How to shoot low light watch photography

Speaking of things we take for granted: dark and moody shots have really become my go-to aesthetic for Watch Studies. But the truth is, I never used to shoot like this prior to starting this account, yet I often overlook all the little adjustments that were helpful when I started transitioning to this style.

Recently, someone had reached out asking about exactly that: how to nail the dark and moody aesthetic, which is really just a form of low light photography. Through our conversation and my subsequent suggestions to them, I was reminded that there are indeed a couple of key things worth keeping in mind when you want to shoot in this style.

Earlier in the year, I made a short tutorial that touches on the ingredients of dark and moody photos. Today, I’m going to go a little deeper and talk about some more practical elements that may be helpful for anyone wanting to join the dark side. Enjoy!

This week’s challenge

Whether it’s new to you or just another day on your feed, let’s show off all our dark and moody watch shots this week! Remember to tag #watchstudies to share them with the community!

How to nail dark and moody watch photos

Here are 6 things worth remembering the next time you want to shoot some low light watch photography.

Low light doesn't mean no light

How to shoot low light watch photographyEven dark shots have a little bit of light. Here, there's a single soft box located in the top right.

One of the misconceptions about shooting dark moody shots is that you need to turn off all the lights. While this is still somewhat feasible with the right camera, you may not get the results you’re looking for.

In practice, shooting low light photos is actually about utilizing strategically placed light sources to highlight specific details. It’s about playing with the contrast between light and shadow. It’s about letting many things fall into the shadows but while still letting certain things (like a watch) shine.

So before you draw the blackout blinds and sit yourself in a pitch dark room, consider how you can add the right touch of light to bring out the moody story you want to tell.

Shape objects with light and shadows

How to shoot low light watch photographyA well positioned light here gives dramatic definition to my jacket's folds and textures, as well as the complexion of my hand.

One of the best things about working with light is that you can leverage it to cast interesting shadows. This in turn helps accentuate the shapes and textures of different objects.

Depending on the position, angle, and intensity of the light, you can find some really dramatic ways to highlight the details you want, while giving the viewer just enough information to fill in what’s hidden in the shadows. This takes a bit of trial and error! I often find it’s easier to set the light source first (especially if you’re using an immovable natural light source like a window), and then find the most ideal pose or layout, but you can do it the other way around too. Most likely, you’ll go back and forth.

Also, remember that the basic rules of lighting still apply. Look for soft diffused colorless lighting rather than super intense direct light, unless that’s the look you want.

Have the confidence to under-expose

I talked about this last week as one of my general pieces of advice for photographers. When you’re shooting in low light, and following my above advice to play with light and shadows, you come across some high contrast highlights more often than not. Stainless steel watches are pretty darn shiny after all. Don't get me started on white dials.

How to shoot low light watch photographyThe under-exposed RAW image on the left, and the final edited shot on the right.

In order to not lose all the details in those bright spots, you need to under-expose when shooting and bring the shadows back up during the editing process. A lot of people are still nervous about doing this but let me reassure you: modern cameras are really, really good. Even your phone’s camera is pretty damn good too. Have the confidence to under-expose a bit, you’ll be okay!

Crank that ISO

How to shoot low light watch photographyShot on my 5 year old Fujifilm X-T2 with ISO set to 5000. The noise level was very manageable.

With low light photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll need to push your camera’s ISO a little higher to get the exposure you want. Even if your aperture is wide open, you’ll want to maintain a minimum shutter speed, leaving you just the ISO dial to help get the shot you want.

Now, somewhere along the way, we were taught that grain/noise — which higher ISO values will add — was strictly bad. I’m here today to reassure you that’s it’s not. Personally, I think it adds a lot of character to a shot. And if you’re already adding some grain to your shot while you’re editing, which many people do, then grain should really not deter you from cranking that ISO.

Plus, along the same vein of the previous point, modern cameras have gotten really good at tolerating higher ISOs. With my X-T2, which is a 5 year old camera, I’m comfortable shooting with ISO at 2000 all the way up to 5000 sometimes. With my X-T4, which is much newer, I don’t even think about the ISO value.

Every camera is different obviously, as is each person’s aesthetic taste, but hopefully this encourages you to test the limits of your ISO as you explore dark moody aesthetics.

Use props to add pops of color

How to shoot low light watch photographyA simple example of leveraging props to bring warm colors into a shot to complement the dark and moody vibes.

When the environment you’re staging is generally dark, adding pops of color will bring your somber shots to life. In particular, warm tones like red, oranges, and browns will complement the cooler tones in the shadows and in the steel of your watch. This is why leather, wood, whiskey, and coffee are so commonly seen in moody watch photos.

Frankly, this tip works even if you’re not shooting in low light, but it works especially well when you are. So don't be afraid to throw some color in the mix! Dark and moody doesn't have to mean void of color.

Use a dark and moody preset

Sorry, personal plug here. Editing is the last step of the process and if you’re looking for a fast and easy way to augment the dark and moody vibes of your shots, Lightroom presets are a great resource. And if you’re looking for dark and moody presets that are optimized for watch photography, you should check out my personal preset pack.


Whether you’re using mine, someone else’s, or your own, presets are massive time savers for your editing process. They essentially give you a base aesthetic to work off from with a single tap/click. If you’re interested in learning more about presets, I wrote a short primer.

This week’s challenge

Whether it’s new to you or just another day on your feed, let’s show off all our dark and moody watch shots this week! Remember to tag #watchstudies to share them with the community!

And if you’ve made it this far into the tutorial, let me know by dropping a 🌚 in the comments of today’s Instagram post!

Thanks for joining another edition of Sunday Study Club! If you enjoyed today’s tutorial, you may also enjoy these related ones:

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