5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

In my early blogging days, I SCOURED the web for good resources specific to food photography. There wasn’t much out there. I mostly taught myself by studying the work of my favourite photographers. Six years later, I thought I’d share the learning! This is my first post in a long-ago promised Photo Friday series.

Since lighting, in my opinion, is the most important factor in successful food photography, I thought I’d start here!

Lighting111 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

1. Source it!

If you want the most beautiful food photos, hands-down natural light is the way to go. Put your surface (coffee table, napkin on the floor – whatever works for you) near a window, ideally one with indirect light (meaning the sun isn’t shining directly in). The North-facing panes in my photo studio area provide a perfect glow.

Lighting12 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

Make sure to turn off any nearby lamps or overhead lights, you only want the rays of the sun, no mixing in orange-y artificial bulbs, please.

2. Filter it!

If you don’t have a good source of indirect natural light, you can use even the sunniest window, but you’ll need to filter the light to soften it.

Many professionals own a scrim, which looks like this, to diffuse the light – but semi-sheer white curtains will do the job perfectly. You can alternatively hang a thin white bedsheet, or even a large white cotton or linen napkin (sticky-tack or push-pins are your friends).

Lighting31 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

Or for a longer-term, portable solution, make a DIY scrim – use a heavy duty stapler to mount a piece of translucent white fabric to a large old frame (thrift shops are a good source). You can even use a large piece of cardboard to make your own frame… just use an X-Acto knife to cut out a border from a big box. That’s what I did in my old space, when I had to soften the harsh rays of a sunny South-facing window.

3. Bounce it!

When you only have light coming in from one direction, you can get strong shadows on the opposite side of your subject. These shadows can add drama and artistic interest to a photo, but until you get the hang of the basics, I recommend “bouncing” the light to “fill” the shadows and maximize the light on whatever you’re shooting.

Lighting51 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

This simply means using a reflective surface to cast the light back onto your subject – I use a piece of white foam core board (or reflectors like these) leaned up against the low table I shoot on, but if leaning doesn’t work you can use clamps like these to keep the reflectors in place.

Unless, of course, you have a “helper” like I do to help you hold them up.  Actually, the reflector serves double duty as a (not very effective) chubby finger blocker…

Lighting41 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting Lighting21 5 tips for flawless food photography lighting

Thief!

4. Or…. buy a tent!

Many food bloggers are taking photos of what they made for dinner, which means natural light is not an option. In that case, I recommend a tent and light set-up like this.

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I own one, and use it in a pinch. You can see the photos I’ve taken with my tent here and here. I don’t use it often, since I work from home and can plan my schedule to cook and take photos during the day, but I’m glad to have it. I’ve tried a hundred of the DIY versions out there and nothing gave me the results I wanted. If you only have the option to shoot after the sun goes down, I say drop the $100 on a real photography tent. If not the one I linked to, make sure you get one that’s 32″ or larger, or you won’t have room to set a nice scene.

5. Lastly, never ever ever ever ever use the camera’s flash aimed at your subject. Just don’t. It makes awful highlights, terrible shadows. The results will be tragic. You can aim an external flash off a reflector or a white wall to bounce it for a softer light with reasonable success, but I won’t get any deeper into that because it’s not a method I use.

That’s all! I plan to (eventually!) cover photography equipment, surfaces, props, styling, composition and the “Exposure Triangle” (how to use shutter speed, ISO and aperture). Let me know what you think about Photo Friday…

 

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26 Comments

  1. Sonal @ Singhfully Sweet

    March 28, 2014 5:42 pm - Reply

    This is awesome! Thank you for posting these tips! I’ve been thinking a lot after our email conversation on how to improve my photo taking skills and this will definitely come in handy! Thank you thank you thank you!

  2. Becky @ A Calculated Whisk

    March 29, 2014 4:58 am - Reply

    This is great! I shoot right by the window and have some diffuser curtains, but I think it’s time for me to kick things up a notch and use a reflector. Great tips!

  3. Crista

    March 29, 2014 6:32 am - Reply

    Great tips here, thank you!! And, your babe is soooo cute!!! xox

    • Jennifer Pallian

      March 29, 2014 7:29 am - Reply

      Thank you, Crista! Despite stealing my photography subjects, I do think he’s pretty adorable… :)

  4. Stephanie @ Girl Versus Dough

    March 29, 2014 10:59 am - Reply

    These are fantastic tips; thanks for sharing! Pinning and taking note of alllll of these for my next shoot. :)

  5. CanuckinGeorgia

    March 30, 2014 6:10 pm - Reply

    Looking forward to more of this tutorial. Very good tips here I can use.

  6. McKenzie

    March 31, 2014 7:29 am - Reply

    Great blog post, and I love the inside peek into your studio! :)

  7. Natalie

    April 1, 2014 1:22 pm - Reply

    This is really useful, thank you! I only have a super-basic point and shoot camera, would you recommend investing in something more professional?

    • Jennifer Pallian

      April 1, 2014 4:18 pm - Reply

      I’m going to do a whole post on equipment, but in short: I do recommend buying a camera that allows you to change lenses, as the lens is really more important than the camera… but depending on what your needs are, you can certainly make do with a point-and-shoot. Try the macro or portrait settings to get a shallower depth of field (ie. blurry background).

  8. Rebecca Coleman

    April 2, 2014 10:35 am - Reply

    Thank you! PInning!!!

    I’ve been doing food blogging for 3 years, and for the past 2, I finally got a decent camera, and have been getting serious about learning proper techniques. It feels like it all comes down to the light… it’s SO important. Thanks for these tips!

  9. Kb

    April 5, 2014 4:53 am - Reply

    Finally an easy, straight forward run through, and that’s easy for a beginner to follow. Thank you kindly. I will be playing all weekend now.

    Please talk about lens when you can the biggest mistake I made was not trusting my gut getting a better lens first instead of going with the kit lens.

    • Jennifer Pallian

      April 5, 2014 3:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks Kb, have fun playing! I’ll do the equipment post next! :)

  10. Lisa

    April 5, 2014 10:07 am - Reply

    Looking forward to the discussion on equipment! I’ve had my dSLR for 8 years now and I’m ready for something new. Would love to hear about lenses that you recommend too! Love your pictures. :)

  11. Rita M.

    April 6, 2014 3:06 am - Reply

    Very classy! Love this. If you knew what I had to do to get any photos – well let’s just say you can tell I am an amateur (to say the least). I have put off getting a good camera because I do not know what to get and I want to get something good. Take my photos with my cell. I will wait with baited breath for your other suggestions.

  12. Garage Gyms

    April 7, 2014 12:03 pm - Reply

    This is great. I used to have to photograph products for websites. A tent is a very worthwhile investment. Made all the difference in the world for things that actually fit inside of it. I didn’t know about direct flashing the object though… I wasn’t a photographer so I had to learn as I went. Again, great stuff.

  13. Sierra

    April 9, 2014 8:19 pm - Reply

    love love love! more of this please!

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    April 12, 2014 9:05 pm - Reply

    Wow, this post is nice, my younger sister is analyzing these kinds of things, therefore I am going to let know
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  15. Ajay Food Photographer

    May 10, 2014 2:42 am - Reply

    Valuable post for food photographer. thanks to foodess.com for food photography lighting technique.

  16. Allyson

    June 6, 2014 12:33 pm - Reply

    These are great tips! I wish all bloggers would read this asap! It is such a turn off when someone uses the harsh flash on their camera…I can’t tell people enough, “put the flash down!”