To understand lighting, you have to put your plate of food on the table and take photos under different lighting conditions. I’ve been doing that for years, and I know — I KNOW — that there’s still room for improvement in the lighting of my food photos.
I’ve come across photography tips that insist on photographing food using natural light and natural light only. For the longest time, I believed that. I’d get up at unholy hours and cook early to be able to take photos using daylight. I’ve moved tables in various parts of the garden to get the best results.
But, after years of being a slave to sunlight, I finally realized the glaring and obvious truth. As cheap as natural light is — totally free, in fact — it is not always a must in food photography.
To begin with, natural light is different every minute of the day. Where the sun is relative to the plate of food you’re photographing makes a world of difference.
When the light is directly overhead (as it is in midday), the shadows are short and sharp, and the lighting on food photos appear harsh. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, light comes from the side (or front or back depending on how you position your plate or bowl) and shadows are longer and softer. But take food photos outdoors just as the sun is about to set and the photos will appear orange-y.
Secondly, where you are in the world affects the quality of natural light. In autumn and winter when natural light is more gray than blue, colors in photos appear flat. In the spring and summer when the skies are brighter, natural colors pop up better.
That was a lesson I learned the hard way. I live in a tropical country where skies are rarely overcast. Then, I travelled to the northern hemisphere in autumn and winter, and I was crestfallen that most of my photos looked so drab. Not my fault. It was totally beyond my control. In autumn and winter, there are water molecules in the air that scatter light of all wavelengths, and colors in photos do not appear as bright nor as sharp.
A window or a door is a good source of natural light for indoor photography. Well, so long as direct sunlight does not land on the food. This is a set-up I do a lot. Have done a lot. But not always successfully.
Ambient colors affect how food photos look
The color of curtains, nearby furniture, walls… all these are factors to consider when taking food photos indoors using natural light. Light bounces. Even if you have a white plate on a table covered with white tablecloth, if the wall next to the table is orange, warm hue will still somehow find its way into the photo. We used to have orange walls and dark wood furniture, and, believe me, they ruined a lot of food photos.
Light source and distribution can be crucial
These days, my favorite spot inside the house for taking food photos during the day is a corner with windows on both sides. It’s a corner so the windows are perpendicular. It’s become my favorite spot after we had the walls painted white during the last house renovation, and replaced the furniture with wood in natural color.
Why is it my favorite spot? Because the food gets light from two directions which makes the lighting quite even. Of course, depending on the time of day, it can happen that there’s more light coming from one window than the other, but that’s easily fixed by using a small reflector to even out the lighting.
If working with natural light is not easy as it sounds, taking food photos using artificial light is even trickier. But I find artificial lighting to be more reliable. Depending on the equipment, just about any aspect of lighting can be controlled.
I’ve tried a lot of lighting equipment. A photo box, ring lights and video lights. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes which, fortunately, I also learned from. What have I learned?
- When buying artificial light, it’s important to get dimmable lighting. Even better are lights that allow you to control the hue from warm (yellowish) to cold (bluish) in various degrees. Why? Because how much light you need, and whether light should be warm, warmer, cold or colder, depend a lot on the color of the food and dinnerware you’re using.
- Placing the light above your plate of food is a really bad idea. It’s like photographing food outdoors at midday. Artificial lighting is better positioned to the left and right of the plate. How high or low depends on the height of the food on the plate (if you have a budget for only one light source, using a reflector to make the light bounce from the opposite direction is a good idea).
- Covering the light with a fabric filter causes diffusion that gives the photos a softer look.