When it comes to shooting boudoir there are two main looks photographers generally operate in — light and airy or dark and moody. There’s an in-between look as well, which is somewhat of a hybrid of those two, but overall boudoir photographers will plant their flag in one of those two camps.
In this article we’ll explore in great detail how to shoot dark and moody boudoir images using natural light. There are other ways to achieve this look using a strobe or speed light, but we’ll save that topic for another day. Right now, it’s all about using natural light.
I’ll also be going over the three most important adjustments to use when fine tuning your dark and moody images in Lightroom or Photoshop. But first, let’s identify the different characteristics that make up dark and moody boudoir images.
Characteristics of Dark and Moody Boudoir
Highlights and Shadows
Low Ambient Light
Dark Walls, Floors, and Furniture
Single Point of Focus
Highlights and Shadows
Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of dark and moody boudoir is its use of highlights and shadows. With this look, portions of the image will be hidden (or barely seen) in shadow while other areas will be exposed by light.
The use of light and shadow is used together to accentuate and define the contours of the female form and face.
Light and shadow working together create the illusion of three dimensions, a sense of depth, of foreground and background — as opposed to a light and airy look where most of the image is lit to some degree which creates a flatter look.
Creating these highlights and shadows is a concentrated source of directional light from a window, open door, or skylight.
I use the word “concentrated” because the light is exposing the room through some restricted shape, almost like a gobo.
A gobo is a thin flat template with a pattern cut into it that is placed in front of a light source so the pattern is projected onto a wall, floor, ceiling, or curtain. They’re used a lot in theatre to create an optical effect.
Besides emitting light through a certain pattern, its other big role is to restrict light as well, much like a window frame, doorframe, or skylight does.
Dark and moody images have this constricted type of lighting that illuminates a specific portion of the room but also prevents light from flooding in creating too much ambient light.
Hard Directional Light
If your window, door, or skylight is small, the light will be harder. There will be brighter highlights and darker shadows and the fall-off from highlight to shadow will be rapid.
Soft Directional Light
If your window, door, or skylight is larger, the light will be softer. There will be highlights and shadows but the fall-off will be more gradual. This is where you get that creamy smooth light that looks so delicious.
How close your subject is to the light also factors in to the light looking hard or soft. Generally speaking, the closer your subject is to the light, the softer it will look, and the further away they are, the harder.
Direction of Light
You’ll find that most light in dark and moody images comes from either behind the subject, at some angle, or from the side as in cross light.
The more the light comes from directly behind your model, the more you venture into silhouette territory but it depends on the level of ambient light and your camera settings as to whether or not you’ll be capturing a silhouette or a dark and moody shot.
To read more about this, refer to my article, “How To Shoot A Boudoir Silhouette Using Natural Light”. In it I explain how to shoot a pure silhouette but also how to capture one with more depth and dimension.
Low Ambient Light
First of all, what is ambient light?
Ambient light is the level of light that exists in a room.
If you have big windows that let in lots of sunlight then the room will have a high level of ambient light, it will be brightly lit.
However, if it’s night and the only light illuminating your room is a distant streetlight outside then the existing ambient light in your room will be low.
To shoot dark and moody boudoir it helps a lot if the ambient light in the room is low to begin with… or you can make it so by closing drapes, pulling down shades, or restricting the light in some way.
You can’t have light coming in and bouncing all over the place brightening everything up. It’s dark and moody we are after so low ambient light is key to creating the shadows we want.
To cut down on the ambient light you may need to filter your light source more with a sheer white curtain, shade, or restrict the size of your light source with a dark curtain, dark shade, V-flat or some type of black flag.
This will prevent light from spreading into areas of the room where you don’t want it, reducing your ambient light.
On the flip side of that…
If you need more ambient light in the room because it’s too dark, then opening up curtains or removing them completely as a filter will give you more ambient light.
Using a V-Flat To Help Increase or Decrease Available Light
A V-flat is a large polystyrene movable wall (sometimes called foam core).
It’s used to either bounce light or reduce light.
The V-Flat I use on occasion is white on one side, black on the other. White is used to bounce light back onto my subject while black is used to prevent light from bouncing back onto my subject.
If you’re in a situation where you need more light you can set up a V-flat to bounce what light there is back onto your model using the white side. Set it up as close to her as possible just outside of frame so you’re redirecting (or bouncing) the existing light back onto her, or place it in the shot knowing you’ll be cropping it out later.*
If you need more shadow and darkness, use the black side and set it up on the opposite side of her from where the light is coming from to prevent the light from bouncing back onto her. This will help darken the opposite side that’s supposed to be falling into shadow.
*(You could take two exposures, one with the V-flat in frame and one without, then layer the two images together and eliminate the V-flat in Photoshop while its effect remains. Your model has to stay perfectly still for both exposures but this is a more advanced technique.)
Using a V-flat can come in handy when working with just available natural light so it’s good to know about.
Dark Walls, Floors, and Furniture
Another ingredient that aids in achieving a dark and moody look is if your walls, floor, and furniture comprise of darker colors. We’re talking brown, maroon, forest green, dark gray, black, eggplant, navy blue.
Darker colors will help set the mood and prevent light from reflecting back onto your subject.
Can it work if they’re not dark?
Sure, to a point, but the more of these elements that are darker, the less you’ll have to worry about them being illuminated and drawing attention away from your subject where the point of focus should be (more on that later).
Hardwood floors work great because they’re usually a deep rich brown, or dark carpeting.
The same rule applies to furniture. You want to avoid anything pure white or pastel because it will be illuminated brighter than your subject.
I used to shoot in a studio that had a white loveseat and it stood out like a beacon compared to everything else and stole focus away from my model. I’d have to do things in post to tone it down.
So, try and shoot in a place where the walls, floor, and furniture consist of darker colors.
The same approach applies to what your model wears. I always like shooting subjects in these same rich earthy tones mentioned earlier. Avoid white or lighter pastels but it’s really a personal choice. This is subjective art, in the end.
My only rule of thumb with clothing is that if I’m shooting someone with darker skin I want her wardrobe to be light enough to contrast with her skin tone. I don’t want to lose her form in a sea of darkness and shadow (unless, of course, that’s the point).
Same holds true for my lighter skinned subjects. Something darker to contrast with their skin tone so there’s separation and colors don’t start blending in with one another.
You’ll want dark sheets as well. White sheets serve as one big bounce that will reflect light everywhere onto your subject. Besides, white sheets (like the white loveseat) will be competing for the highlights cast on your subject and may even upstage her for drawing your eye away from her.
Single Point of Focus
All these elements combined will result in a single point of focus, that being the woman’s form you’re capturing contoured by light and shadow.
These darker elements that surround her, like the walls, floor, sheets, or what she has on serve as supporting characters that complement you in this effort.
I’m a big fan of having a single point of focus in my images. I want to direct the viewer’s eye to a single point from which they can then veer off and explore other parts of the image.
Photographer As Conductor
I think of photography and creating images like being a conductor of an orchestra. The conductor controls the rhythm, pace, and dynamics of a piece of music. They’re taking the audience on an aural journey and saying, this is the best way to experience this piece of music.
As a photographer, you too are taking the audience on a journey, but a visual one. You too can control the rhythm, pace, and dynamics of your creation with the use of light and shadow, composition, and point of focus.
Set your aperture to what you want aesthetically, then gradually increase your shutter speed to decrease the amount of ambient light as needed.
If the ambient light is too bright, you can also adjust your exposure compensation down about 1 to 1.5 stops (or thereabouts) but be careful your shadows don’t fall into complete blackness.
Keep an eye on your histogram to prevent losing all digital information in the blacks. It’s better to shoot a little brighter than what you want your final image to be, then adjust the shadows down in Lightroom or Photoshop later.
How To Edit Dark and Moody Boudoir Images
With dark and moody images you’re going to be mainly concerned with three adjustments, Exposure, Highlights, and Shadows.
If you shot a little brighter to give yourself a margin of safety with the blacks, here’s your chance to fix that.
Experiment with the Exposure and Shadows settings by adjusting their sliders. If the highlights are too hot, bring them down with the Highlights adjustment slider.
With these three settings, Exposure, Shadows, and Highlights you can really fine tune your dark and moody images.
Most all dark and moody images have a strong vignette that occurs either naturally in-camera or that’s added afterwards in post.
Adjust the intensity of your vignette in either Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever program you happen to be using.
A strong vignette will help draw your eye to the point of focus, along with all the other elements mentioned earlier.
A little tip to give your images more of a film look is to not let your shadows go completely black. They do this in movies a lot and is part of that “film” look.
I feel dark and moody boudoir is starting to gain more popularity with both clients and photographers but there’s a bit of finessing required to really pull it off, namely in the hard light verses soft light department.
That, more than anything, can really make or break a dark and moody image. It’s the difference between getting that buttery smooth gradation of light with that long lingering fall off, verse the hotspot look and sharp fall off that comes with hard light.
It’s something you’ll really want to practice and master if dark and moody is the style you want to pursue.
Thanks for your time!
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Founder / Lounge Boudoir