Lighting for food photography may be the most difficult task we’ve discussed so far. The problem here is that you are going to deal with many types of food that have various transparencies, textures, shapes and other irregularities. Some items are more reflective than others, some just seem to absorb light. Some might cast irregular shadows that you can’t seem to get rid of no matter how strong your light is. Here are a few tips on how to approach lighting when shooting food.
Find what’s most important
Before setting your lights, ask yourself (or the art director, the food stylist or the client) which part of the dish you’re photographing is essential. Figure out the element that will catch the eye of the viewer and make sure that area gets the best light possible. It could be a well scorched crust, a beautiful decoration on top of a cake or maybe the multiple layers inside. That particular area needs to pop, so make sure it gets plenty of light, but also some shadows to provide a sense of depth, and you’re good to go.
As usual, my first tip is to use as much natural light as possible. It’s the best light you can get and you can easily correct any shadows using additional lights.
You need to remember at all times that food photography is about delivering a message as complex as possible to the viewer. Your job is to transform a two dimensional image into a multi-sensorial experience for the person who will look at your photograph. The final photo must deliver a sense of shape, texture, taste, smell and temperature and, believe it or not, this is quite a difficult job.
Use multiple light sources
In order to do all I’ve mentioned above, you need to use multiple light sources. You need a plan. Your classical one big light here, a smaller one there and the last one a bit further away won’t work this time. If you already have large light sources, such as boxes, they won’t serve you much, as that type of light conceals any sort of textures (and that’s why they’re so handy when you shoot portraits). So, my advice is to focus as much as possible on smaller light sources. You will get crisper results, but, unfortunately, you will also get stronger shadows. The secret is to use as many small lights as possible and keep moving them around until you’re satisfied with the details you’re getting. You will still use a main light for the purpose of defining shapes.
Learn to see the light
Look carefully at every part of your photograph because unwanted shadows or burns could easily ruin your photo or distract the attention from what’s truly important. You need to learn to see every little detail. The key here is to study as many food photographs as possible and try to figure out yourself where the lights were set and how. Do this every day as an exercise and before you even know it you’ll have less and less problems with setting your lights.
What about rear light?
You probably didn’t expect me to recommend this type of lighting in food photography. Well, surprise! Rear lighting is used many times, especially when dealing with transparent or highly reflective items. Placing a small light behind your subject will reveal details that would otherwise be left unseen. For example, think of a salad leaf: it may not reflect light, but it sure can offer quite a show when lit from the back. Same goes for lemons, oranges or other citrus: if you cut the fruit in slices and then light them from behind, you’ll be surprised of how much transparency can add to your picture.
Rear lighting is also very used in photographing beverages. Here you’re dealing with all sorts of transparent items: the glass, the liquid inside, ice cubes and other transparent props you might add. Your main light in this case will be the rear one. This will not only bring out the color of the drink, but it will also create a nice effect by sending a diffuse light into the camera. If you’re trying to replicate the atmosphere in a bar or pub, you will need a larger light. A softbox will give you that diffuse light you’re looking for.