Amateur’s Food Photography IV: Angles of Light

by Jenn on February 2, 2011

in Photography

Welcome to the 4th edition of the Amateur’s Food Photography Series!  This week I am going to keep it short and try to get you thinking about light again.  We’ve talked before about how natural light from the sun varies in color and angle depending on the time of day, but that doesn’t mean if you go the natural lighting route that you have absolutely no control.  For today, I’m going to go over the simplest lighting case – unidirectional light – no reflectors or other manipulation, just natural light coming in through a window.   If you start adding in reflectors or extra light sources, then you can make the lighting more complex and our conversation transforms to a different subject for a different day.  At the present moment, I do use at least a white board and some small mirrors to bounce light around and control the shadows, but I spent a very very long time just taking whatever came through my window.  But even at the complete mercy of of the daylight, you still can think about how lighting affects the color and mood of your food, and you can still orient the food to alter the angle from which the light is coming.  So, this week I am dedicating to looking at the angles of light :)

The Clock System:


It’s often easiest for me to refer to direction of light in terms of the clock system, because talking about where the light is coming from/shining on can get a bit confusing – this way front lighting, or rather, when light is coming from the front of the photo, can be simply referred to as coming from 6 o’clock. Side lighting, when light is coming from one side or another, can be coming from 3 or 9 o’clock (depending on which side we are discussing), and back lighting, light coming from behind the photo, can be coming from 12 o’clock.  And using the clock system, you can talk about every angle in between.  For example, this photo below the plate and I are positioned so that the light is not a direct side lighting, but more like around 1-2 o’clock or so:

Homemade GF Pasta Dinner

Using a clock system for describing direction of light, you can quickly describe where light is coming from.  Let’s discuss a bit some of the types of angles of light and how they can be used to either flatter or detract from your image.

Front lighting was my first favorite lighting, because I used to think shadows were evil (now I know better, they are not evil, and often welcome to add dimension to a photo).  Front lighting can be good, or it can make food look flat.  I remember loving this photo I took of quesadillas last summer, and you can see it is mainly front lit, as the shadows are behind the food –


But front lighting isn’t always flattering.  Take a look at these two photos of salad.  One, left, was taken with front lighting (6:00) and the other, right, I took from the other side of the table to have back lighting (12:00):

_PAG5028salad _PAG5000salad

The difference between the two photos is like night and day.  Now I know it doesn’t help the comparison that the goat cheese on the front-lit photo is totally overexposed, but other than that one of the biggest differences between the photos is the shadows, which has everything to do with the direction the light came from.  On the left, there are not many shadows at all.  Everything is completely lit.  On the right, the entire front of the plate is in shadow.  The positioning/presence of shadows can lend very different moods to a photo.  With my salad shots, I believe the clear winner is the right one, the backlit one.  I didn’t change a thing about my setup on the table to get these shots.  All I did was move to the other side of the table so that my light was coming at my subject from a different angle.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to totally change the quality of a photo.

Lately, however, I have become a fan of side lighting, and angled back lighting.  I love to use 10:00-11:00 or 1:00-2:00 angles, because I like where the shadows or highlights can fall.  Here the photo of sweet orange chicken is mostly side lit, but the light is coming at just a slight angle from the back (2:00?) to give a little direction to the sheen on the sweet orange sauce –

Sweet Orange Chicken

So the angle between your camera, your food, and your light can have a profound effect on the sort of shot you get.  But it also makes an easy way to play.  Want to totally switch things up and try something new? Just move around a bit and put the light in a different place compared to you and the food.  Or rotate your plate and see how the different angle changes how you envision the photo.

Vertical Angles:


As we discussed earlier about sunlight having different angles depending on the time of day, one can also think about the vertical angle of light.  Light that is purely horizontal to the food will give the longest shadows (just like in early morning), and as light raises higher, the shadow gets shorter and shorter.  When light is directly overhead, shadow is cast purely downward onto the table.  Given that I don’t own a lighting system of my own yet and so mostly rely on the good sun to shine through my window, I mainly deal with something between these extremes, though not exclusively.  Here’s an overhead lighting shot from my in-laws’ kitchen a couple years ago at Thanksgiving:

Mini Apple Pies

It may not be the best quality picture or styling, but the overhead artificial lighting isn’t so terrible here (it was also the only option I had at the time – these mini apple pies did not last long so I had to take a pic quickly amongst the hustle & bustle of Thanksgiving preparations!).  By placing the pies on top of each other, I added height which allowed a little shadow below them, adding a slight bit of depth to what otherwise might have been a rather flat image.

But there is no “right” or “wrong” angle to position your food relative to your light. It all depends on what type of photo you are going for and the mood & atmosphere you are looking to create.  If you feel stuck in a rut with your photos, always shooting the same thing in the same way, playing with the angle of the light by repositioning yourself or your food is a super easy (and free) way to change things up a bit.  So go play, and have fun!

*Note – yes I made the diagrams myself, in Illustrator.  If you’re wondering, the “food” on the plate was supposed to be pasta with parmesan slices, cherry tomatoes, and a leaf of basil on top – that’s my mad “free-hand” drawing skills, lol.

Missed a past Amateur’s Food Photography post? Catch up on the rest of the series:
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light
3 – Take your time and find your “zen place”


Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite February 2, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Jenn this is such a great series. Thanks so much for this super informative post – I kind of *know* about the lighting angles but sometimes don’t always use them. Ahem today I was out on my porch in the middle of a snowstorm taking photos – pretty much taking what I could get LOL. But your post will be printed out and I will study it and do some comparative shots next time I am not battling Mother Nature :-)
PS: your drawings are adorable!

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 12:01 am

Awww thanks Mardi! and wow kudos to you taking pics in the snow storm!! Hope you are faring the crazy weather alright!

Rosa February 3, 2011 at 12:09 am

Very interesting! You are lucky to be able to shoot pictures inside during the winter. I generally have to go on my balcony in order to get good light. Very painful…



Jenn February 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

and cold! wow you are dedicated to take pictures outside at the time of year! I usually do end up with some rather long exposures because there isn’t so much light…

Prerna@IndianSimmer February 3, 2011 at 1:00 am

Those are some very important tips to get a great photo Jenn! You are doing a really great job with your Food Photography posts! keep up the good work :-)
All of us are getting so much to learn!

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 8:05 am

Thanks Prerna!

Soma February 3, 2011 at 2:31 am

The clock position really helps and I think i understand a little bit better now by looking at the photographs. Big help for novices like me. Thank you for the wonderful post.

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 8:06 am

Oh great, I’m glad it helps!!

Sukaina February 3, 2011 at 5:55 am

Thanks you Jenn for such an informative post…..the pictures are super helpful and I always look forward to these type of posts!

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 8:06 am

Thanks! I’m happy that this is useful for you!

InTolerantChef February 3, 2011 at 10:07 am

I’d never thought about it that way, Jenn. Thanks for giving me something to think about, and easy to remember!

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Thanks! Always glad to help :)

Cakewhiz February 3, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Omg! Thanks alot for sharing all this wisdom. I am still new to the blogging world as well as photography. I have a fancy camera but simply have no idea how to take nice pics with it. I can’t wait to try out all these techniqes :)

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 6:34 pm

You’re welcome, have lots of fun learning how to use your camera!

Tanvi February 3, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Thanks Jenn for such posts.Immense help to newbies like us.I look forward to more of such posts where you share ypur experiences and problem solving techniques.Glad to have found you through a retweet .

Jenn February 3, 2011 at 10:30 pm

You’re welcome!

Maggie February 4, 2011 at 1:21 am

I knew exactly what your picture was – thank you SOOOOO much for spending the time doing those. Jenn, I can’t tell you enough how much I am loving this series. It’s so interesting. I really wish I had just 10 more minutes when I was taking my photos :) It’s a good thing my kids are cute! LOL. I’m hoping to pull this post up next time I’m taking a pic. I usually do the side view, just because that’s where I can get my light. Am I right that 6:00 lighting means that the sun is behind your camera (and thus your back)? And 12:00 the sun is in front of your camera? Thanks Jenn. When I come to Switzerland to visit Pete’s family, I’m taking you out for dinner :) But will you still make me dinner too? Heehee.

Jenn February 4, 2011 at 7:55 am

Aww thanks Maggie. And yes, you are correct. Ha and I def. make you dinner, let me know when you come out!

Nashira February 5, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Hey Jenn! I’m so glad to have found you through my photo critique request to Neel – this is indeed a treasure find for me! Thanks so much for the precious information you shared on my photo. It is a great advantage to recieve feedback from talented and passionated people like you. I have just finished reading all your four series on amateur food photography and all I can say is a big, BIG thank you! I wish I had read this before sending my photograph to Neel, ah! I’ve come across people mention the clock system in their articles related to food photography, but it has often left me clueless. Your pictorial illustrations has made it all so simple for a total amateur like me! Oh your sketches are cute and neat :) Once again, thanks a ton for sharing your passion and knowledge with us!

Jenn February 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Thanks Nashira, I’m glad it’s helpful! Yeah once you understand the clock system I think it’s a really efficient way to think about lighting :)

Jessica February 7, 2011 at 7:20 am

Jenn! I just want to tell you that I have been loving all your blog posts on photography! I have already shared it with 3 people who have asked about getting better pictures!

You are such a rockstar! :-)

Jenn February 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Aww thanks Jessica!!

Anita Menon February 8, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Excellent post. I am new food blogger and I need all the help in the photography department.

Your diagrams are really good and depicts the idea very clearly.

Thanks !!

Jenn February 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Thanks! I’m glad it’s clear and easy to understand – if you have any questions about anything, please don’t hesitate to ask :)

Laurie February 21, 2011 at 6:27 am


Thank you so much for posting this series! One of my challenges is flat lighting so posting the pictures showing the different angles was so helpful. You also got me thinking about the little details that can make (or break) a picture. With the cold weather (and tons of snow) we’ve had up north, I am finding myself doing a lot of food photography.

Thanks again for your very informative posts!


Linda February 22, 2011 at 5:06 am

I’m catching up on my reading here. This is another useful post. I love your diagrams. I’m going to experiment with light coming from different directions. I love the side by side photos of the salad–very helpful!

Jenn February 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

Thanks Linda, can’t wait to see how your experimenting goes!

Alissa March 14, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Just stumbled upon your blog. Your photos are beautiful! Thanks for the tips, hopefully my photos will look as nice as yours in the near future!!!

Jenn March 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Thanks so much!

Sandhya June 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Hi Jenn ,
I have stumbled by ur food series.. and am loving it.. reading them back to back….
Just an amateur food blogger.. and learning from every read and experience…
Thanks for sharing..


Jenn June 18, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Oh thanks!!! I’m glad you’re enjoying them!

the yummyblogsisters September 27, 2011 at 6:45 pm

so useful! thank you for this very interesting post, looking forward to read more (got some catching up to do I see!)

Jenn September 27, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Thanks, glad it’s helpful and hope you enjoy the others :)

twinky (@TheTwinkyCake) April 27, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Jenny, thanks for your great tips!
This is the first time I visit your blog and already love it!
Bye…Twinky from Italy

Jenn April 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thanks, glad you like it!

polly March 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

What can I say? You just rock. I love your work and you generosity is sublime. Sharing your knowledge and making it all appear so simple…like a walk in the park (although I know it isn’t!).
Thank you. I happened to run into your site accidentally and it has been a pleasure. I have taken a fancy to food photography lately and I am just so going to try all your tricks and suggestions.
Thank you much, again!

Jenn March 17, 2013 at 4:03 am

Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed the series!

Amy January 20, 2014 at 3:04 am

Your photos are absolutely beautiful! And it doesn’t hurt that you have a European canvas :) Thank you for the tutorials. I am finding them most helpful as I set up a mini studio of my own. Best to you.

Jenn January 22, 2014 at 8:42 pm

Aww thank you so much!

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