Though I enjoy teaching a full on workshop as well as one on one mentoring for a comprehensive and hands on course in food photography, I’m often asked for little tips for taking better food photographs. From food bloggers who may be more food writers than photographers, to people who simply love to photograph their food for their instagram feeds ~ people just wanting their food photos to look better. So I thought I’d start a series and share some quick, simple tips for natural light food photography, here on my blog.
I’m going to start the first one off with LIGHT. That’s right, I didn’t say, start with an expensive, state of the art camera and all the gear and lenses that go along with it. Instead, start with whatever camera you have, even the one most of have with us at all times, our camera/phone. You can always move up in equipment, but if you don’t know how to work with and understand light, it won’t matter much. Beautiful, soft light is the most important element, (beautiful food and composition being another close first) but, without light, there is no photograph.
Not all light is created equal. Start by looking for natural daylight, like by a window. This is the same whether you are at home, outside, or in a restaurant. Place your food in the light, preferably where the light is coming in to the side of the food. Be sure to turn off all the artificial lights (if possible) around you, as well as the flash (especially the flash.) The additional artificial lights can add unwanted colors and casts that will effect your image. If there is direct, harsh sunlight coming in, assuming you don’t have the option of looking for a softer light source, you’ll want to diffuse (or soften) that direct light with a diffuser, such as a sheer curtain, sheet, paper/cloth napkin, or the like. You’ll see the difference this immediately has on your food. If you happen to be outdoors in your back yard, a park, or urban area, look for shaded areas where the food is not in direct sunlight. Examples would be under an overhang, just inside a doorway, or the side of a building that is providing a clean, white, even, shadowed light. Watch out for trees as they do give shade, but also lots of uneven dappling, which isn’t what we’re looking for. The goal is to place your food in soft, indirect, natural light.
This first example shows the effect of using a diffuser in a harsh lighting situation outdoors. The first image has the plated dish set in dappled/full direct light with no diffusion. The image next to it is in the same location, but diffused with a mid-sheer disk being held above the image in between the sun and the set.
The next set of examples below were taken in the room in my home that I use often to photograph my food set-ups. I lovingly refer to it as mon petit studio. (It’s my dining room.) Though I happen to have a bay of three windows, one window would work just fine. Additionally, I am using a tripod here, but I could have just as easily hand held my camera as there was plenty of light coming in through the windows.
In the first row of images, the first image on the left shows my initial indoor set up, with no diffusion at the window and full light hitting the set from the left side. You can see that it’s quite bright, even from this wide shot. The image next to it, shows a close up of my set, with a sheer diffuser added at the window, giving the scene soft lighting. However, note that the right side of the salad is quite dark. Though the light is now nice and soft, most of it is hitting the side closest to the window, the left side. In this situation, simply use a reflector – like a small piece of white board or foam core (bend it in half so it stands on it’s own, you don’t need a stand) or even the white side of a menu (if you’re in a restaurant) or drape a white cloth napkin up over a dark menu – to bounce light back on to the food. Place the reflector facing the opposite side of the light source (here, the window) so that it is, in fact, catching the light and bouncing (or reflecting) the light back onto your food. Move it closer to the food if you want more light, farther away if you want less light. This can be done regardless of being inside or outside.
This second row of images is the same set up as above, but with the example of adding a white foam core reflector to the right of the set which is bouncing just a little more light back on to the right side of the salad. It softly opens up all the shadows. Again, move it around to your liking.
This last set of images of ice cream shows another example using the exact same set up as the salad above. There is no diffusion in between the light coming in through the window in the image on the left, and then the effect the addition of a sheer mesh window curtain panel has on the same image, on the right.
The addition of the sheers creates the soft, non-direct light that is most pleasing in food photography. As a side note, I did add a bounce card to the right, as I did above, to kick in just a little more light in the shadows to the right of the surface and ice cream alike.
*There may be some of you who prefer the un-diffused or un-reflected versions. If your images are for your own enjoyment, remember, in the end, they are your images and should be to your liking.
Take your time and learn to understand the different qualities of light. Don’t be afraid to manipulate it by practicing and then using the simple tips shown here. In time, you will learn to see beautiful light everywhere.
Initially, I encourage you to take multiple images with all the variations so you can compare them for yourself. You will see a world of difference in your food photos using these simple steps alone.
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