In March, we went over the camera and lenses. This month we’ll get into lighting, which is one of the biggest components in food photography. So go out and spend everything you have on lots of lights! No, I’m just kidding — here are a few simple things you can do to help improve your food photography without spending a ton of cash.
Choose your light
First, try to use nice natural light, like light from a big window. It’s bright, usually directional, and free. You can then start to control it with a few cheap plexiglass mirrors and small pieces of white foamcore (or any reflective white board or paper). Try to fill in and soften the shadows created by the directional window light by bouncing light back into the shadows with the foamcore.
If you don’t have a big window right next to your kitchen, you don’t have to go out and buy expensive photographic lights. Try working with a few nice bright work lights from a hardware store — start with just two (300-500 watts). You can face one up into the ceiling to give a bright, soft fill.
Point the other from behind the food and a little right or left of the camera. Move the lights around and see where they give the best texture to the food. Keep using the foamcore or mirrors to bounce some of that light back into those dark shadows, just like you did with the window light. Then frame it all up and click.
Find your angle
You’ll notice that a lot of food photography is back-lit and shot into the shadowed side, which makes the background even brighter. This is where a long lens and shallow depth of field can help keep the viewer focused on the food. Place the plated food so that the window light is coming from behind and maybe a little from the left or right. You’ll have to play around and find the best angles from camera to plate and from plate to window to really show off the texture of the food. Fill in the shadows so they aren’t too heavy and then click.
You may find it helpful to use a tripod so that you can keep the same frame while you move the lights, food, and reflectors to get them all working together. The tripod will also help with setting your focus and keeping what you want in focus with a very shallow depth of field.
Take your shot
Well, we’ve gotten through some of the technical stuff, which seems to be where the most common questions arise. Start here and remember to play and experiment. We’ve only hit the surface of the world of food photography — there’s still food styling and the food stylist, prop styling and the prop stylist, and then how to use lighting, lens choice, and framing to evoke those tastes and smells that go along with that great food you’re photographing.
Try out this recipe for Chunky Monkey Bread to practice your new lighting skills. Experiment with setting up your lighting to really highlight the texture of the loaf and the color of the freshly baked crust — then see how long you can hold out before you stop shooting and start nibbling!
Chunky Monkey Bread
- 1½ cups flour
- 1¼ teaspoons salt
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- ⅓ teaspoon baking powder
- 8 tablespoons butter
- 1¼ cup sugar
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 ripe bananas, mashed
- ¾ cups chocolate chunks or chips
- Preheat your oven to 350°F (176°C).
- Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.
- In your blender, mix butter and sugar on high for 2-3 minutes.
- Add in the flour mixture until the consistency is similar to brown sugar.
- Gradually beat in the eggs.
- Fold in the mashed bananas and the chocolate chunks or chips.
- Spread the batter evenly in a buttered 4″ x 9″ (10cm x 23cm) loaf pan. You can also use parchment paper to line the edges and bottom to prevent the bread from sticking to the pan.
- Bake at 350°F (176°C) for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the bread. Let the loaf cool for 5-10 minutes, then pull it from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.