Food Photography Lighting
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
How to light food. I was a wedding and portrait photographer for a good part of my career. Back then it was all about being soft, removing wrinkles and blemishes, getting the skin tone right. Food photography is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Food photography is bold. It loves wrinkles, textures, brave colors. Food is life on a plate. To me good food photography is all about making a recipe alive and appetizing.
What is the best lighting for food photography?
Let's break it down to the two main elements: what source of light you have access to and your expertise level.
Setup 1: Natural Light. This is the safe bet. Wherever you're shooting look for the widest window (possibly facing north.) Place the food as close to the window as possible and enjoy the miracle. Soft diffused light will wrap and blanket your table setup.
It's an easy setup.
This light is the most forgiving.
You can use this setup even if you don't own or you don't have with you artificial lighting.
You get a good balance between lighting the subject and the background.
This lighting style can be rather dull
You will need to bump up contrast and saturation in post production
You don't bring the viewer's attention to any specific part of the dish. This lighting setup treats all the elements equally.
Everybody uses this setup. It doesn't show a lot of character
Best food photography lighting.
Setup 2: Direct sunlight. Place your dish under direct sunlight. You will get that lively, gorgeous light quality only our star can give. I suggest a frontal approach to avoid the harshest and longest shadows.
Saturation and contrast, baby!
Direct sunlight is hard to tame but if used properly it is the best lighting source out there.
Shadows add dimension and structure to your image.
It's a very, very harsh lighting setup. Not everybody's cup of tea.
Too many shadows in the frame can be distracting and take the attention away from the dish.
The sun changes its position in the sky during the day and can be blocked by clouds. If you need a steady, reliable lighting source, direct sunlight can be flighty.
Food photography lighting setup
Setup 3: Artificial Lighting. Flash. I have to mention this one, although it's my least favorite. Flash lights or strobes are synched with the camera and produce a burst of light only when we press the shutter button and expose the sensor.
Flash lights can produce a lot of light, capable of overpowering the natural light present on the scene (it's a good way to control the illumination of the scene and to limit leaks from other light sources.)
Flash light is harder to shape, understand and control. You don't see what you get until you look at the image on the back screen of your camera or on your monitor.
Strobes' output is blinding powerful. If you are shooting in a live kitchen or during the restaurant's opening hours, you won't make friends among the personnel or the patrons. Flashes are annoying and draw attention.
Artificial lighting for food photography. Food photography lighting equipment.
Setup 4: Artificial Lighting. LED Lights. I'm in love with them. I use a combination of 1 to 2 wide panels to get diffused light/fill light. 1 medium to large panel as key light and 1 to 3 small videographer led lights for backlighting, reflections and to add a touch of light to the main elements of a dish.
LED panels and video lights are cheap, compact and versatile.
You see what you get, you get what you see. You can move the lights around, live, and get the lighting exactly as you want it, with the right ratios and intensity.
Modern LED panels consume little power, can be battery operated, can be dimmed and have variable color temperature settings.
Lighting setups require time, manpower and space.
Portable LED panels are not as bright as flash lights. If you need a lot of light or if you need to overpower other sources of lights (leaks and spillovers) the power output might not be sufficient.
How do you get perfect lighting? Food photography lighting kit
Setup 5: Artificial Lighting. Mixing Light. My favorite. Whenever I can, I let natural light fill the scene and then I use my LED panels to accentuate, to celebrate the best details of a dish. I love reflections and using LED lights as the main source of backlighting often proves the killer light setup.
You get the best of both worlds: The inclusiveness of natural light and the versatility, the laser targeting of artificial light.
Mixing different sources of light skyrockets your chances of being truly creative and make your food photographs stand out.
Mixing light requires focus and expertise. Especially when the two light sources have different color temperature (Cool-Blue vs Warm-Orange)
Dealing with natural light you can't control and an artificial lighting setup at the same time takes a toll on your mental energy.
Start learning and practicing with natural light.
Bring at least 1 light to your photoshoots. Natural light is great but you can't control it. It changes and fades during the day.
Be bold and always run the following test: If you don't feel the urge to eat what you see on the back of your camera, then you're doing something wrong!
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