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Lighting for food photography can be difficult, what works for real estate and architectural photography won’t always work when taking photographs of food. To help you find a job in food photography, we’ve gathered together some of the best food photography lighting tips to help you take pictures of food that make people hungry for more.
©️ Nicolas Bouriette / OCUS
If you want to take the type of photos that please your clients and help them hook new customers, you’re going to need to use the best equipment that you can afford. While you don’t have to buy the most expensive equipment you will need the right equipment, it can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.
If you’re a professional photographer, you should have a camera that works for most purposes. Just because you’ve decided to branch out into food photography shouldn’t require you to purchase a new camera. However, there are some things that you should remember when it comes to cameras for food photography.
When taking professional pictures of food, you should make sure that you use a high-quality camera. This is not the time for a point-and-shoot camera. You will need a DSLR or Mirrorless camera body to take high-resolution pictures for your customers.
For some specific camera recommendations, we recommend checking out this post by OCUS that outlines how to start your own food photography business.
You will also need quality lenses to ensure that you get the best quality shots. While it is possible to get quality photographs with any lens, we do recommend that you use a macro lens. Macro lenses help you get the kind of close-up picture of the food that will help customers see the details of the food you are photographing.
A few specific lens recommendations are:
Although there are a number of lenses best suited for food photography, these are three recommendations that you can use to improve your food photography shots.
When it comes to artificial lighting for food photography, we recommend that at a minimum you have a softbox and a continuous light. You may also want to include a backlight, speedlight, and strobe light. While you can also use a camera flash, this is not recommended and you will see why further down in the article.
To have the best lighting setup for food photography lighting you will need:
©️ Nicolas Bouriette / OCUS
To help you get quality shots of food, you will need a tripod. The best possible option for your tripod will be one with a lateral arm. This will help you to not only save your back but to also continue to get similar shots of the food from the same camera position.
Taking quality food photography shots and making the best of the lighting will require you to use reflectors to move the light around. While you can easily take quality shots with only one reflector, we recommend that you have multiple reflectors available for your use to get the best quality lighting for food photography.
We recommend that you have a white, silver, gold, and black reflector at your disposal for your food photography photoshoots. Having a black reflector can help you to tone down the brightness in certain areas to add depth to the shot.
When you want to make small adjustments to the lighting of your food shots you will need a bounce card. A bounce card can create small openings and can allow you to create small slivers of light that will fall on specific parts of the food to help you show off the subject better for increased attractiveness.
©️ Nicolas Bouriette / OCUS
Another piece of equipment that you may need for your food photography projects is scrim fabric. Scrim fabric is a piece of food photography lighting equipment that can help you to transform harsh light into softer light that envelops the food for increased visual attractiveness.
There are more key tips out there than there are photographers to use them. However, food photo-specific tips aren’t prevalent. OCUS offers a handful of tried and true photo tips for capturing the ambiance and mouth-watering details of the food you’re shooting.
When you feel confident in these skills, OCUS has tons of jobs waiting for you and your talent. We keep a network of active clients seeking your eye for compilation and your instinct for the perfect food photo.
Be sure to check out our video for some tips about lighting for photography.
Whenever possible, you can try to use natural lighting when taking photos of food. Natural lighting has a tendency to give you better color accuracy and can be a method that you use to visually pull the viewer into the photo. Unfortunately, commercial kitchens and other food photography locations are often not set up in a way where this is always possible.
If you want to use natural lighting, you can direct the light by reflecting it or bouncing it off of other surfaces to adjust the color and angle of the light. Sometimes, you may find that natural lighting can be too harsh. If this is the case, you can add diffusion of the light with a translucent cloth or your diffuser.
Another technique you can use with natural light is to add dark materials that can absorb light to your shot. Dark elements can help you to create a different atmosphere for your photos. Make sure that you play with light and dark to see what gives the food its most appealing presentation.
When using artificial light in your food photographs, you may want to avoid the use of your flash. With food photography, sudden and harsh light can often create an unattractive emphasis on the texture, shape, or color of the food. It can also wash out the colors and textures or place highlights in unappealing places.
One thing you can do to avoid creating unattractive food photographs is to use either constant lighting or a diffused strobe. They will allow you to paint with the light and create a beautifully lit and composed shot.
Another reason why you will want to avoid using your flash is that often when you use a flash, you are lighting the food from the same angle as the camera and this can remove not only the depth of the subject but also wash out the food and reduce how interesting the food looks. If you want to continue to find new food photography jobs, you’ll want to create interesting food pictures.
Commercial kitchens are lit for food and employee safety purposes, not for getting high-quality shots of food. When you come to a food photography shoot, you don’t want to come with hopes of using the lighting that the kitchen, restaurant, or location provides. This can set you up for failure.
Another problem with commercial kitchen lighting is that they often have a yellow or blue tone that can ruin the attractiveness of the food. To counteract these problems, you’ll want to bring your own artificial light sources that use better quality light to avoid the blue and yellow tones of commercial kitchen lighting.
As mentioned above, some of the best tools at your disposal are bounce boards and diffusers. As with other forms of photography, you’ll need to be able to manipulate your light to create the best image. An inexpensive set of foldable boards will give you the most versatility.
You can use a gold reflector to create warmer images of the food. This can help you give the impression that the food just came out of the oven, making the food seem hot and ready to eat which will make the restaurant’s customer more likely to buy from that restaurant, making your photographs more successful which will help you get more jobs.
Alternatively, if you want to make the food look like it is a gift from the gods, you can use silver reflectors to direct the light in beams. This can help give the food the impression that it’s light and fluffy. Depending on the food that you’re shooting you will want to play with different reflectors until you intuitively know what works best for the specific type of food.
Diffusing your light helps you to minimize shadows. Minimizing shadows can be helpful in food photography because sometimes, you don’t want harsh lines in your subject. Diffusion of the light can help you to create contrast without harshness.
In food photography, especially when using strobe lights, you will want to avoid hard shadows. Hard shadows can make the food look fake or unappealing. The goal of food photography is to create images that make people hungry for more so that they decide to buy the food in question. Again, we can’t emphasize this enough, play with the light when you’re first starting out in food photography until you can tell what works best for the specific food you’re using.
While it is ultimately your choice to use whatever lighting you want, side light can be one way to draw the viewer’s eye to the food. Using side lighting can help you to compose an image that is more balanced and compelling.
When setting up a shot using side lighting, you should use a softbox light and a reflector set. You should set up your shot with the softbox placed next to your table or surface. Remember the bigger the light source, the softer the light will be. After placing your softbox on one side, make sure that you place your reflector on the other side to bounce the light back onto your subject.
You can move both the reflector and the softbox further away or closer to the food you are shooting to change the depth of the light. You can also choose to vary the size of your reflector. Having a multitude of options can help you to get enticing photographs.
Another food lighting technique that you can use to create compelling shots of food, is to use backlights. Typically, this is the ideal lighting set up for soups and beverages. Backlighting can help to create a flattering picture of food. This type of lighting often makes the food glow and brings out the textures which is often hard to do with beverages and soups.
However, you will want to be careful when you use backlighting as a food photography lighting technique. Occasionally, backlights can make the photo too bright in the back and too dark in the front. This situation will create too much contrast and blur the photo.
To avoid this pitfall, you will want to minimize the amount of light in the back of the photo. Take a variety of images with the light levels varied to get just the right amount of light to make the photograph look good.
It is also important to note that backlighting is not optimal for some types of food photography. Backlighting can be detrimental to taking good shots of tall stacks of food (like cookies), dark foods (like meats), and foods that are in deep vessels (like pots).
You can create different moods with the way that you use light in food photography. One way to set the mood with your lighting is to try side backlighting. Side backlighting is when you light the food from an angle that’s off to the side and back. Based on a clock where backlighting would be at 12 o’clock and side lighting is at 3 or 9 o’clock, side backlighting is near to 1 or 11 o’clock.
Side backlighting can help you get that glimmer that you’re looking for from backlighting without overexposing the back of the food. You also won’t need to use reflectors as much for this specific lighting technique.
This type of lighting can be best for shots of ingredients. It can give viewers the impression that you caught the chef or baker in the middle of preparing a tasty dish, making your shot much more effective.
You can also create more mood by ensuring that you use props in your shot. A well-placed spoon can help you to make the food seem ready to eat which is what you want to do to be a successful food photographer.
Placing your primary food item on top of white cloth to shoot an image or two can help with white balance in your post-production process. Food photography lighting is much different than portraits when it comes to white balance. Without the right settings, you can lose critical details of the images.
You can remove the white item in later shots and use the reference shot for composites during your editing process. The editing process is another learning experience to use the same skills you used in other forms of photography but applied to this new format.
White balance becomes doubly important when you add atmosphere lighting. Having the original pure color to compare and composite into an image will help you find the right tone and temperature for the scene you’re painting with your photos.
The setting of ISO, aperture, and shutter speeds are also key to making the best use of the light and are an integral food photography technique for lighting. Just as certain ISO and aperture settings can get you the best results for portraits or shots of architecture, they can do the same with food.
You’ll want to use a low ISO and fast shutter speed to get the best results for your food photographs. These settings make the best use of the lighting you’re using for your food photography.
Using a low ISO of 400 or so in combination with a fast shutter speed will not only help you to reduce noise and grain but can also help you to increase sharp focus and reduce camera shake. Other settings can be used to take action shots of food.
Play around with your camera’s settings to see what works best to create visually appealing food photos that will make someone browsing images on Google hungry and ready to buy the food.
While we suggest side lighting and backlighting as two tried and tested lighting techniques, you can also try unique lighting angles to get the right image to advertise the food of your client. To be able to change the angles of your lighting, try staging your food on a movable surface that allows you to easily move the lights and reflectors around to get unique angles.
What works for one type of food, will not always work for another. Cookies will look best with one food photography lighting technique while soups and stews will look better under another. When you’re just starting out in food photography, you need to experiment with your light sources to get the best results.
You can create movement and direct the eye through your photo by creating action within the image. Changing the food by adding a sauce or moving a perfectly placed spoon will mean that you’ve only got one chance to the perfect photo. However, once you’re comfortable with your settings and have gotten every other shot you wanted, adding an action shot can be a game-changer.
Imagine your shot including a chef’s hand tossing sautéed veggies or drizzling fresh steaming caramel sauce over a chocolate cake slice. These action shots come back to remind people that these foods will please more than just their visual senses. Their other senses can fill in a lot of blanks when they need to. With a quality image, you will be able to smell the cake and hear the sizzle.
By using these food photography lighting tips and techniques and working with your network to build a portfolio, you can build your own food photography business. You can work with companies like OCUS to help you find new clients that are looking for high-quality photographs of food.
When you’ve become part of the OCUS family, you become part of an ecosystem of artists, clients, and other creatives that you can build your career with. There are thousands of new jobs being posted by clients every day.
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