My friends at FBC, Melissa, Mardi, and Ethan have kindly asked me to write an article on lighting + food photography. Although I’m a food blogger by night, by day I work in design…more specifically interior + lighting design. Given my background along with my love for photography, they thought I’d be able to offer some words of wisdom to you all just starting out. Needless to say, I was thrilled.
Let’s keep this simple. Generally, the most readily available light is natural daylight. It requires very little equipment and will make your food look more natural, more appealing, and incredibly appetizing! For today’s article, let’s focus on getting great shots using this natural daylight.
Now, how do we get these wonderful photographs you ask? Let’s break it down.
Colour Temperature + Shifting Lighting
I won’t go in-depth as it’s a hefty topic but it’s a rather important one, so I’ll be brief. You don’t want your food shots to look “off” do you?
The colour of light is entirely dependant on its source. Even the sun shifts in colour throughout the day. I’m sure you’ve noticed that sunrise/sunset lighting produces ‘warmer’ colours (ambers/oranges) while midday light will produce much cooler ones (blues/greens). Translate this into your photographs and you can either get an orange-like shot or a blue-like shot.
To correct this, simply adjust your camera settings to the proper white balance (ie. sunny, shady, cloudy). Or if you’re shooting in RAW, you have the ability to adjust the white balance after the fact once you’re in the editing program. Lightroom makes it easy to fix all these little problems!
Reflectors + Bouncers + Absorbers
As I mentioned, using daylight has the advantage that you don’t have to spend a lot on studio lighting equipment, but you do need a few bits to help you ‘play’ with light. Sadly there is only one sun. It’s your only source of light when shooting natural and you can’t automatically have every bit of your dish perfectly lit. To help with shadows and highlights, use these trusted tools.
The photo on the left is side lit with no reflector and the image on the right is side lit with a reflector.
Let’s say your light source is coming from behind your subject. The front will most likely be in shadow. Now, if you want to add a little light to the front, then simply hold a reflector facing your subject and your light source. This will capture the light and bounce it back onto the darkened part of your subject. Easy right? Effective and inexpensive too! What is a reflector? Reflectors can be a piece of white foam board or even a card wrapped in foil. Whatever you have on hand that can ‘bounce’ the light back, will work.
On the other hand, sometimes you need to absorb some of that light so it doesn’t cause harsh highlights in your shot. A lot of ‘moody food shots’ use this to create that darkened effect. This again, can be as simple as using a black piece of foam board.
Like I said, play around with the light. Sometimes you’ll need more and sometimes less.
Diffuse Light vs Direct Light
A lot of people will tell you that direct sunlight is too harsh for your food photographs, but sometimes it works in your favour. Direct light can actually enhance the dramatic look of your scene with striking shadows and bright highlighted spots.
Diffuse lighting is softer and much more common in fresh, airy food shots. Anytime you really don’t want to have hard shadows around your beautiful dish, simply use a diffuser to ‘soften’ the light. Sounds expensive right? Nope. Pop by your local bath store and pick up a frosted white shower curtain or grab an old white sheet from the linen closet and prop it over the window. Voila, diffuse light.
Back Lighting + Side Lighting + Front Lighting
Since you’re using one light source, you have a few different options on where to position your subject in relation to it. I shoot everything on a table with wheels so I can move my set up to suit the lighting conditions.
Front lighting will either make your food look incredible or inedible. It truly depends on the type of food you’re shooting. If you’re looking for a flatter type of light, a more even wash, then front lighting is key. It will illuminate the focused area and leave only a few shadows in the background.
Backlighting will create interesting shadows coming towards the front, but you can help soften (but not always eliminate) those with the use of reflectors. This type of lighting will allow for depth and interest and can create a wonderful photograph.
Side lighting has actually become one of my favourites and is very similar to back lighting. I love that I can create shadows, depth and I can control how the amount. In general, flat food is not appealing, but something that has shape, texture and form to it, well now you’ve got something!
And last but not least...
The one thing we can’t do is control the type of daylight we will have on any given day, which makes planning for a natural light food photo-shoot next to impossible. And if you’re near where I live in the wintertime (the frozen tundra) we have daylight for a very limited time throughout the day. My advice, plan as much as you can, but don’t be surprised when it all changes at the last minute because of a sudden gloomy day or you can’t get home in time to catch that last ray.
Be flexible. Do what you can and try to use any of the tips above to help manipulate and ‘control’ the light. Working with daylight can be a challenge but it can also be the most rewarding thing you learn in photography. So go. Experiment. Play. And above all, have fun and create the best photographs. In the end, all you crave is for the viewer to jump through their computer screen right into that bowl of ice cream right?
And if you have any questions, I’d be happy to help. For more examples of my food photography (shot in daylight 99% of the time), please visit my blog Flavour!
Food Photography 101: Understanding Natural Light was written and photographed by Elaina Samardzija. Trained as an Interior Lighting Designers with a long time passion for photography, Elaina spends her spare time photographing beautiful food on the blog Flavour. Featured posts include new and exciting ingredients by looking for a new twist on clean recipes. Her love of wine also showcases her latest sips through a section called "tasting bar".