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”