Food Photography Lighting Basics: 5+ Essential Tips For Beginners

Looking to improve your food photography? Get my 5 go-to food photography lighting tips perfect for beginners aiming to improve their food photography.

Peach Salad with Mozzarella

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. Years later, here we are.

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

1. Find Natural Light

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 Your Light

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  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 Your Light

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.

4. Invest in a Light 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 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.

an orange pound cake with orange glaze

5. Turn Your Flash Off

Never. Ever. Use the camera’s flash aimed at your subject. Just don’t. It makes awful highlights, terrible shadows. The results will be tragic.

Instead, you can try aiming 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.

Food Photography Basics Series

The Best Simple Artificial Lighting Setup for Food Photography

8 Essential Pieces of Equipment for High-Quality Food Photography

5 Helpful Tips for Beautiful Food Photography Composition

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1 Comment

  1. Morgan Beene says:

    Thank you, this has been so helpful. I look forward to reading more.