Your setup for food photography starts with light. Photography can’t happen without it. Photography is painting with light.
Lighting is the most important lesson in photography. So if you feel overwhelmed with all the things you need to learn, this is crucial. If you can master it, you’ll produce beautiful imagery.
In this photography fundamentals lesson, we will look at the basic setup for food photography, plus introduce a few basic lighting concepts.
This is all you need to get started.
The Basic Light Setup For Food Photography
Firstly, I’d like to say that I don’t particularly like the word ‘basic’ as it implies that nothing great will be achieved. But that’s not always the case.
This is a foundational setup from which you start to expand your light manipulation skills based on the mood and story you want to tell. The basic setup for food photography to produce the soft light common in our niche is:
- Sidelight – the light source is next to your scene
- Diffuser – a placed between the light source and your subject
- Reflector – is placed opposite the light source to ‘reflect’ some light back onto your subject and scene.
You will place your setup so that it is next to a window, with the light falling onto your setup from either the side. So your subject and the camera are next to the light source.
Next, you’ll place a diffuser between the light source (your window) and your subject. This will ‘diffuse’ the light to make it soft – we’ll cover this later. At first, place the diffuser closer to the window than to your subject.
Finally, if you need to light your subject more evenly, you’ll place a reflector on the other side of your scene to ‘fill’ your shadows. This will be your foundational setup. Once you get the hang of this setup for food photography, you can then start to explore more light manipulation.
If you want to see more behind the scenes setups for food photography, case studies and how to create beautiful images with natural light then grab my ebook.
Basic Light Modifying Aids
Let’s get down to the bare minimum of what we need in order to manipulate natural light, shall we?
The first two light manipulating aids that you should source is, a reflector and a diffuser. You can even get both of these in one and there are some cheap combos on Amazon. They look like this. Where possible, it’s best to get as large as you can afford.
A diffuser is something that diffuses or distributes light more evenly onto your subject. Diffusers should be placed between the light source and your subject – just like this:
A reflector bounces light from the light source onto the subject. This is what is known as fill light. Reflectors typically are placed opposite the light source.
Any reflective surface can be used, from white foam boards to reflective metal or metallic surfaces.
Here’s what happens in the camera when we use a reflector. The shot on the left is with light being reflected onto our scene. The shot on the right is without light being reflected onto our scene.
Neither is right or wrong, just different. Take a moment to feel the difference.
RELATED: How To Manipulate At Home
Shop Basic Lighting Gear
For under $100 you can get everything you need for a basic lighting set-up for food photography.
As a professional, I own all of these diffusers, but if I were to recommend one, I would get the Neewer 40″ x 60″ as I also use it with artificial light.
For on location and a portable solution, I like the Neewer 24″ with handle.
Most Common Type of Lighting For Food Photography – Soft Light
Now we have the basic setup for food photography and a few modifiers we need under our belt, let’s look at types and direction of light.
The most common type of light set up for food photography is created to capture soft light. It’s used most often because it’s complementary to light food.
It illuminates the texture and details in food while revealing form and dimension.
Soft light is characterised by soft shadows. Soft light can be used for any mood. You can have bright and soft light or moody and soft light. Now ‘soft’ is not synonymous with light or dark shadows. Soft shadows can be both light and dark. What makes them soft is their ‘soft edges’.
Can you see the difference between the two shadows above? The shadows in the image on the right are ‘soft’ (produced by soft light) and the shadows on the right are ‘hard’ (produced by hard light).
Now that we know the most common type of light used in food photography, let’s look at the two main directions of light.
The Two Main Directions of Light: Back and Side Light
The two main directions of light used in food photography are side light and backlight.
They are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s cover them quickly anyway. Side light is where light comes from the side of the subject and your camera. Backlight is where the light is coming from behind the subject and opposite your camera.
Sidelight works really well for nearly all setups for food photography. W
hichis why it’s a go-to for many food photographers and a great place to start.
Let’s see those visually.
Why is this important? Take a moment to see how the light shapes the subjects in the images differently.
Time of Day Affects Light
You’ll mostly know from just being alive that the time of day also affects light. From sunrise, to midday, to sunset and twilight. The light is of different intensity, different direction and has a different feel.
Gosh, even the seasons bring about such different light right?
If you’re shooting natural light, it’s important to know the difference.
This is why there is a common exercise you’ve probably read involving photographing a bowl of fruit at different times and different places in your house.
It’s a very powerful exercise and it works.
If you think about your home, think about how light changes in different rooms. Are there rooms that have bright light at a certain time of day and others that are dark?
One of the simplest and most powerful things you can do is understand how the light changes in your shooting space. So why not check every hour to see how the light looks and note down the differences throughout the day.
In a nutshell, here are the takeaways from this post:
- The foundational light set up for food photography involves placing your set up next to a window, with a diffuser in between your light source and the subject. Placing a reflector opposite the light source.
- You’ll want to have a diffuser and a reflector as staple light manipulation aids.
- The most common type of light for food photography is soft light.
- To two directions of light to craft are side light and backlight.
- Time of day will produce different kinds of natural light.
- Watching natural light change throughout the day and from day to day, season to season will help you see the diversity.
For this activity, you won’t use a camera. I don’t want you to be worried about your settings or what you’ll be shooting.
I just want you to ‘feel’ and ‘see’ the light.
The next time you have a full day at home, I want you to:
- Set an alarm on your phone for each hour on the dot.
- Each time the alarm goes off, walk into each room in your house that has a window. Even the garage or shed!
- Look at the light. Feel the light. Ask yourself these questions
How strong is the light?
Are there any shadows you can see?
Is the light coming through the window?
What direction is the window facing?
What time of day is it, morning, midday, afternoon, evening?
Does the light have a colour to it?
How does the light make you feel?
Doing this two days in a row will be especially helpful and allow you to see that light changes with weather and season.
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