Food Photography Lighting Tips

I have gotten quite a few emails and questions about photography over the last few months, so I am  posting an article that I wrote for Food Blog Forum last July. Hope this is useful!

Lighting is the most important element of photography. After all, photography means writing with light. Yes you can buy a super expensive professional camera and lots of expensive lenses, but if you do not know how to control the light, then these are useless. Hopefully these tips will help you understand how to control the light and make great pictures.

I am going to show you that by controlling:

1. Shadow Contrast

2. Quality

of the light, you can make the picture that you envisioned.

Shadow Contrast

When setting up a picture, you have to decide what direction you want the light to come from. In this series of images, the light is coming from the right. This is evident by the shadow of the tomato appearing on the left.

Notice how the shadow on the tomato is pretty dark and heavy. This is neither right nor wrong, but say that you want the shadow to be lighter and have less contrast. Right now the image has a very high contrast. If we wanted to decrease this contrast we would have to fill in the shadow. You can do this very easily and inexpensively. All you need is a piece of white foam board, or a white reflector or white poster board. I prefer white foam board because it is cheap, light weight, and I can cut it to any size I need.

You can see here that with the foam board 24 inches away there is a decrease in shadow contrast. You can see more detail in the tomato’s shadows. Now watch as I move the board closer to the set.

Now the foam board is as close to the subject as possible. Notice there is still faint shadow present to show the direction of the light. There is no right nor wrong answer to how much contrast you should have. It all depends on what you want your image to say.

Quality of Light

To describe the quality of light, I am going to use the terms diffused and specular. Diffused light is soft and characterized by very soft shadow edges. Specular light is hard and characterized by very sharp shadow edges. A shadow’s edge is the outline of the shadow that you see. Here is a cupcake I had in Boulder at Tee and Cakes that illustrates this point.

Notice where I have circled in red. You can see the soft line present in diffused light and a hard line in the specular. There are times when you want a hard shadow line caused by specular light, while there are times when you want a soft shadow line caused by diffused light. Personally, I think the soft diffused light looks best.

To diffuse the light you can use any white translucent fabric. In this example I am using a bed sheet.

Here is our tomato with just window light.

Now I add the bed sheet to diffuse the light.

Notice how the shadow line on the left side of the tomato has become softer. The bed sheet diffuses the light coming in from the window creating a nice soft shadow line on the tomato.

By learning when to add fill to a scene and what type of light you want, you can start to make great photos. I hope this was helpful! If you have any questions let me know and I will try to answer them.

Want to learn more about food photography? Check out the behind the scenes tutorial I have created called photographing FOOD! Issue 1-8 are out now! 

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the lighting tips. I have been getting hard shadow effects in some of my pics. Since I’m only take pics at night, I have to play with several light sources. I probably should invest on diffusers. Thanks Taylor!

  2. Try It You Might Like It says

    Thank you for this incredibly detailed post.
    I can’t wait for the days when it is still bright when I get home.

  3. says

    This is great! Do you have any tips for shooting with a speedlight at night? Unfortunately that’s when I’m usually shooting since I work during the day. Thanks!

  4. Kathy says

    I just found this site and have signed up to have my blog included (in progress hopefully). If there’s anything that all the food blogs I love have in common, it’s the photography. I still use a point and shoot, but will rectify that as soon as tax season is done (oh the life of a freelance writer!). I plan to take some courses in lighting, but this article really helps. I will also read your post about night lighting that you recommended. Thanks Taylor, much appreciated advice!

  5. says

    Hello. I follow you on twitter as a fellow Charlottean and I just happened to check my twits or whatever they’re called, today, and I just had to check this post out. Thanks so much for your help. I am currently living in South America as a newlywed with the hubby and the houses aren’t like back home. There is barely any light that enters and I have one good window that I try to take my pics by. But sometimes it’s just so hard to get the right picture. I use the back of a board that’s white to reflect the light and I can totally see a difference. I am just a babe starting out in this blog world but hope to see a change in my pictures as I progress. Thanks again.

  6. says

    Great post! I’ve never thought of diffusing the light from a window. I had no idea what a difference it makes! I wish I had more daylight hours available to shoot and a full-sized window door like you’ve got sure would be nice!

    • says

      Thanks Kristen. A smaller Window will work as well, my balcony door is just easiest for me to use. I am thinking about doing a post on shooting at night. It seems that lack of daylight shooting time is a common problem for people. Thanks for the comment.

  7. says

    Thanks so much for sharing some tips on lighting! I just recently moved to Charlotte and am having a bit of difficulty in finding a new window to shoot by and what time of day. I look forward to tying out some of these tricks once I do!

  8. mallory m says

    great post! i don’t know all the technicalities of photography, nor am i a photographer by any means (i’m more the point and shoot with my digital camera and don’t change many functions), but it’s cool to see the different tricks for getting a particular shot.

  9. says

    Thanks a lot, it’s very very useful. I however still have few doubts. I understand these techniques, but what about the camera , what exposure point should we keep it at ? and what mode should we use .. AV ?

    • says

      Kankana,

      Your exposure will all depend on the lighting in your environment, so I can’t say for sure what that should be. It is unique to each environment. I shoot on Manual mode but you could use AV if your want. You will have to increase your exposure by opening up the aperture ( for example changing from f 5.6 to f 4) of increase the shutter speed ( example for from 1/200th of a second to 1/100th) when you add diffusion to the light. Adding a sheet to diffuse the light will decrease the intensity of the light so you will have to increase the exposure to compensate for that. I can’t say how much because that depends on the diffusion material. I hope that helps!
      - Taylor

  10. says

    What a great post! I love that you show the set-up. Makes it so much easier to try and recreate a similar environment at home. Thanks for the great tips!

  11. says

    This is a great post. I am always confused at to where to place the reflector – opposite the light source or adjacent. Your post gives me better understanding. Thank you!

  12. says

    Great tutorial!! Very well-explained. Love the side-by-side pictures and all your examples. Thank you! Can’t wait to start using your techniques.

  13. says

    Thank you for these tips! Am running out to get white foam core this weekend. Looking forward to better-looking blog pics. :)

  14. says

    Having published on photograzing a bunch of times, but being rejected by foodgawker (grrr) a bunch of times, I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I came across your tutorials and lighting tips. Great advice. I’m going to resubmit some pics soon. You’ve encouraged me! Thanks.

  15. says

    Great to meet you! We’re putting together 99 links to help foodbloggers take better photos. I love your post and would like to add a link back to this specific post. We’ll send you a link to our completed work once its all put together for your permission. Thank you again…

    Cheers

    Christine
    christine@knapkins.com

  16. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I am a graphic designer just getting started on a food blog…and while I can photoshop with the best of them, my photography skills need major work!

    This is the first blog I found that had easy straight forward tips. Thank you again!

  17. says

    Hi Taylor – I wanted to let you know that after reading just one of your tutorials, I reshot a recipe and submitted what I thought was my best shot to both Tastespotting and Foodgawker, and had it published by both this week! I had actually stopped submitting my shots after 26 consecutive rejections last year, (for a different blog) by Foodgawker and I can’t tell you how elated I feel right now. Thank you so much for your pointers – they have proven more helpful to me than anything else I have so far read on the internet!! I consider your site required reading for all food bloggers who are serious about improving their photography and editing skills.

  18. Christine says

    Hi Taylor, thank you for this useful information! When you use the sheet as a diffuser, did you still use the fill? Also, can you please explain the difference between the picture with the fill 6 inches away and the large diffusion picture? They look very similar to me shadow-wise and I’m wondering if there is a difference and when you would use one technique over the other. Thanks!

  19. says

    Great tips! Always looking to improve the photos on my blog. It’s difficult when photographing without good natural light. Any tips for that scenario?

  20. Lillymaris Perez says

    Hi, I have a new job and I’m taking pictures of food. Right now I’m stock with a photography of juice and I would love if you could help me with some tips and styles. Thank you so much.

  21. says

    Thank you for the tips! I’ve been using things on hand (e.g. white computer paper) to deal with shadows, but didn’t know about the light diffusion aspect.

  22. Loretta E says

    Oh, boy. I’m just learning so much. I’m still at the point where I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I’ve never checked any of my photos to see how diffused the light is. But I’m going to start! I love the shots where you pull back and show the whole set up. Gives me a little hope because mine looks similar. Now I just have to find a bed sheet…

  23. Cildemac Marques says

    Thank you very much!
    Great tips.
    Your website is a great tool for whose willing to take better/professional pictures.

  24. Allyson Pallagi says

    Omg after reading this it makes more séance and I understand how to do it better.nalso you gave me lots of tips that are very helpful in take food photography.nthanks so much.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] In thinking about how to shoot this, I decided I wanted to make it in a metal pan, and have a white background. Instead of just picking one shot, I wanted to talk about how different camera angles can give you different shots. Here is the lighting set up I used. It is just window light with a diffusion panel on one side and a foam fill card on the other. Same lighting setup, I talk about in this post. [...]

  2. [...] the shadows. Traditionally they will have a darker background and emphasis is put on the contrast.(An explanation on shadow contrast and controlling it)  THIS DOES NOT MEAN AN UNDEREXPOSED IMAGE. You can’t just under expose an image and call it [...]

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