Amateur’s Food Photo Series Part 2: Food Photography is about Celebrating Light

by Jenn on January 15, 2011

in Photography

Cappuccino Love

Welcome to the 2nd week of my amateur’s photography series!  This week I want to talk about light.  In my mind, photography is just an extension of the praise and celebration of beautiful light.  The camera worships light as ancient cultures worshipped the sun.  At first you may think your photo is all about the food, but really it is about how light interacts with your food to create an image.  Your light dictates everything about your photo.  It influences not only the settings you choose, but the entire character of the photo itself.  Anything can look beautiful in wonderful light.  The right lighting can do wonders for the ease of communicating whatever message you are trying to convey with your photography.  Lots of dark strong shadows can make a moody pensive photo, or golden rays of the late afternoon sun can add warmth and comfort.  The key is learning to recognize what is good light, when it occurs or how to create it, and finally, how to manipulate and control that light to illuminate all of the right places in your photo.

The main things I think about when considering my lighting situation are the color of the light, the angle of the light, and the softness of the light.  I don’t have much experience in artificial lighting, so my favorite light to work with is soft diffused natural light, often coming from the side a bit to create shadows and depth.  And if you look at my most recent posts, you will notice this is often the type of lighting I use to create my photos.

1. Your built-in flash is NOT good light for food.
I just have to get this out of the way, first and foremost.  This has been reiterated on just about every food photography website/resource I’ve ever read.  It’s way too bright, makes everything grossly shiny, and removes all the shadows making for a flat image.  It often makes the background really dark too, causing your overly bright washed out food to stand out as even flatter than before.  Food likes dimension, and shadows, and natural sheen.  The number one thing you can do to instantly help your photography is to make sure you are not using the flash that came on your camera.
*There is some equipment you can buy to help your camera’s built-in flash.  But I’m not going to get into that for this post.

2. The color of light matters.
If you’re going to shoot with the ambient artificial kitchen light in your home, my best advice is to make sure only one “type” of light is on at a time.  Don’t mix incandescent with fluorescent, because you will have different colors of light on your food, which as I reiterated before, is not the easiest to correct for.  However, if you have just one type of light, there is a better chance that you will be able to correct your white balance.  One can use the white balance feature on their camera, or try to correct in a photo-editing software after the picture is taken.  However, unless you are a photoshop expert, the closer you are to daylight color or “white”, the easier it will be to make any corrections later.

These were all taken on the “auto” white balance setting in my camera, in three different kinds of light in my home:


Clearly, I am not a photoshop expert.  I used the “correct color cast” function in photoshop elements, and as you can tell, the easiest for me to do anything with was the natural light.  I avoid my standard kitchen lights as much as possible.  And since I have no daylight colored artificial lights, I stick with natural.

3. Natural light comes in pretty colors.
Ok, now that we’ve all turned off our in-camera flashes and know that our standard kitchen lights aren’t necessarily ideal, let’s go looking for some nice light.  One of the difficult things about working with natural light is that it changes so much – a cloud passes overhead, a storm comes, or maybe you have the warm glow of a sunrise shining through.  Each has their place.  Clouds can be nice because although they limit the amount of light around, they are nature’s great diffuser, softening the sun’s rays to an ambient caress around the plate.  It’s nice to use the changing colors of daylight to your advantage to create the mood you are looking for.  For example, some pics of smoked garlic (I know, I use this garlic in everything! Believe it or not I’m slowly using it all, I’ve only got about 5 heads left) – both use natural light, same garlic, just sitting on my dining table.

About 1pm:
Smoked Garlic

About 5pm:

Smoked Garlic

These are two completely different photos, and a big part of that is the color of the light passing through the window.  As you can see in the 2nd photo, the angle is also lower too, which helps to create some stronger shadows.  Knowing what color, amount, and angle the fates allow to pass through my windows helps me to use daylight to my advantage, to create the shot I’ve envisioned in my head.  You can imagine how a slice of cake or a plate of salad would have a very different character in these two types of natural light.  Some kinds of natural lighting may be better suited for your photo than others.

The photo at the top of this post – the cardamom cappuccino in the teacup? It only looks the way it does because of how the sun was shining at that particular moment in time through my window.  And it was the light that made the cappuccino beautiful (it obviously wasn’t my styling!).  All I had to do was stand in the the right place and properly expose it with the right settings to capture that moment of beauty into a photo.  But really, in that case the scene made itself.

4. Food often likes diffused light.
Be careful about harsh direct lighting.  This goes for both sunshine and artificial light. Like the built-in camera flash, you can run the risk of light that is too harsh creating some glare effects, stark shadows, or none at all.  A couple Summers ago, I thought to myself, “Oh what gorgeous sunlight! Let me take my photo outside bathing in all of this beautiful light!”  Yeah, the result was not so pretty, eh?


In different circumstances, those Maple Berry Pots de Créme could really have looked nice.  Instead, I did the dessert a real injustice photographing them this way.  They really were delicious.

Here’s another not awesome direct lighting example, from a stove top light, a Parmesan Crusted Quiche:


The harsh direct kitchen lighting is giving this cheese a sheen that makes it look like stale day-old pizza that sat out too long.  And this quiche was fresh! right out of the oven (and fantastic).  It’s not the worst photo I’ve ever taken, but that direct overhead lighting isn’t doing it any favors, that’s for sure.

But soft light is a big reason why these stuffed cabbage rolls look so delectable –

Vietnamese Cabbage Roll Soup

A little sheen, but no crazy glare.  The shadows are still present, but not hopefully not overly distracting in the image.  Just enough to give some dimension to the photo.  At least that was my logic when I took it :)

5. Angled light can create nice shadows.
I usually spend a lot of time trying to get rid of shadows.  But they have a place.  Getting rid of them entirely may not be the best thing for what you are trying to photograph.  It was the shadows that turned this wilted and collapsed soufflé into something worth looking at:

Collapsed Moitié-Moitié "Swiss Fondue" Soufflé

If my lighting had been different, if the shadows did not fall where they did, this photo probably would not have been nearly as attractive.

These aren’t absolute rules, but more broad guidelines that I tend to follow when I think about creating an image.  My general rule of thumb is that if I see crazy glare or deep dark shadows that are distracting you from the point of the dish, it may be time to change the lighting – play around with the lights that you have, try your hand at diffusing light, or if you are at the mercy of the weather as I often am, wait for a different time.  We’ll talk about some ways (rather, my extremely rudimentary ways) to manipulate lighting a bit later.  The first step is recognizing the lighting that you are working with, and figuring out if that is the lighting that you want for your shot.

For your next food photo, look at the light around you, and look at how it is falling on the food.  Figure out where the light is coming from, and what color it is giving to your plate.  Are there shadows? Is that a good or a bad thing?  Is the light helping tell the story you are composing within the frame?  It’s hard when we first start out to think about anything but the food we are trying to photograph.  But I encourage you to really think about the light and how it is influencing your shot.  Composing a great shot is not just about having pretty food to photograph.  It’s about having pretty and beautifully lit food to photograph.