Affordable, Abundant And Amazing Light For Food Photography

Food Photography Lighting

I couldn’t have expected a better response for my previous post “Story Telling With Food“. It is one of my most favorite topics on food photography and I feel extremely overwhelmed that it fetched over ONE THOUSAND new blog followers!! It feels so rewarding to see hundreds of readers react to it so positively and appreciate the learning they got out of it. The link to the post is here, if you haven’t had a chance to check it yet. I would strongly recommend you to give it a read before diving into this topic, as it is your ‘Story’ that helps you determine ‘your’ light. If you’ve read it already and are looking for more guidance on food photography, continue reading. This post is for you!

Playing with natural light is my passion and strength. I can recall quite vividly those days when I used to struggle to get even a few decent shots for my posts; I would have clicked a couple of hundreds of them.  I had my eyes and ears wide open always to catch anything and everything that could help me learn about light. Scanning for articles, collecting pictures from my favorite photographers and learning from them was a big part of my everyday routine.  Undoubtedly, the knowledge gained from these sources was very valuable, but putting it into religious practice taught me more.  I have encapsulated in detail all my learning, challenges and, experience about natural light in this post for you.

Food Photography Lighting

Whether you are a beginner that wants to get a firm grasp on some basic yet key lighting aspects or a seasoned photographer that is curious to know about the approach of someone else, this post has a lot to offer. The way you’ll look at light and process it in your mind will be very different once you complete reading this post. Knowing what is ‘good’ light will be a very natural part of you from now on.

The Starting Trouble

If you have been paying closer attention to photography in general, you would know by now that good lighting is very vital to creating beautiful photographs. How can food photography be any different?  Lighting for food photography is not just important, it is very different and also complex, in my opinion.  If you are frustrated with lighting your food and getting hit with questions (like the ones below)  all the time, trust me, you are not alone.  I’ve been there and I still keep going there often to sharpen my pencil. Such are the questions that push you to find ‘your’ light, understand and modify it and ultimately enable you to weave it into your stories. These are the questions that help you transform your images.

What’s a good light?
Which window do I use?
When do I diffuse light?
How close to the window should I be shooting from?
How big should my light source be?
When do I block vs. bounce light?
What direction of light should I use, side or back?

I have addressed all these questions and more in this post. I hope you’ll find it valuable.

Follow The Sun And Find Your Light

Finding ‘one’ lighting situation that gives satisfactory results consistently is the first big step in your learning process.  Once you ‘know’ that light and can utilize it with ease, you can wear your creative hat on and manipulate it away endlessly.

Food Photography Lighting

During my initial stages of learning, I used to shoot by the same window in our living room all the time. I diffused the light always, blindly. Good pictures ‘happened’ sometimes. When they happened, I wouldn’t know what made them look nicer or how to recreate them. I’ve scrapped so many images, gotten frustrated and called it quits several times. I did not assess or question the quality of light that was coming in. I assumed it would work all the time and when it did not, I thought it was me and not the light.

Later, per the guidance from a few experts, I decided to watch the light coming from this window religiously throughout the day for about a week. It is an East facing window and the light was so beautiful and brilliant in the mornings, but after about 11 am it looked  so dull and lifeless. I started to shoot the same simple subject like a piece of fruit or a bowl of spice by the same window at different times of the day. This simple exercise was an eye opener and it taught me about the nature of light, highlights and shadows much more than what any of the tutorials did.  It is this exercise that made me fall in love with the gorgeous 8 am light and also become totally addicted to it.

Lighting fr Food Photography

Once I was sure of the light I can get from this window and when, I studied the light coming from a few other windows(and doors) as well. This helped me identify my go-to sources that I can choose from based on the timing of my shoot. Some work great in the mornings, some are amazing in the afternoons and some work perfect whatever may be time of the day. During this process, I also paid closer attention to the weather (sunny vs. overcast), season (summer vs. fall/winter), size of the light source (windows vs. doors), distance of the object from the light source and diffused vs. raw light.

Here’s a summary of my guidance for you to find your light:

  • Beautiful light is right within your home, find it
  • Well lit windows and doors are great light sources
  • Study shadows and highlights closely
  • Light varies by time of the day, season of the year and weather
  • Practice, practice, practice!

Food photography lighting

Natural Light Basics

Hard vs. Soft Light
Light on a bright and sunny day hitting directly on your source (window or door) is hard.  This is also called ‘direct’ light. Eg. Light falling on an East facing window between 8-10 am. Hard light causes harsh highlights and shadows and is generally required to be diffused.

Light on an overcast day causing subtle highlights and shadows is soft. Hard light when diffused becomes soft. Indirect light is soft too. Eg. Morning light falling on a South or West facing window is ‘Indirect’.

Food photography lighting

Shadows and Highlights
Observing and subsequently controlling shadows and highlights is a key component in the process of manipulating light. Shadows and highlights add an important layer of interest to your images. They create a beautiful drama and the absence of them makes the images look flat and unappealing.

Nature of light (hard vs. soft), its direction (side vs. back) and angle (high vs. low) size of light source, distance of source from your subject, and color/texture of your subject are important factors that influence the shadows and highlights. The extent of controlling them is one’s own creative decision and there is really no right or wrong about it.

Colors of Light and White Balance
Have you observed that the color of sunlight varies by time of the day, weather and seasons of the year? Although your subjects could look very normal to your naked eyes, your images may have an undesirable color cast due to this color of light. Telling your camera or editing software to process this light and make it look neutral is called ‘White Balance’ correction in simple terms. This is a very simple yet essential step that you must be cognizant of while working with any kind of light source.

Basic Lighting Setup 

Basic Lighting Set Up For Food Photography

The above is a shot of simple everyday ingredients. When your objective is to learn about light, keep everything else (story, subject, styling etc.) simple and give all your attention to lighting related aspects only. This makes it easier to focus and improve one thing at a time, keeping everything else aside.

As you can see, no fancy equipment was used in this set up. ‘Diffuser or Scrim’ is the only tool used here to render a soft and even light. My go-to diffuser is white paper blinds ($5) that is up on every window of my living and dining rooms. When I want to shoot, all I’d need to do is pull the blinds down. Seriously, you won’t need anything beyond paper blinds, parchment or a white cloth to serve you as a diffuser. The circular scrim that you see in the picture is portable and comes handy when you have to shoot at other locations (clients etc.) outside of your home.

Light Setup On An Overcast Day

Light Set Up for Food Photography On Overcast Day

This setup is even simpler. The clouds did the job of diffusing the light for me. Overcast days are my favorite as they not only simplify the setup but also create beautiful shadows. I really loved the moody look of this image above and did not bother to add a ‘Bounce’ to fill light and soften the shadows.

Basic Lighting Setup On An Overcast Day

In the image above, I used a white foam board ($2) to subtly bounce some light back on the persimmons and soften the shadows slightly. It is always a good idea to shoot with and without bounces. It not only helps you appreciate the difference, but also provides room for some creative decisions to be made. There is really no right or wrong here. It is all about what your eyes love to see.

Comparing Food Photography Light Setup Outputs

Here’s a side by side comparison of the shots from the two setups for you. As you can see, the shadows are much softer and delicate in the image on the right. If you notice the exif info, I had to increase the shutter speed by one stop as the white foam board was reflecting more light than desired on the overall frame. Which one of these images is your personal favorite? If you have been following me for some time now, you’ll know for sure that I have a big heart for moody images 🙂 .

Setup With Partially Blocked Light

Lighting for Food Photography

In the image above, light hits the lentil donuts (vadas) from a 4 O’ clock angle. This is intentional as I wanted the bowl with the vadas to get more light than the other parts of the frame. I used a part of the wall (#4) to ‘block’ and in turn guide the light directly to hit the vadas. Black foam boards ($2) are used typically to cut out light and deepen shadows.

Light can truly make or break your images. If there is one thing that can enhance the quality of your pictures drastically, it is ‘lighting’.  A dedicated effort to find, understand and manipulate light is the biggest investment I’ll recommend one to make in their photography journey. Go, find that light you can’t stop shooting with. Happy clicking!

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for the explanations. Great information.

  2. Suchita says:

    Another fantastic article Meera! Your drool worthy images along with the clear and precise writing makes this article a must read for somebody who wants to improve their photography. I will have to read and reread this article so that I make sure I am not missing anything. BTW you have a fantastic eye and you can make magic with the simplest ingredient. Love your images and Love this article.

  3. Jayasri says:

    Fantastic article Meera! I too learnt about light when Madhuri commented on one of my photos. Sat and discussed with her that was then I realised light and shadows are the key features of photography! I have improved a lot. You have explained it beautifully! Done a great job.
    I still keep looking for various places in my home!!
    As always beautiful photography!

  4. Ayushi Bindal says:

    Thank you for the share. Very helpful!

  5. Read both blog Meera. It was a wonderful review after some months since your CTPPA presentation. So appreciate it!!! Although I am now very hungry!!!

  6. This is so helpful. Thanks so much for all your tips and advice. They’ve been invaluable for me, and it’s nice to know that you don’t need expensive lights and equipment to take beautiful food photography. I’ll definitely keep your posts in mind the next time I’m photographing food. You’re amazing, Meera!

  7. Interesting article. Learnt a lot. I am definitely on my way to getting my pics hit every time. Thanks for sharing your knowledge 😊

  8. Pinkz says:

    What a brilliant post with an elaborated knowledge Meera, highly impressive! Your measured and matured words must have helped many like me, thank you very much. I will be saving both the posts of ‘Photography’ and coming back often to learn more for sure.

  9. Valuable information thank you for the post

  10. This is great!! As a law student, I love the cheap options for lighting tools!

  11. Mya says:

    Oh my gosh, I was able to forgive up on learning photography but after reading countless books and hundreds of youtube videos…your simple explanations have spoken to me in such a profound way ! Please Please continue to teach us more about photography. I am a new subscriber because I love your photographs and learning from you.

  12. Elaina says:

    Thank you SO much for taking the time to share such a brilliant article! This is the most comprehensive, clear and helpful article I’ve found in the last year. You have a fan for life! 🙂

  13. Thank you so much for this amazing comprehensive article! So helpful. It is always so great when you stumble upon photographers that simplify the theory to make it more accessible to their readers. By the way your backdrops are absolutely stunning! May I ask what is your favorite place to get backdrops? Thank you once again!

  14. I love natural light photography. Your article is full of great tips on how to enhance natural light. Excellent information, thank you!

  15. madgesgaff says:

    What a superb post. Altho I’ve loved using my iPhone for my photo taking, Ive invested in my first dslr so am making a real effort to learn more about lighting. Thank you so much and I’ll be returning to this again for sure! Mary 😀

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