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A Basic Food Photography Lighting Lesson- Understanding Main Light and Fill Light

A Basic Food Photography Lighting Lesson- Understanding Main Light and Fill Light

To create beautiful food photography, one should understand this basic lighting concept.

The following discussion is designed to give you an understanding of some basic photographic concepts that can be applied to creating better food photography.  They are geared towards food photography beginners and will help develop a foundation of knowledge to build upon.  If you are completely new to food photography, yet want to learn, I would recommend starting with our post Understanding Light for Food Photography which will give you some fundamentals and general descriptions covering the concepts of light, after which you can return here to begin experimenting further.

Whether you are using natural light or artificial light for your food photography makes no difference to the concepts we are introducing below.  

We feel there are differences and advantages to both natural and artificial light but highly encourage you to practice using both.  It is hard to beat setting up your shot next to a nicely lit window, of course, until the sun goes down…then what?  The discussion below will hold true for whatever light source you are using so set up by a window, go to a hardware store and pick out a work light, or set up your studio soft boxes for this one…it’s all good.

Food Photography Lighting Concept -Main Light and Fill Light

Let’s begin with some definitions:

Main Light- (we hope this is obvious)- Main Light is the single strongest light source that is illuminating your subject,The Source, from which the majority of light for the image is coming from.  In photography it is also referred to as the ‘Key’ light.  As stated before, the main light can be supplied by any type of source such as by a window, a work light, the overhead fluorescents in the room, or a specific studio designed light.  Note: The Main Light is responsible for defining ‘the direction’ of light in an image and also creates the (main) shadows.  Therefore, the easiest way to discover where the main light is located in an image is to look at the shadows of the main subject.

Fill Light- Fill Light refers to any secondary source of light that is used to ‘fill in’ the subject of the image.  The term stems from the concept of filling in the shadows created by the main light with more light.  Fill Light is used to fill in shadows as well as increase the brightness of the subject overall.  Fill light can be supplied by either adding a secondary light or by using reflecting materials that ‘bounce’ light supplied by the Main Light back into the subject.  These items are, at times, called fill cards or bounce cards.  Any bright, reflective material can be used…a piece of white paper or even a bed sheet.  The most commonly used fill cards are just basic white board or poster board that can be purchased at an art supply store.  (Heck, I even saw some poster board in the ‘office supply’ aisle at the grocery store the other day.)

To keep this discussion basic we have begun with one Main Light source and a Fill Card (white poster board) and have set up a Side Light Scenario which refers to the main light coming from the side.  Also for beginning ease, we have set the light to an exact 90 degree angle from camera to subject and also the exact height of the camera on the tripod…no frills for this lesson.

Here is an over head diagram of our set up:

a diagram to explain food photography side light

learn food photography lighting

learn food photography lighting

learn food photography lighting

Points to Understand Main Light and Fill Light for Food Photographyshowcasing highlights and shadows in food photography

- In the first image above we begin with just a Main Light with no Fill Card.  There are two clues that will help you discover where the main light is in an image: the ‘highlights’ on a subject and the ‘shadow’ that’s cast by the subject.  Looking at the detail shot in the first above image, (and pretending that we didn’t show you the actual set up), one could see that since the ‘shadow’ that is cast by the subject is on the left and the ‘highlight’ created by the Main Light is on the right, then the main light of the image is coming from the right hand side of the shot.

Understanding the above concept, determine where the main light is coming from in these food photos:

Peach food photo, with hard lighting food photography tips, how to take pictures, food photography ideas, best, techniques, lighting, beautiful, digital, food photograph, food styling, how to food style, food blog, food blogging

- After we have determined the main light position we can begin to add ‘Fill Card’ to the opposite side of a subject to fill in the cast shadows and also to brighten the shadow side of the main subject.  In our set up shots above make note of the difference between the first apple detail (NO Fill) and the Second apple detail (12″ Fill) in which a white card is placed directly opposite the main light, 12 inches away.  Make note of how much the shadow cast by the apple has been ‘filled’ with light and how the shadow side of the apple is beginning to brighten up.

-Now, by adjusting the distance of the fill card to the main subject we can make a determination on the amount of ‘fill’ we want, by moving it closer or further away (12″ fill vs. 6″ fill).  Make note of all three images and how the addition of a fill card changes the light and also how ‘the distance’ of that fill card can also shift the aesthetic.

-This is the Fun Part!  There are no rules to the amount of fill an image should have.  It’s totally up to you and your desired results.  There will be times when you’ll want to create an image with deep dark shadows and high contrast and times where the overall light, bright and airy image will suit your needs.  No matter what you decide, a basic understanding of Main Light and Fill Light is necessary to build upon your food photography lighting skills.

Go Practice Your Food Photography:

Start off as simple as possible.  Get a single subject, a piece of fruit or cup of coffee.  Get a single source of light (by a window, grab a lamp, set up your strobe).  Get a white card (a piece of paper or a bed sheet) and play around with moving the Main Light around and shifting the fill card closer and further away until your desired results are achieved.

Just in case you have some technical photographic knowledge and you ‘must’ know…all of these (apple) images were created at the same settings: aperture: f8 shutter speed: 1/160 iso: 100 and using an off camera flash equipped with a small soft box set at 1/4 (+2/3) power.  If this is Greek to you…don’t fret…it matters not in the grand scheme, we just know there are some ‘nerds’ out there.   : )    Also, since we are focused on food photography here at Your Kitchen Camera we designated this as a ‘food photography’ concept but happy surprise…this basic knowledge…is universal to any type of photography so learn it, understand it, and take it out into the world and apply it to portraits, still life, or architectural photography as well.

See MORE of our FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY lessons Here on Your Kitchen Camera!