Photography — By Ben on 01 May 2009
Lighting in Food Photography

Tomatoes and tomatillos

Several weeks ago I published the first post on what I’ve learned about food photography. It was so well received that I decided to continue with this series of posts. That first post was about some of the basic features most modern digital cameras (point and shoot included) have. I also mentioned that the single most important thing to always consider when taking pictures of your food (and in other kind of photography, too) was the lighting. In this post I will try to explain how those two things come together, your camera’s features and lighting. But as I’ve always said, the best way to understand your camera and take better pictures is by experimenting as much as you can.

For this little exercise I am going to use these beautiful guys, Mr and Ms Tomato and Mr and Ms Tomatillos. As in the last post, the only editing the following pictures went trough was compresion and resizing. You can see al the technical information of these pictures on their flickr pages.

Keeping in mind that lighting is the most important thing in photography let’s start with some advice. The most common advice any experienced food photographer will give is to shoot in natural light with your camera’s flash turned off. I agree 100% with them. If you are just learning the tricks of the profession, that is the single best first thing you want to do. Shoot your food on a table next to a window. If the sun is hitting that window use a thin curtain or close the blinds. You want the light to be evenly dispersed and not too harsh on your subject.

Get your camera on Manual mode and use a small number for the aperture and a somehow fast shutter speed, 1/250 (this terminology is explained in my last post) could work, and shoot.

Lighting

For this picture I used my 50mm lens at f/1.8 aperture and 1/250 shutter speed which let too much light onto the camera’s sensor and overexposed this shot. What do you do next? Experiment, the magic word.

Lighting

For this second shot I used a faster shutter speed, 1/500, and the same aperture, f/1.8. This settings were still overexposing the sensor to the natural light from the window. So I figured that by closing the blinds to let less light into the room and using a smaller aperture (a bigger f number) would do the trick.

Lighting

Since I had less light coming through the window I reduced my shutter speed to 1/125 (I rarely shoot faster than 1/250) and used a smaller aperture, f/3.5. These settings gave me the result I was looking for. This is the same picture I used to introduce this post (after some editing with photoshop) because I was happy with the exposure, direction of the light and shadows. Which brings me to the next point I want to write about on this post: light direction and shadows.

Lighting

Another great advice I’ve read all over the foodie blog-o-sphere is to use a white board to reflect light. Shooting with one source of light (in this case natural light through a window) will inevitable create shadows. Shadows are good for your pictures because they give them a sense of dimension. But too many shadows can make your pictures look dark and cause distraction. Using a reflective surface opposite to the source of light will soften shadows  (note that I didn’t want to get rid of the shadows, only make them less noticeable)

My personal advice here is again to experiment. Move your food and reflecting board around (btw, the board can be anything that reflects light well. I use a white piece of foam, a white umbrella and sometimes the same white paper I use as a background). Position the food and yourself  in front of the window, next to it, in an angle. Play with the settings until you get the results you are looking for. Square food pictures are boring, imho.

Lighting

But what do you do when there is no natural light? The problem of not having enough light has haunted me in this old 1913 house for a long time. So I’ve acquired some inexpensive equipment to solve it. I first got two lamps like the one you see in the picture above. They were inexpensive (40 dollars for both I believe) and they do a decent job creating something very similar to natural light. But you don’t have to spend all that money. You can get only the bulbs at your hardware store and screw them into any lamp. You just need to make sure they are 5000k – 5500k to give you that natural light feeling.

Lighting

However, they don’t give as much light as I’d like. I can get good results if I use very slow shutter speeds 1/10 to 1/60 but that requires using a tripod, which I don’t necesarily dislike, but that doesn’t give you as much freedom to move around trying to find the perfect angle of your enchiladas platter. That’s why I got these two guys:

Lighting

The wirless flash on the right is a very inexpensive (around $35) and will work with any digital camera (that’s what the maker claims) and the one on the left is a Canon flash with a lot of more features (it is more expensive, but all the features make it worthwhile) However, the use of wireless flashes or other kind of lighting is a little bit more advance and I’ll talk about it in future posts.

To end this post I want to answer a question somebody asked on my last post. How do you make the background of a picture look blurry?

What we call depth of field (DoF) is a optical term that refers to the part of the picture that is in focus. A large DoF will have more of your food picture in focus and a small DoF will have less of your food picture in focus.

And how do you achieve a smaller DoF? This is closely related to the aperture of the lens on your camera. Small f numbers will give you small DoF (blurrier) and bigger f numbers will give you bigger DoF (sharper). However, this works better with SLR cameras. I can’t really explain the technical reasons, but they are related to the construction of the lenses. This means that shot and point cameras can’t achieve the same small DoF than SLRs. But don’t worry, there are some ways (cheats) to achieve this effect on your pictures using photoshop. Here’s the link that explains the how-to.

Remember that on my forum there is a section where I am inviting people to share their food pictures so others can share their ideas on how to improve them. The best way to improve our skills is by learning from others, don’t you agree?

¡Buen provecho!

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About Author

grew up around food. His family owned a restaurant in Mexico City and he spent a big deal of his childhood helping and learning after school the art of creating delicious dishes from simple ingredients. He created this blog to share his kitchen adventures with the world.

(28) Readers Comments

  1. Great information and advice Ben, thank you!

  2. Useful post, and a great site.

    Cheers!
    Matthew

  3. Thanks for sharing all this information Ben. It’s very useful.

  4. This is a wonderful tutorial! As a foodie blogger who realizes the importance of great food photos (me, with my new camera and zero knowledge), I so appreciate this spreading of info. I posted a link on my edible crafts column, too, if that’s OK, at ediblecrafts.craftgossip.com to bring your wisdom to even more of us!

  5. You explain this all so well Ben…I just wish I had the patience to learn strobes more…

  6. Ben, very informative and helpful post…I’m going to play around with my camera settings…again! lol

    Thank you.

  7. Thanks, what a great tutorial. Now I have to try.

  8. The photo of Mr. & Mrs. Tomato & Tomatillo is great. Your photography has really moved into another realm since I started following What’s Cooking and I appreciate your sharing information. I thought I was doing pretty good but the last few photos I submitted to Foodgawker/Tastespotting etc. were turned down so I think I have to re-focus literally and figuratively.

  9. Another great post on photo tips. I need a new camera… and then I get start getting more knowledgeable in all of the tech terms. Your pictures are just getting better and better :)

  10. Nice step by step. I’m a professional food photographer and enjoy seeing the enthusiasm of novice photographers. All good stuff.

    Another point about lighting, I like to shoot light across the subject a little from behind as the shadow/text from light is what makes the food interesting. The white card approach you explain is perfect for filling in the dark areas a little so it’s not just big black areas. I like to think of late afternoon sun crossing the table or that early morning sun hitting the table. That’s how I manipulate my strobe lighting.

    One thing I’m seeing is that shallow DoF (super bokeh) is going out of style. While I may shoot at f2.8 or 1.4 I’m shooting more lately at f16 or today was shooting at f20.

    Advice to anyone wanting better quality images, use a DSLR and spend the rest of your money on glass (lenses), prime (non-zoom).

    Keep up the good work with What’s Cooking.

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