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!
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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…