Photoshop to the Rescue: Non-Ideal Lighting

by Jenn on December 19, 2009

in Photography


Everyone knows that the best situation for photographing is during the day with a great amount of natural light flooding through the windows that can be shaded or diffused as needed but nevertheless shines a pure white color on your delicious freshly made food.  If food blogging isn’t your career (and even if it is), it can be hard to cook and photograph during great natural light.  For me, I am often confronted with the very non-ideal, especially during the long nights of these winter months.  If it’s not made and cooked before 4 pm, there just isn’t enough natural light around.  And when people don’t get home to eat until 7, making dinner at 3 in the afternoon is just a bit impossible.  I’m going to show you a bit of what I mean with this picture of my classic Swiss fondue, which was accepted at 3 of 4 food photography sites (foodgawkerphotograzingrefrigerator soup – rejected by tastespotting), despite the crazy awful lighting that I had to deal with.

The problem – crappy lighting: If you have some money to spend you can invest in a studio area and purchase your own lights and an external flash or two.  But what if you don’t?  And what if snapping a shot of delicious cheese fondue as you are making it isn’t conducive to moving your entire cooking operation to a whole new area?  And what if after 5 minutes of not tending to it the fondue is no longer going to look as awesome?  I often think bakers have it easier, because a cookie on a plate is pretty much going to remain unchanged 5 minutes later, and so is able to be a bit more portable and allows for more time to snap a shot.  But not melted cheese, no way.  When I made this fondue I was able to take exactly 12 frames, and that was even with my husband’s help.  All of this means that I am often forced to use the lighting available in my kitchen – that means either fluorescent overhead lights, or an incandescent over the stove, or a combo of both.

The setup and the compromises:  To take this shot, my husband dipped an apple slice in the not quite ready fondue and held it in the air while I photographed.  Yes, I used a fondue fork to stir here because I am lazy and hate doing dishes lol.  That’s pretty much it.  He did this exactly twice.  I chose the fluorescent lighting over the incandescent because it was a lot brighter, which helps me to battle the longer exposure times.  While a tripod helps, I like to take pictures with my camera vertical and my tripod def. doesn’t accommodate that or the several angles I would approach food as I move around quickly.  So no tripod.  I use a high ISO setting (400), a shallow DOF by using a low f-stop (5.3), set my white balance to fluorescent, hold my breath (to keep from moving as much), and snap a shot.  I was able to keep my exposure down to 0.1 s, and even then it is hard to stay still well enough.  I must thank my husband for holding the apple slice still too.  A blurry image is something photoshop will never be able to fix, so make sure your image is in focus. The other compromise is just take an underexposed shot and correct it later in photoshop.  Sometimes this works (well sorta), sometimes it doesn’t.  I have had rather limited success with this.

The result – crappy photo: Even doing all that, because of the nature of the lighting, I got green cheese (see pic on the left).  Totally unappetizing when looking at that photo, no one wants to eat green food (when it’s not produce).  It was so yummy to look at in person, I want my photo to capture everything I remember seeing when I was standing right there.  Also, the glare from the direct overhead lighting makes the cheese on the apple way too shiny.  That doesn’t help the mouthwatering factor either.  But the cast is not just green.  There’s a little blue in there, there are things that a single color can’t completely fix.

The solution – photoshop correction:  Unfortunately I don’t have a standard formula to fix photos in photoshop.  It’s a lot of trial and error, small tweakings and manipulations until I get something I am happy (or at least happier) with.  But I will explain as best as I can.

1. If you remembered to shoot a quick pic with a grey card, you can use photoshop to correct your lighting.  This can help a lot.  But you have to remember to do it.  A grey card is your best option for fixing lighting issues/color casts, especially if you have mixed sources that your auto-white balance feature can’t handle well.

2. If you didn’t remember, then you need to get a bit more creative.  When I open up my RAW image file in photoshop elements (cause I’m poor and can’t buy the full version), I am presented with a number of meters that I can change before I even get into the full program.  I use these extensively especially for lighting adjustment.  The first thing I do is to get rid of all of the automatic adjustments and start with the exposure, and then the brightness (yes, they are two very different things).  Then, I start playing with shadows and contrast (I upped shadows and reduced contrast to negate some of the glare on the apple).  Not until I have adjusted the lighting situation do I even start looking at the color.  You can also do most of this in the levels adjustment, which allows for quite a bit more precision.

3. There are a gazillion ways to adjust color in photoshop, and depending on my mood/what I want, I may use several of them.  For example here, I first adjusted the overall hue to a little more red and away from the green, desaturated the overall color a bit (to keep the cheese from being so glaringly bright), and then upped the saturation of the red because those beautiful local cortland apples were bright red – absolutely gorgeous.  After this I opened up the levels again and went into each of the RGB channels – I ended up adjusting all three channels to some extent, incorporating a bit of warmth and a more purplish tint to really help the cheese.  I also reduced the color noise to help counterbalance the ISO of 400 that I used to get this image.

Moral of the Story – Even the cheapo version of photoshop can be a great tool for post-processing image adjustment when you have to shoot under less than ideal conditions. But nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, can fully make up for poor lighting.  For example, this picture would never have looked the same in a poor amount of fluorescent lighting:

Of course, my fondue picture would have been tons better taken with an adequate amount of a neutral colored light, either from natural sunlight or with the right lighting setup.  That being said, a few things in photoshop provide a decent band-aid if you have the patience to play around a little.  While looking at both photos side by side you can really see the reds/purples that I added; the right photo definitely does a better job of capturing the fondue the way I remember it.  It’s not perfect by any means, but it is definitely better than the original.

I am no professional and am definitely still learning, so I’d love to hear how you use post-processing to help fix up some of your photos!


gfe--gluten free easily December 20, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Great post, Jenn. I struggle with lighting issues, and have yet to have a photo accepted by tastespotting. I can’t say I’ve submitted many yet, so I can’t beat myself up too badly. I plan to make more submissions to them (and to other sites) in the New Year, so thanks very much for the tips. :-) I’ve actually been using Picasa software and not even Photoshop to date.



Lauren December 20, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Wonderful Jenn! Its great when you can alter a not-so-great photo to make it awesome =D.

Neel | Learn Food Photogaphy December 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm


Thank you for sharing this with me. You are spot on when you mention the importance of lighting in great food photograph. Lighting is so important that, as you experienced, with wrong lighting, the color of food will be messed up and the food will look unappealing.

I think though, it is better to do the correction before you take the photograph rather than later. But that depends on what camera you use too. Which one did you use for taking this photograph?

– Neel

Jenn December 23, 2009 at 3:50 pm

The camera was a Nikon D200 using an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G lens….It really does take great pictures when I can have adequate lighting!

Christine November 4, 2011 at 6:58 pm

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’d love your permission. Please let us know!



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