When it comes to food photography, the natural light look is highly sought after.
However, it’s difficult to create consistency with natural light because the sun is always moving.
Most pro food photographers use artificial light to really take control of their lighting.
Using artificial lighting doesn’t have to be complicated, though.
Unless you’re doing some types of advertising or food product photography, you can get away with using just one light.
One light is ideal for shooting food for blogs, restaurants, and the editorials you see in popular foodie magazines. You can easily mimic window light, with one set of shadows on your food.
Types of Artificial Light
You can choose from several types of artificial light sources.
The most common approach is to use a strobe like a mono head, which is a self-contained flash unit.
If you’re shooting advertising or product, you need to get to high number F-stops like F/22 to achieve the sharpness required without getting lens diffraction that usually goes along with it.
For these types of shoots, you will need a lot of watt power and most likely you will need to rent powerful battery packs.
However, for editorial type shoots, all you need is a 500-watt strobe. You can even use a speedlight with the right modifier.
Some food photographers like to use a constant light, like an LED light panel, so they can see where the shadows are falling before they press the shutter.
Before You Shoot
Before you shoot, you should think about what you want your final image to look like.
Do you want the light to look soft and airy, or are you looking for deep shadows and striking contrast?
Do you want your light to be soft or hard?
The more contrast you have between light and dark, the more dramatic your image will be.
Your subject will often dictate the style you choose. For example, ice cream has the connotation of summer and is usually brightly colored, thus soft light or a bright and bold look makes sense.
Whether you choose soft light or hard light, your light source should be diffused to give you a nice blur in the gradations where the light and dark meet.
Types of Lighting Styles
Imagine the face of a clock.
If you picture your light placed at 9:00, this is side lighting.
It can also be placed at 3:00.
However, in the Western world, we read from left to right. Our eyes first gravitate to the brightest part of an image, so it makes sense for our light to be coming from our left-hand side.
This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Each side will affect how the light looks in your photograph, depending on your composition.
The next time you shoot, try taking a picture with your light positioned at 9:00, and then move your light to take a shot at 3:00. Notice the difference in your final result.
Side lighting is a good approach for a lot of food photography, as it works well for most set-ups.
Place a large softbox close to your table. The bigger your light source, the softer the light will be. Soft light is a desirable look in food photography.
Place a reflector or bounce card opposite to the light to bounce some of it back into your scene. Move it closer or farther away, depending on how much shadow you want. Even when shooting white or bright scenes, you still want some shadows to add dimension.
Backlighting is when you position your light behind your food, at 12:00.
This is a great choice for beverages and soups, as it adds a sheen and highlights texture and the liquid properties of food.
It can be very flattering to food, but it can also be challenging to work with because your image might be too bright and blown out at the back and too dark on the front. Or it can just look too washed out, which is what happens when you shoot with too much light.
You can also end up with too much reflection on the top of the food.
Backlighting also emphasizes drastic color contrasts that can be difficult to balance.
So be aware of these challenges when choosing to use backlighting.
This is a combination of the two previously mentioned lighting styles, when your light is placed at 10:00 or 11:00.
With this style, you get the best of best worlds; the surface shine of backlighting without the risk of overexposure at the back of the photo. You also don’t have to reflect as much light onto the front of the food because the light is coming from an angle.
The reflector is opposite your light source.
The key is to play around with the height of the light relative to your scene, depending on how you want your shadows to fall.
Other Lighting Styles
At this point, it bears mentioning that there are a couple of lighting styles that don’t work for food photography.
Front lighting is often used in portraiture, but it looks terrible on food. It can cast unwanted shadows and your images will look flat and lack dimension.
Lighting from overhead also creates flat images.
Lighting Modifiers and Tools
The most commonly used modifier in food photography is the softbox. The larger, the better.
However, the most used modifier in my own arsenal is a dish reflector with a 20 or 30-degree honeycomb grid.
A honeycomb grid cuts off the light and narrows it, which creates stunning contrasts in food photography.
You also need a large diffuser when working with artificial light. If you’re using a strobe or a speedlight the explosion of light won’t fall off as quickly as it does with natural light, and will give you hard shadows if not diffused, which is usually not ideal.
Also, you’ll need something to bounce and absorb light.
You can buy a 5-in-1 reflector kit, which will have diffusion material as well as a silver reflector to brighten the food and a gold reflector to add warmth.
Alternatively, you can use black or white foam core. White will brighten your scene, while black will absorb the light. I use black in my dark and moody food photography to create deep shadows.
My Go-To Lighting Set-Up
I mentioned that I use a dish reflector with a honeycomb grid for my food photography.
You may be wondering what results you can get from shooting that way, but all of the images in this article were shots using this set-up.
The key to success in using this modifier is to have a large diffuser placed at the edge of your table and put the light one to two meters away, depending on how much light you need on your set.
This set-up will mimic window light beautifully because the diffuser actually becomes the light source, not the strobe. The bigger the diffuser the better, so as to keep unwanted light from spilling over the set. My diffuser is 150×200 cm/59x 79 inches!
If you’re just starting to shoot with artificial light for food photography, focus on using side lighting until you feel more comfortable tackling backlighting.
With a bit of practice and some tweaks, you’ll finesse your set-ups to work best with your style of food photography.
Share with us in the comments below your food photography images and any other tips you may have.