Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene. For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.
The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.
Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.
It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!
If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly. By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to the image.
On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject. If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.
With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!