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Understanding Light for Food Photography

Understanding Light for Food Photography

Learn the Fundamentals of Lighting for Better Food Photos

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a dessert food photo with great food photography lighting

Light is the most important variable when considering photography.  The methods used to manipulate light will drastically effect the look of the end image, but before learning those, one should have a foundational understanding of Light.

Light: Consider the Source

In photography, light is created one of two ways and someone may hear it described as either natural or artificial.  Natural light sources are provided, well, naturally, such as the sun or the moon.  Artificial light is pretty much anything else, manmade, light bulbs mostly, of which there are many varieties.

When considering light as it pertains to photography, there are three factors with which to concern oneself: Quality, Quantity and Position.


Quality of Light: 

Refers to the general ‘look’ of the light and two variables play main roles.  the Color of and the Character of.

Different types of light sources produce many different color tones.  There are endless resources going into exorbitant detail of this subject but since we are focusing on ‘Basics’,   here is the generalized ‘need to know’:

Daylight = Blue-ish

Incandescent = Yellow/Orange-ish

Fluorescent = Green-ish

Photo specific flash/strobe = Blue-ish

It is imperative to good food photography that you understand your camera’s ‘color’ settings and that they best match the light source.  Refer to your camera’s manual to learn this and always be aware of which light source is around you and also be aware of how it will change…quickly…you can be sitting on an outside patio of a restaurant and shoot something on the table with natural light, in which case you’ll need to adjust your color settings for ‘daylight’.  Then you may move into the restaurant to the bar to have a drink and if you want to shoot it…will probably have to change to ‘incandescent’.  If you get invited back to the kitchen to see how the chef is preparing your meal, again, chances are…another adjustment for ‘fluorescent’.  With in a span of a couple of feet and a few minutes…3 different adjustments that can make the difference in the overall look of your food images.  LEARN HOW YOUR CAMERA’S COLOR SETTINGS ARE ADJUSTED!!!!

Another factor of Quality is the character of the light.  The base terminology describing it as either hard or soft.

Hard light refers to unfiltered exposure to the source and can be best exemplified by standing in direct sunlight.  Hard light leads to a higher contrast between the highlights and shadows on a subject.  At times even the shadows in these instances are referred to as ‘hard shadows’.

Soft light refers to indirect exposure or diffused exposure to a light source.  So standing in the shade produces soft light.  The contrast between the highlights and shadows is less, giving the overall character a more evenly lit, less contrasted look. There are many methods and tools used to diffuse a hard light source to make it soft. You may have seen a professional photographer using lights with umbrellas or fabric based ‘soft boxes’ or plain white cards.  All of these are tools to transform hard light to soft light.

This peach image is an example of Hard light.  It was shot using direct Sun as a single source of light, filtered only by the screen on a patio door which lessened the ‘quantity’ of light, but not the ‘quality’.  Notice the high contrast between the lit area and depth of the darkness in the shadows.  Also note the the shadows are well defined at their edges, this is referred to as a ‘hard shadow’.

Peach food photo, with hard lighting

This jar image is an example of Soft light.  Shot using indirect light diffused through a window with a white card held in front to reflect soft light back into the subject.  Notice how little contrast there is and that the shadows are so ‘soft’ that they are almost indiscernible.

a soft lit food photo

Quantity of Light:

Refers to the amount of light on a subject.  More or Less.  This can be adjusted by changing the distance of the subject from the light source or by adjusting the amount of power the light source puts out or by diffusing or deflecting light from it’s source.

Quantity of Light can also be adjusted through the camera’s adjustments of Exposure.

Position of Light:

The Position of a light source is also important to consider when discussing food photography.  The way light ‘travels to’ and ‘reacts with’ the surface of any object and the angle from which a camera views that reaction will play a role in the overall look of the image created.  Light can be thrown from any direction surrounding a subject and when one expands to a multiple light set-up the variables obviously increase.

a simple description of direction of light for food photography

Since there are endless possibilities, and in keeping with the ‘Basics’ theme of our discussion, I suggest approaching the position of light of most food shots with three principles in mind that will work the majority of the time.  These principles can be used individually or in conjunction with each other.

Start with Back-lighting for most food shots, especially with objects that have a transparent or reflective nature.

Consider that Front-lighting is good or accentuating or showcasing the ‘color’ in objects.

Skimming Light Across an Object will accentuate the ‘texture’ of that object.

Back Lighting refers simply to a having light cast from behind the subject in reference to the camera.  Front Lighting is just the opposite where light is cast from the same general direction of the camera.  Likewise, any reference to ‘side’ light will indicate light from either ‘side’ (left or right) of the subject.  ‘Skimming’ light across a subject is an effective way to showcase the ‘texture’ or accentuate a ‘highlight’.  One way to relate the process of skimming light is to compare it to skipping a flat stone across water.  The best way to accomplish this is to mimic the plane of the surface you wish to skim.  If you wanted to skip a stone across water you would not stand directly above the water and thrown the stone down.  You would try to get your throw to project across the same plane that the water is at.  Such is the practice of skimming light.  By directing a light to the same plane as the object that you want to showcase, you accomplish the effect of accentuating texture or adding highlights.

an example of backlighting food photo



BackLight:  This honey jar shot is an example of having a  hard, back-lit source of light.  (Direct sun).  Back lighting is especially ideal for transparent objects (honey) and/or reflective surfaces (glass jar). 



food photos backlit can showcase transparency




Likewise a single source of hard, back light ‘skimmed’ across the low angle of this sushi helps create strong texture, strong highlights, and high contrast.










Having a good amount of light on the front light axis ensures that colors will be illuminated enough to showcase them. (Compare these with the above sushi shot.)  Skim lights (along the back light axis) can be still be added to accentuate texture, moisture or transparency.

burger food photo with photography front lighting food photo with nice front lighting

To continue your Food Photography Lighting see our post A Basic Food Photography Lighting Lesson- Understanding Main Light and Fill Light