When we start learning photography, we learn that light is everything and that better light equals better photos.
We can, however, strive so much for more and better light, that we can lose sight of what ‘better’ means.
Low-light food photography can be stunning yet so many photographers are afraid of it. I often get emails saying, “I have no natural light to shoot with”, and it makes me wonder if possibly they have beautiful low light but don’t yet know it!
But if you’re not a lighting whiz, low lighting can seem like an impossible task. Especially when you are faced with low light in the winter months that you can’t control.
In this post, let’s explore some tips for embracing low natural-light photography, especially in the winter months.
If you want to learn more about natural lighting, grab my ebook on natural light – Art of Light.
Table of Content
- Light Source For Brighter Images
- Create Moody Atmosphere
- Low ISO Traps
- Slow Shutter Speed
- Beautiful Low Light Food Photography
- Phone Flashlight to Auto-Focus
- Don’t Clip Your Blacks
- Side Light is Easier in Low Light
Get Closer To The Light Source For Brighter Images
The distance in which you are from your light source will change the power of your light.
If you need more power, you get closer to the light source.
This works both on the horizontal and vertical planes.
In low light, if you are shooting images that have to be on the brighter side, you will want to be closer to the light source.
Low Light Photography Tip: Light Fall-off Can Be Used To Create Moody Atmosphere
If you want to create a moody atmosphere or chiaroscuro photos, using what’s called ‘light fall-off’ is a great technique when faced with low-light.
Basically, light fall-off is where the light drops off considerably when the distance from the light source is doubled.
Play with distance from the light source by filling your scene with shadows and blacks.
Now that we just talked about getting closer to the source of light for brighter photos, I wanted to take a moment to also call out that it can be nice to get further away too. The fall-off point depends on your distance and size of light source.
This is the technique that I used in this image – and it’s beautiful. Who said that low light isn’t the best for shooting food?
Don’t Fall Into Low ISO Traps
ISO is generally oversimplified. We learn that you should keep your ISO low to reduce noise. While this isn’t incorrect, it paralyses most photographers as it’s not the entire story.
We dare not increase our ISO over 400, or sometimes even 200. This is a trap. Solely focusing on keeping our ISO low and not using it to help us get optimal exposure can introduce other issues into our images like noise or motion blur.
The trap in just trying to limit ISO and not taking into account your exposure triangle to get optimum exposure is that you can introduce even more noise into the image.
If you correctly exposure when using an ISO beyond low or base ISO, you will be better off than shooting at low ISO and relying on exposure compensations in post-production.
Shoot A Super Slow Shutter Speed
When I started photography I didn’t really know that I could shoot at a low shutter speed. I needed someone to tell me that it was ok.
If you shoot on a tripod and take steps to reduce camera shake, you can shoot with a very, very slow shutter speed. 1/3 sec for example.
Here are some shots I took with natural light and the slow shutter speed.
Steps to reduce camera shake are:
- Shoot with a steady tripod. Sandbag it to help make it stable.
- Use a remote shutter release or capture on your tethering program to help reduce the impact of pressing the shutter button.
- Use the timer if you don’t have a remote release.
- Try to limit the amount of movement onset if you have bouncy floors when the shot is being taken.
- Play with VR on/off if your lens has this function. Sometimes on a tripod, it can create shake.
If you’re experiencing issues with focus or camera shake, go through these 14 focus troubleshooting tips.
Small Sources Can Creative Beautiful Low Light Food Photography
A lot of photographers dismiss small light sources, but they can be really beautiful. Especially when capturing a winter scene that is moody.
These are some shots that I took with light coming through a small window. This window looked onto a fence and the side of a building. So the ambient light was always dark like this.
Things to remember with smaller windows are that there will be less available light than larger windows.
That is neither good nor bad. What is most powerful though is that it matches the mood and concept you want to shoot.
Tips for utilising smaller light sources are:
- Know your Inverse Square Law and get close to your light source.
- You’ll have less ‘wrap’ so you will have deeper shadows.
- Watch your histograms to make sure you aren’t clipping your blacks/shadows.
- Use the exposure triangle to exposure for your desired mood.
Use Your Phone Flashlight to Help Auto-Focus
If you rely on autofocus or you like to use autofocus, it can be hard for your lens to autofocus in low light.
A quick solution is to use a flashlight to help you focus on the area in your image that you desire to be the focal point. Since you likely have your phone on you, it’s quick and easy to use this feature on your iPhone.
Read this post about the 4 iPhone Features You Didn’t Know Could Improve Your Photography.
Low Light Food Photography Tip: Don’t Clip Your Blacks
Clipping your blacks refers to shooting underexposed to the extent that you lose data in your RAW files. Here you’ve underexposed so much that you don’t any information in your black tones.
The problem here is that you can’t manipulate these areas in post-production.
In my masterclass, Lightroom Magic, I teach how to read your Histogram and how to avoid clipping.
My best advice is to make sure you are capturing the optimum exposure for your concept/mood/creative direction and avoid unintentional clipping where possible.
Shooting With Side Light is Easier in Low Light
In food photography, you are most likely going to be shooting backlight or side-light. Both are beautiful types of lighting.
Backlighting works best when there is more available light. As your subject is in between the camera and the light source, you may find that your shots are naturally darker. You either need to modify your lighting or change your exposure using the exposure triangle.
This can be challenging if you are doing low-light food photography.
If you’re finding it too dark, use the light from the side to light your scene.
Don’t be afraid of low light photography. It can actually be so beautiful that once you start shooting it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start earlier!
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