To really take control of your food photography lighting, you need to learn to use artificial lighting.
The good news is that your food photography lighting equipment and set-ups need not be complicated. One light is all you need for great food photos.
Note that for this article, I’m not talking about advertising or food product photography. Those are highly specialised and require more lights and a lot of Photoshop.
This is more about shooting food for blogs, restaurants, and editorial style photos like you see in magazines.
There are a couple of types of artificial lights you can use when taking photos of food. Each has their advantages, as you’ll see below.
A constant light stays on, blanketing your set-up with a steady source of light. The advantage is that you can see exactly how the light and shadows are falling onto your scene.
This is especially useful if you’re shooting tethered, with your camera hooked up to a computer via a USB cable.
Shooting tethered allows you to see a bigger rendition of your image than you can on your camera’s LCD screen. You can easily see where you need to make adjustments to your composition without having to take a shot each time you move something.
Also, if you’re interested in shooting video for your blog or Instagram profile, you will need a constant light.
If you’re just starting out with food or still life photography, a constant light can be a good choice. You can get a decent light at a relatively inexpensive price point.
Once you have improved your skills, you can invest in a more expensive strobe light.
A strobe light is more powerful than most constant lights.
If you’re shooting for a food blog or editorial style photography, you will need a light with at least 300 watts of power. Preferably you’ll have one with 500 watts. For advertising or product photography, you’ll need a lot more power.
Most monoheads come with a modelling lamp built into the strobe head. This is a constant light source that you can turn on to give you a small source of constant light. It helps you to see what you’re doing while composing your shots.
When shooting professionally for clients such as PR or marketing agencies, you will need to work with strobes. It is considered a more professional approach and they will expect it.
Whether you’re using a constant light or a strobe light, you have the same choices in terms of how you set up your light. What will vary is your distance to your table, and the height of your light.
This will take some experimenting to see how the shadows fall, and what works to give you the results that you’re trying to achieve. This can really vary from image to image.
Having an artificial light source is not enough. Yes, you need to get enough light onto your set, but you need to sculpt and shape that light to create the dimension that will show your food in the best way.
A softbox is the most common light modifier used in food and still life photography. Another good modifier and one that I use constantly, is a reflector dish with a honeycomb grid.
A reflector dish is a standard modifier for a studio flash head. A honeycomb grid is placed on a reflector dish and is an accessory with a honeycomb pattern. It cuts off the light and narrows it, which creates beautiful contrast in food photos without looking too harsh. I recommend a 20 or 30-degree grid.
Another important item in your kit is a diffuser. This is a panel of sheer white material that you place at the edge of your table to soften the light that hits your scene.
Strobe light is an explosion of light, which gives a look with hard shadows if it’s not diffused. This is not often the desired look in food photography.
You’ll also need some simple tools to bounce and absorb the light. You can buy a professional 5-in-1 reflector kit, with foldable discs in a variety of materials to use in your shoots.
The silver reflector, for example, can brighten your food, while the gold reflector will add warmth. It usually also comes with a diffuser.
Also, you can also use simple black or white cardboard purchased inexpensively from a craft or dollar store. White will brighten your scene, while the black will absorb the light.
Soft vs. Hard Food Photography Lighting
Before you shoot, you should have an idea of what you want your final image to look like. Do you want the light to look soft and dimensional, or are you looking for striking contrast?
The greater the contrast between light and dark, the more dramatic your image will be. Often, your subject will dictate the light you choose.
Your choice of soft or hard light will determine which modifiers you use. As mentioned, a large softbox will give you soft light, while a dish reflector will give you more contrast. Whichever you choose, the light should be diffused somehow, to give you a nice blur where the light and dark meet.
For example, when I use a dish reflector with a honeycomb grid, I shoot it through an extra-large difusser. The diffusor becomes the light source, not my strobe. This mimics natural light closely, as if the light is coming through a window.
In the image of the pea shoots above, I wanted the light to glow on my surface and emphasise texture. I used soft light in the form of a large softbox.
For the image of the asparagus, I wanted to highlight the texture and structure of the individual stalks, therefore I used hard light. It’s a subtle difference but an important one.
As an experiment, the next time you shoot, photograph your subject in both soft and hard light and note the difference.
How does each approach affect the final result? Many photographers tend to use one or the other as part of their style.
This is when your light is coming from directly beside the food. I recommend placing your one light set-up on your left. Our eyes gravitate towards the brightest part of an image, where the light is entering the scene.
Side lighting is a good approach for a lot of your food photography. It works for most set-ups and is easy to use.
A typical set-up for side lighting is to work with a softbox placed closely to your table. The bigger the light source, the softer the light will be.
This gives an image more dimension, and is a sought after look in food photography.
Place a reflector or bounce card on the opposite side to the light. Depending on how much shadow you want on the side of your food, move it closer or farther away, or use a smaller or larger reflector.
Note that even when shooting white and airy scenes, you still want some shadow to add dimension.
Backlighting is when you position your light behind your food. If you imagine the face of that clock, it’s at 12:00. This is ideal position for beverages or soups, as it adds a sheen and highlights the liquid properties of food.
In general, backlighting is very flattering to food. It makes it gleam and brings out its texture. However, it can be tricky to work with.
One issue with this kind of lighting is that it can cause your image to be too bright at the back, and too dark at the front.
Too much contrast means the back of the photo will be blown out, with a loss of detail blurring into the main subject. Not enough contrast will result in a blown out photo or one that looks washed out, which is what happens when you shoot with too much light.
And there are some foods that it generally doesn’t work for:
- Tall foods like a stack of cookies or brownies, or a tall mound of pasta. It’s difficult to bounce enough light back onto the front of tall foods like burgers or stacks of pancakes.
- When shooting food in a vessel that is tall or deep, like a Dutch Oven.
- Dark or brown foods like meat, especially if plated on white, which creates too much contrast.
Backlighting is not a good choice if you have a lot of dark/light contrast in your image. It emphasizes drastic colour contrasts and can be difficult to balance.
Another issue to be wary of is that sometimes you might end up with too much reflection on top of the food.
To take backlit photos:
- set up your light so it’s coming from behind your food. Make sure you’re working on a table that’s large enough to put reflectors and bounce cards around your subject.
- place a diffuser between your table and light source. This will even out the light between the back and the front of your set-up, so your photos will not look as “blown-out” in the back.
- place a reflector on each side of your scene. You’ll need to play with the positioning of these so that the light coming from the back hits the reflector and bounces back onto the front and side of the food. Depending on your composition and what you’re shooting, you may only need one reflector.
You may find that you need a reflector in front of your camera, placed as high as it can be without getting in the way. This will bounce more light onto the front of your food.
The shot of the Mojitos above was taken with backlighting, since I wanted to make the beverages glow. I set up my light as described above.
You can see how the back of my surface is blown out, while the front is darker. I was careful not to blow out my glasses. The lighting on the back of my scene gives an idea of the sun coming in from a window.
For this shot, I had my camera at around 75 degrees relative to my set. Don’t shoot at a low angle when using backlighting.
You end up capturing the light source in the photo, which will cause the back of your photo to be very blown out. It will also create too much contrast between light and dark.
The food might end up blown out as well when you try to brighten it while post-processing.
Side backlighting is a combination of the first two types of lighting. It’s the best of both worlds and the easiest to work with. Here, our light is placed between 10:00 and 11:00.
With this lighting style, you get the surface shine provided by back lighting without the risk of overexposure. You also don’t have to reflect as much light onto the front of the food because the light is coming at more of an angle.
You get some shine onto the food but don’t have to navigate around as many reflectors.
The set-up is the same as for side lighting, except that your light is at an angle and placed at 10:00 or 11:00 instead of 9:00. Your reflector is opposite your light source.
When using side backlighting, you’ll have to play around with the height of your light relative to your scene, depending on how you want the shadows to fall.
Remember, the closer your light source is to your set, the softer the fall-off will be.
Other Lighting Styles
There are two types of lighting approaches that don’t work with food photography, and those are front lighting and overhead lighting.
Front lighting is when your light is in front of your set, on the same horizontal plane as your camera. It’s great for portrait photography, but it can cast shadows on food. Your images will look flat and lack dimension.
Overhead lighting–where your light is above your set–also creates flat images. It was actually once a popular lighting style, back in the 80s!
Think of your light as a window with natural light pouring in. This will help you visualize and navigate your set-up better.
- Diffuse the light. If you’re using a strobe, you’re getting a strong explosion of light that doesn’t fall off as quickly as natural light. Even if you’re using a softbox, you may have to use extra diffusion placed at the edge of your table to soften your light even more.
- Turn off all the lights. Particularly if you’re photographing with a constant light source. Indoor lights have colour temperatures that can contaminate your images with ugly colour casts that will be extremely difficult to fix in post-processing.
- Give yourself a lot of space. When you shoot with an artificial light, you’ll need room for your light as well as a diffuser and several reflectors or bounce cards.
- Be wary of shine. Because artificial light doesn’t fall off as quickly as natural light, there is a tendency for the light to catch even the slightest shine on shooting surfaces–especially when using backlighting. For shiny props, try playing with their placement, or use vintage items that have a patina to them. You may also want to shoot with a polarizing filter fitted to your lens.
- Dark is easier. Darker shooting surfaces and images that fall in the mid-tones or darker side of the histogram are easier to work with when using a one-light set-ups for food photography.
- Avoid white. If you’re starting out, avoid white shooting surfaces and or shooting images with a lot of white. Until you learn how the height and distance of your light influences your final result, there will be areas around the edge of your images that don’t get enough light. Your image will come out looking grey. Trying to fix this while editing may result in food that is not properly exposed.
The tips in this article will help you understand some of the physics of working with one light in food photography.
Start with side lighting or back side lighting until you feel comfortable with working with an artificial light, then tackle backlighting.
With a bit of practice, you will hone your individual approach and find the best tweaks to your set-ups so that you can consistently make great photos.