Chocolate chestnut cake and shooting dark food photos
Dark food photography
I don’t actually shoot a lot of dark photos or maybe I should say that I didn’t shoot many dark photos, as I do seem to do quite a fair bit of them lately. It could be the time of year. What better months to shoot dark and dramatic than the months of autumn and winter?
This insanely delicious chocolate chestnut cake was part of the dark and dramatic shoot that Alex and I did a while ago and apart from the fact that I couldn’t possibly keep this recipe from you, I thought it was also a good time to explain a bit more on how to shoot really dark. I didn’t make a ton of ‘behind the scenes’ photos (I always think about stuff I could use for a tutorial after we’ve eaten the cake) but the ones I make should illustrate how to do it in a simple way.
Shooting with daylight
I’m assuming here that you’re shooting with daylight and that you have only one light source. Make sure you’re somewhere with just one window and not a spot where you have light streaming in from all directions. That can be done but why make it difficult for yourself on your first try, right? Less light is good in this case.
So step 1 is taken care of. Now the next thing to do is position your camera using the light from the side. That is an easy light direction to modify and it’s easy to mould the light to your wishes using black cards and such. You can buy black cardboard at any papershop or paint some other surfaces black. Just make sure it is mat and not shiny. It’s easy to have various pieces in different sizes. I always buy a couple of cartons and tear them up when needed. I fold them in two so they can stand if I’m short of hands (and I always am)
Follow the light
Position your subject and see how the light hits it. Decide where you want less of that light. It helps to make a photo at this stage and examine that picture to look for areas of improvement.
Don’t under expose
In a lot of cases people make the mistake to think that you create a dark photo by underexposing your shot. That is not exactly what you want. yes it will be dark, but your subject itself will get that muddy and unappealing look. You still want your subject to look good while the rest is dark. Take a look at the photo below; here you can see what happens if you use your camera in the automatic mode with a really dark subject. All that black confuses your camera and the result is that it interprets that black as a lack of light and overexposes as a result. Doesn’t look too good, now does it?
You can use your exposure compensation mode and make up for the error in your camera by dialing towards the – sign but honestly with dark shots I always suggest to go for the M-mode. Manual that is. In the end it really is easier and gives you total control over the end result.
As a starting point you can use the exposure your camera gives you when on aperture priority. That way you take a bit of the guessing game out of it and from there you start working on making it perfect. I always think of my aperture first. That is my starting point. I decide which aperture to use and dial that in to my camera. I than start working on the shutterspeed to increase or decrease the total exposure to get what I want.
Controlling the light
But before you can determine your final exposure you will need to control the amount of light falling onto your subject, foreground and background. With this cake I wanted to only have light on the cake itself and the chestnuts on top. The rest could go into deep shadows.
To do that I first placed a black card on the right blocking out the light on the background. You essentially block the light that is coming in from the window and make the background dark. Black also absorbs the light so that works really well.
Theoretically you could block some light with white too but that will never have the desired result. Make sure that there is still enough light falling on your subject. You don’t want to block too much out resulting in something you see below.
Study the results
As soon as you blocked the light on your background, take a photo and study the result. Is it still too light then decrease the shutterspeed by 1/3 stop so less light will fall on your sensor, making the photo darker. Not the same as underexposing!
I used two pieces of black carton here; one to block the light on the background and the other to block a bit of light on the foreground (and before you start wondering; no those chestnuts are obviously not the ones inside of the cake but they just looked soooo pretty! Couldn’t resist really…
Below you will see two photos highlighting the difference between dark and underexposed. I didn’t actually have an underexposed pictures of that shoot so I had to fake the result a bit by darkening one of the photos but I think you get the point right? One more thing to keep under control is the white balance. As you can see in a few of the behind the scenes photos which are unedited the white balance becomes way too blue. The background is supposed to be black and not blue-ish. So shoot in raw and adjust your white balance afterwards.
And then ofcourse that moment you’ve all been waiting for… The recipe for this divine cake; you’ve been warned!
Check also the article on How to edit dark food photos!
Chocolate chestnut cake
- 130 gram cold butter
- 200 grams flour
- 60 gram icing sugar
- 180 grams dark chocolate 70% cacao content
- 130 grams butter
- 4 eggs separated into yolks and eggwhites
- 1,5 tbsp cacao powder
- 100 gram sugar
- 250 gram chestnut puree
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground chili
- 3 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 tbsp icing sugar
- pinch of seasalt
- round caketin of 22 cm diameter
- Preheat the oven to 180 C
- Put the cold butter, 200 gram of flour and the icing sugar together in a foodprocessor and mix for a few minutes until you have a firm dough. Turn out onto a kitchen counter and quickly knead until it all comes together. Wrap in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for at least 15 minutes. Roll it out a bit and press it into a greased caketin of 22 cm diameter. Make sure you have a standing edge of about 5 cm. Bake the bottom for about 15 minutes and then remove from the oven.
- Bring a layer of water to the boil in a saucepan and put a heatproof bowl on top of the pan and melt 180 grams of dark chocolate together with the 130 grams of butter (au bain marie). Remove the bowl from the heat. Mix the egg yolks in one by one, add 1,5 tbsp of cacao powder, 50 gr of the sugar and 250 gr of chestnut puree. Mix it all together well.
- In a clean bowl whip the eggwhites to stiff peaks. Add the other 50 grams of sugar bit by bit. Fold in the eggwhite in batches into the chocolate mix. Spoon the mix onto the cakebottom, place in the middle of the oven and bake for about 25 minutes or until done. Leave to cool on a cake rack.
- Stir in a bowl the ingredients for the garnish and sprinkle with a little sieve on top
The nutritional values above are calculated per portion. The details are based on standard nutritional tables and do not constitute a professional nutritional advice.
Thanks for this post! I’m a photographer… new to the food photography part of things… and I wanted to try some “dark” food photography. This post was helpful and the ideas of using the black cardboard, etc. will definitely help me out. Thanks.
Glad it was useful for you Aubrie!
This is a kind of photography I always have wanted to try but didn’t know how to. Thanks for the tips. I better get some black cardboard. And the recipe sounds so delicious. I love chestnuts.
Yes the recipe alone is worth making… It’s a good thing I don’t bake this one every day as it is simple irresistible ! And black cardboard is such a handy thing to have!
I love these extremely helpful photography tip posts!!! I food blog, and my photos don’t turn out that great because I only have an iPhone 4 – I don’t have the funds to buy an actual camera.
I possible, could you do an iPhone tips?
I will definitely think about doing an iPhone session Megan!
Thank you so much for this amazing tutorial! I am trying to learn how to take better food photos so really appreciate the time you took to do this!
You’re welcome Julie! Glad you found it usefull!
I came across this recipe on tumblr I really want to try it! 😀 But the thing is that there’s no chestnut in my country. I’m so saaaad! Do you know some substitutes please? Its the only ingredient missing.
Well I can’t think of any ingredient that would be a good replacement as it is called a chocolate chestnut cake. 🙂 And the flavor is quite special. Maybe you can find something online?
I just thought I would let you know I stopped by. I found your site after searching for dark food photography advice.Your site was just what I needed. Great images with great advice. I like taking photos but am no expert but I wanted to take an image of a Tea bread cake/ recipe that had been given to me. I managed to get a photo all be it not in the same league as yours but much better than I could have hoped to have taken before reading your thread.
Many thanks 🙂
Added link to photo if allowed., if not delete. I followed your tips for blocking the light with cards.I couldnt think of a better composition so added the raisins/sugar.
O but that is a gorgeous result Gary! Love your photo and so glad I could be of help. Love the addition of the sugar and the raisins so I’d say well done!
I was wonder one of these days how to achieve this beautiful dark, but not lack of light, in photography, and here you are showing, beautifully I must say, how to do it. Thank you.
You’re welcome Regina. I hope it helps! 🙂
1. You are hands down one of the most amazing food photographers I have come across. I just found your blog and I cannot wait to dive in. I am a practicing food photographer, and I just found my newest muse.
2. I have been trying to find chestnut puree for months, any tips?
Thanks so much Ginger. As for the chestnut purée; I’m afraid I’m not sure. I live in Europe and while not entirely common we can find it here when in season. Have you tried it online?
Hi Simone, thanks for your beautiful post, behind the scenes are always so helpful! Do you mind me asking what surface you shot the cake on? Was it fabric or paper? I’m trying to source food photography surfaces at the moment and struggling so any tips would be much appreciated! Thanks 🙂
Glad you found the post helpful. I’ve actually used really cheap crinkle paper here. I am not sure how to call it in English. We call it crepe paper. It’s also been used to wrap around a christmas tree sometimes… Hope that makes sense?
Is the chestnut puree the sweetened type or just plain with no sugar or vanilla? Gorgeous shots… makes me want to go bake.
That one looks so delicious!
Amazing shoot and tips! Thank you for sharing;)
You’re welcome! 😉
I love this post! I just launched a food blog, and my photography skills are seriously lacking. But, I LOVE the dark photography. Your photos are dark, but there is still so much light. It’s such a beautiful contrast. Thank you!
Good to know you found the post helpful Sarah!
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Hi Simone. Such a great tutorial, thank you so much! Would you mind sharing what you used as the dark surface? Was it a piece of fabric or paper?
Hè Petra! It’s a piece of black paper. The kind you also use to wrap around the Christmas tree!
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I was looking for recipes to make with our abundance of chestnuts, and this one sounds delicious! Do you use already sweetened chestnut puree, or is it the unsweetened kind? (I’m going to make the puree myself, and I’m not sure whether or not to include sugar (as many recipes suggest)). Thank you!
He Sofie, I use the canned variety that is sweetened for sweet recipes such as this one. So yes I’d think a little sugar if you’re making it yourself!