the image. Smaller windows (and light sources in general) will produce more contrasty light, while larger windows and light sources will be less contrasty. Lighting your subject from the front is a less directional look than lighting from the side or the back, and the latter two are better suited to a dark and moody style.

If you’re shooting outdoors, the dim light of late evening into dusk is excellent for a dark and moody look.


For either indoor or outdoor shoots, the location plays a role in the color palette of the image you create, with dark or neutral elements in the frame working in your favor for this look.

Indoors contributing factors can be furnishings and backdrops, while outdoors, you’re working more with scenery and foliage. For outdoor shoots, a mostly-dark scene where the last light of the day illuminates your subject can be great for a dark and moody shoot. So can dark foliage like the natural browns of late fall and winter.


Wardrobe is another aspect that establishes the color palette of your image. While it’s not impossible to create a dark and moody photo if your subject is wearing a light color, dark clothing enhances the effect. Pastels lend themselves more naturally to a light and airy look.

Lens Choice and Depth Of Field

Dark and moody images are often shot with a style that’s more representative of editorial photography than portraiture. While light and airy photos often use a super shallow depth of field and telephoto lenses for dreamy, out of focus backgrounds, dark and moody shots frequently use a wide to normal focal length. The range starts at about 24mm and tops out around 85mm. 35mm and 50mm, in particular, are great focal lengths for a dark and moody photo.

While it’s tempting to open your lens up as far as it will go, resisting that urge and shooting at f/4-5.6 or narrower will help your dark and moody shoot.

However, of all the factors named, this one has the most flexibility to it. The quantity and direction of light, as well as the overall tonality of what you include in the frame, will have a more significant impact on creating a dark and moody look and feel.

“The most important factor to a dark and moody photo happens at the moment you take the photo not the preset.” - Kirk Mastin


This is where you enhance what you made in-camera, and there’s no shortcut to getting here. In the Mastin Labs universe, the best preset packs for the job are Portra Original and Portra Pushed. Fujicolor Pushed and Kodak Gold can be workable. If you try to make a dark and moody edit using Fujicolor Original, you’re in for a world of disappointment.

Equipped with the knowledge of which presets to use, it’s the typical simple Mastin Labs edit for the most part. Apply a preset, adjust exposure, and adjust white balance.

With dark and moody edits, there are two extra considerations to keep in mind. First, while applying a lens correction is a great step for all photos, removing the lens’s natural vignetting can totally change the look of a dark and moody photo.

To keep the distortion correction but dial back the vignetting removal, use the Lens Corrections tab in the develop module. After you’ve applied the lens correction, slide the “vignetting” slider to the left until the vignette looks good.

Second, with the high contrast in many dark and moody photos, the tone profile presets that accompany Mastin Labs preset packs can be your best friend. If your highlights are looking a little hot, try the “highlight soft” tone profile. Shadows blocking up? Try “shadow soft” to bring back detail in the darkest parts of the image. Or, to soften the overall look, use “all soft.”

Now that you know how it’s done get out there and start creating! Then, show us what you make in our Facebook community.

Portra Original for Lightroom

Regular price $129.00

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Mastin Labs Portra Original Presets for Lightroom create clean, warm, deep tones with glowing skin. The Portra Original pack is ideal for natural light portraits, including families, fashion, and fine art.

With the streamlined Mastin 3-Step Workflow™ and end-to-end support from our team, you can finally ditch hours of editing and get back to the moments you live for.

An Adobe Creative Cloud account is required to use our products. The minimum software versions below are required to use this preset pack.

Minimum software version: Lightroom Classic 8.0, Lightroom CC 3.0, Adobe Camera RAW 10.3

Minimum OS version: MacOS 10.11 (El Capitan), Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 version 1511 (64-bit)

Cameras and files: Mastin Labs presets and styles are compatible with all camera brands and raw formats.