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

The phrase “dark and moody” is frequently tossed around in photographer circles. But what does it mean? Dark and moody describes an overarching look and feel that encapsulates the light, tones, and processing of an image.

There’s a misnomer about these photography labels, which is 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. 

Don’t depend on presets and styles to make the look. Instead, use them to accentuate what you create. That said, here’s how to make dark and moody images and accentuate them with Mastin Labs presets.

Mastin Labs dark and moody checklist

THE DARK AND MOODY PHOTOSHOOT

The shoot is where all the magic begins. When you’re planning your dark and moody photoshoot, there are key points to follow so you can get the best raw materials to edit later. Those include light, location, wardrobe, and ​​lens choice, and depth of field. We’ll dive into how you can nail each aspect so you can create the dark and moody photos you desire.

Light

No matter what you’re shooting, no matter what type of look you’re going for, light is everything in photography. It’s the basis for everything; 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 is a great, accessible tool to achieve this type of lighting. There are some variables to the window you use that influence 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. You don’t need to avoid it altogether, but it 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 contrasting light, while larger windows and light sources will be less contrasty. 

Lighting your subject from the front creates 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.

portrait of a woman sitting by a window looking towards it with her eyes closed

Photo Credit: Artagnan Winford Preset: Portra 400+1 

Locations for Dark and Moody Portraits

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.

Indoor contributing factors can be furnishings and backdrops. Items that fit the dark and moody aesthetic include:

  • Vintage
  • Dark backdrops
  • Items that cast a shadow
  • Worn metal for modest highlights

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.

Dark and Moody Wardrobe

You can also use wardrobe to establish 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.

Jewel tones are great for a dark and moody aesthetic because they add color and interest without taking away from the overall style of the photo. Think royal blue, emerald green, crimson.

Lens Choice and Depth Of Field to Create a Dark and Moody Look

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

wedding party celebrates by throwing hats in the air as couple kisses

Photo Credit: Marcos Valdes  Preset: Portra 160+1

Editing for a Dark and Moody Look

The editing process 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. Fuji Pushed and Gold 200 from Adventure Everyday can be workable. If you try to make a dark and moody edit using Fuji 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, using our Mastin Three-step Workflow™ for the most part. Apply a preset, adjust exposure, and adjust white balance.

BUT, 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 of Lightroom. 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.”

As long as you’ve done the work during the shooting and editing process, you’ll end up with the darky and moody vibe that you’re going for. 

married couple touches foreheads in front of a dark cliff on their wedding day
Photo Credit: Colby Moore  Preset: Portra 800

Get Dark and Moody with Your Photos

If you’ve been excited to create some dark and moody photos, now’s the time. After reading this, you have all the tools you need to shoot and edit this aesthetic. 

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

Dark and moody not your aesthetic? Read How to Edit Light and Airy Style in Lightroom. 

Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
Portra Original for Lightroom - Mastin Labs - Portra Original for Lightroom
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Portra Original Lightroom Desktop Presets

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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.