Food Photography and Styling Tips / best ideas & tutorials to create beautiful food photos

Making Your Food Photography Festive with Holiday Lights

Making Your Food Photography Festive with Holiday Lights

A food photography lighting discussion on capturing the sparkle of Holiday Lights

With Thanksgiving and Christmas quickly approaching, we thought it may be a good time to offer some tips on how to best incorporate festive holiday lights into your food photographs.  Whether you are a food blogger preparing some upcoming holiday recipes or a restaurant that wants to showcase to your social media followings a special meal or the holiday decorations of your dining room, following these tips on how to create food photography with holiday lights may help.  These pointers can be used whether you are attempting to capture standard electric string lights or burning candles.

The first point to make is just a bit of semantics.  You may hear or read of a professional photographer refer to the concept of capturing light as ‘burning in’.  This typically describes the process of using a slower shutter speed to allow enough time for the camera to capture the desired light.  It is often used especially when combining strobes, to light the main subject, while simultaneously ‘burning in’ additional aesthetic lighting accents, whether it be a street lamp, a candle, or christmas lights.  There are also times you may hear the phrase ‘dragging the shutter’…basically it’s gear-head slang for using a slower shutter speed.  So, in most cases, to capture that festive twinkle and make your image sparkle just burn in some lights by dragging the shutter.

food photography lighting, christmas ham or non traditional thanksgiving feast

Combining strobe light on the main subject with ‘burning in’ candle lights in the background. (above)

Tips for Photographing Holiday Lights in Food Photography


Use a Tripod-  This may seem a no brainer but it’s essential.  When dragging the shutter to burn in lights you will have to use a tripod.  In most cases your shutter speed is going to be cranked to a very slow setting,  from 1/8 sec. to multiple second exposures or quite possibly you may need to use the ‘bulb’ setting.  Hand holding the camera is not an option as it will most likely result in an all out blurry image.  (If often you find yourself in a dark setting and asking yourself ‘why are my images so blurry?’ it’s because you’re trying to hand hold a camera that should be on a tripod.)  Get yourself a three legged beast and learn to use it.

Use the ‘timer’ feature or a cable (or digital) release- This may be a little less obvious but equally important.  Keeping the camera steady when dragging the shutter is key and even though you may have placed your camera on the tripod, you still may not have the delicate touch you think you do.  Maybe your tripod is on a rug or carpet, or one of the thread adjustments is not fully tightened or…since it’s the holidays…you’ve had one too many…there are many ways to shake a camera and at slow shutter speeds that puppy is hyper sensitive.  If your camera comes equipped with a count down feature or auto timer, use it so that it has a few seconds to settle down after you pressed the button and before it releases the shutter.  Likewise, if you are lucky enough to have a digital remote-release or (eh-hem…) old enough to have a camera that takes a cable release…use it.  Lastly, try not to walk around while the camera is exposing the shot.  At times even floor movement can shake an entire tripod.  Less shaky…more pretty.

Play with the distance of background lights, focal length and aperture of the lens- This is a difficult tutorial to nail down because there is not a hard fast rule when shooting…but that point also makes these shots equally as fun to pull off because they are filled with experimentation and discovery.  Depending on the multitude of variables such as: your desired overall look of the end image, whether you are using only natural light or a mix, the amount of light that is present, the desired depth of field, how you want the ‘sparkles’ to look, etc., etc.,  the best I can do is tell you that ‘every little tweak’ can effect the end look of your image.  So if your ‘lights to be burned in’ are separate from your subject then play with the amount of distance between the two, moving them closer or further away until you reach a desired result.  Longer lens focal lengths tend to compress the background into the images so again, play around with different focal lengths.  Once you find one you like, explore further by trying different apertures.  These too will affect not only the Depth of Field but also the effect of the actual sparkle as shown below.  The two images where shot at the exact same angle with whatever light was available (no added strobes), and the distance of the background lights to main subject was unchanged.  The only changed variables were 1. Aperture and 2. Shutter Speed (to accommodate the aperture change).  You can clearly see not only a Depth of Field change as more is brought into focus (note the ‘for: Santa’ sign), but by doing so the light quality of the holiday lights has shifted as well, from larger circles to tighter pinpoints…it ALL depends on what you like and how you want your end image to look.

food photography lighting santa cookies

aperture f-5.6, shutter speed 1 second

food photography lighting cookies

aperture f-13, shutter speed 5 seconds

Window = Twilight- If you happen to fit in a window into your composition of the image then waiting for the right moment to shoot can drastically change the end results, again, depending on whether you are combining strobe with natural light or not will play a factor but if you want to try and add a bit of interest, trying to shoot at dusk…or just before…can turn your window view from a blown out white to and pretty azure blue.  Still, playing around with and finding the exact right time is the rule of thumb depending on how you want the effect to look.

A Few Thoughts on Mixing Light-  If you are inclined to add a strobe to the main subject then you will have to be careful of a couple of things:  The first is color balance.  When mixing types of light the color temperature will vary within the image.  Try to use a gray card to custom color balance the image as a whole or select a presetting on your camera that will best fit.  If you don’t have a custom balance option then try to adjust so that the main focal subject of the image looks the most flattering and most natural.  Also, when mixing strobe with natural light with ‘burned in’ light you will want to try and treat the image as two separate exposures and watch that the light your are ‘burning in’ doesn’t affect the ‘stobe’ lit section and vice versa.  At times you may need to use black cards to flag off light bleed from one section of the image to the other.

Aside from food photography…

If you are a restaurant, chef or restaurant food blogger, capturing some imagery of a dining room or creating an interesting vignette during the holiday season can add variety to your blog and social media pages.  There is a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling during the holidays and by creating images with the ‘festive, holiday’ presence you can convey that message skillfully and effectively.

food photography lighting christmas bar scene

food photography lighting restaurant dining room with christmas tree

holiday restaurant decoration

See MORE of our FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY LIGHTING articles here!