Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

 f/5.6 80mm shutter speed: 1/50

As we begin to face winter head-on and those bright, sunny days are few and far in between, it is imperative as food photographers that we learn how to still conduct our business even in low-light situations. Of course, a simple response to the grey skies and thick rain clouds would be to invest in artificial lights or flashes. However, like many food photographers not operating out of a professional studio, I rely on natural light about 98% of the time.

Over the past few winters spent living in Vancouver, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks for dealing with the inevitable poor lighting we are bound to deal with this time of year. We are far from spring, so I hope these key pointers can help some of you become more adaptable and get you through the rainy season.

Camera Settings: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Using a Tripod

In order to keep your images crisp, I definitely recommend using a tripod while shooting in low-light situations. I always try to set my ISO as low as possible to prevent too much noise from taking over my images. A higher ISO increases the cameras sensitivity to light, but it comes at a cost. You may be tempted to crank up your ISO when faced with bad lighting, but remember that the higher the ISO the more your image will feel grainy and noisy.

Instead, I prefer to keep my ISO low with a longer shutter speed. A long, or slow, shutter speed means that the camera shutter is open longer - allowing more light to be exposed to the camera’s sensor. However, this longer exposure time can cause “motion blur” for even the steadiest of hands. To combat this result, or when you don’t want to capture movement intentionally, use a tripod to steady the camera.

Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

 f/3.5 100mm shutter speed: 1/50

If you don’t have a tripod, there are a few tricks worth trying. Instead of holding a heavy lens with your thumbs and fingertips, try cradling it in the palm of your hand. Keep your elbows in and close to your body for more stability. Also, resting the camera or your arms on the back of chair can make a great alternative for a tripod when out and about.

Bounce Boards and Reflectors

We’ve discussed bounce boards and reflectors before, but you may find them most useful when working with low light. For bounce boards, I use large, white pieces of foam core (picked up at a local craft or stationary store). In this situation, you will want to bounce back any light that is available from your light source back onto your subject. You can do so by placing the bounce board on the opposite side of your subject from when the light is coming from.

Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

f/5.6 135mm shutter speed: 1/80  - used a combo white/gold reflector

Reflectors work similarly as bounce boards by reflecting and redirecting the light to your subject.   They come in all different sizes and colors including: white, silver, gold, black, and even mixed. Try adjusting the distance you hold it from your subject as well as the color (I like to use a mix of white/gold for food and silver for portraits). Reflectors can also help fill in shadows.

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A super simple tip is to be mindful of what you are wearing, especially if you plan on getting up close and personal with your subject. Try seeing what a simple swap of wearing a white versus a black shirt will do for your images!

Subject and Styling

I find it much harder to light a larger scene or an entire tabletop evenly when only minimal light is available. In these times, try a small subject to focus on - like with these tarts! Of course you might not always have complete control over what your subject is, but when you do, it is much easier to capture something small like these in low-light situations rather than a large layer cake or an entire brunch scene (where you might want a large depth of field).

Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

f/4.5 100mm shutter speed: 1/25

Going back to camera settings, with a small subject I was able to use a small f/stop and still keep most of the subject in focus. These tarts were photographed at about f/4.5 to f/5.6. Using a smaller f-stop in low light meant that I could keep my shutter speed manageable (although I still used a tripod for 75% of the photos). A larger f-stop (smaller aperture meaning a smaller opening for light to travel through) will need a slower shutter speed, leaving room for possible blur.

Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

 f/10 85mm shutter speed: 1/8

Of course this is a style preference, as you could still use a larger aperture (small f-stop) for larger subjects if you’d like (and really get that blurred background effect). Remember that the larger the aperture, the smaller the f-stop, and the smaller the depth of field (the area that is in focus). For me, the largest aperture setting I like to shoot with while including more props to create a scene is about f/5.6 to f/6.3 so that you can still tell what the items are in the background by their distinctive shapes and without getting too blurry.

Food Photography Tips: Shooting In Low Light

 f/6.3 135mm shutter speed: 1/25

Lastly, instead of fighting the light and getting frustrated, you can also embrace the shadows and create dark, moody photos (like last month’s post). Remember to love clouds and rain as the natural diffusers that they are!

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Food Photography: Start With the Basics was writing byTessa Huff.  Tess is a Vancouver-based pastry artist, food stylist, and photographer. Before moving to British Columbia, she was a cake decorator for several years and owned her own cake boutique.  Huff currently runs her blog, Style Sweet CA, and is a freelance recipe developer and photographer. She just completed writing and photographing her first cookbook (Abrams Books, Spring 2016) and is having fun spending time with her husband and their new baby boy.

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Lyndsay // Coco Cake Land

Great post, Tessa! Full of good accessible tips (I remember the moment I realized my blue Garfield tshirt dress was reflecting blue everywhere… 😛 ) I should open up the old f-stop more too, hehe. And a great reminder to quit being lazy and break out my tripod for this crapola winter light situation. Gorgeous photos as usual, too!

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