Using available light for food photography – a tutorial, Part 2 of an ongoing (occasional) series


You don't need expensive studio lights to successfully photograph food.

In fact, for editorial work, some magazines like Food & Wine and Cooking Light as well as some of the more prolific food photographers and food bloggers all praise the more naturally appetizing look of food when using window light to photograph. That's not to say that strobes are bad. There is a market for it. Look at magazine covers like Food Network Magazine or bon appétit and that highly lit, almost advertorial look, is prevalent.

Personally, I go back and forth between strobe and natural day light depending on the final look I have in my head or the time of day I am able to shoot or the conditions of the kitchen (or dining room) I'm shooting in. However, even when I shoot with strobes, my goal is always to simulate natural window light as much as possible. This takes a certain level of skill and comfortableness with studio lights and an understanding of the quality of light that the big golden orb in the sky produces at different times of the day. Since I've been working with studio lights for more than 25 years, I feel fairly confident manipulating them for most conditions. Not to say that I'm an expert – there is always something to learn. That is the beauty of being humble and open to improve and continuously work at your craft.

That said, I know plenty of working, successful photographers who would rather not fumble their way around studio strobes and prefer working with natural light. If you fall into this category or if you can't justify the need for them, not to worry. With a few tips at your disposal on manipulating natural light, knowing how to perform some basic post production (SOOC camp, get over it. I was a professional darkroom printer for more than 10 years and believe you me, we did a lot of manipulation in negative printing to get publication and exhibition worthy prints; every shot you publish should first get some post production love and it doesn't have to be over the top), you can make some lovely food photographs using nothing more than window light, a white Foamcore board, small mirrors or silver / gold reflectors, a tripod and an adventurous spirit for trial and error.

I've posted on using natural light before. That post not only eschewed the merits of window light but also pointed out that you don't need a fancy camera either. The shots for that post were made with a Canon Digital Elph on macro mode. This post, going just a little deeper than that post, will illustrate the point by showing the setup and the affects achieved with and without the fill.

The camera settings are the same for all three photos:
  • camera: Canon 5D
  • lens: Canon 85mm f/1.8 
  • manual -- I ALWAYS shoot on manual
  • white balance set at 5600k (pretty much standard for me when I shoot with daylight or my Alien Bees strobes since they are rated at 5600k. Shots have the amount of warmth I like SOOC. AWB tends to run on the cooler side. When not shooting at 5600k, I create a custom white balance setting.)
  • ISO: 400
  • shutter speed: 1/25th
  • f-stop: f/9
  • shot RAW format (I shoot EVERYTHING in RAW)

This shot is SOOC with no fill. It was converted in Adobe Camera Raw and I just accepted the defaults, opened and saved it as a JPG. I almost always have my main light behind or to the side of my food. Never in front and RARELY above which was actually the way I was taught back in school more than 25 years ago. That is pretty old school – throwing a large softbox directly overhead or at a 45˚ angle in front of the camera facing the subject. Too me, that flattens the food out. Food needs to stir our appetite and looks best when it has light and shadows giving it dimensionality not flattening it out. I think that's what my problem is with advertorial shots and food magazines that shoot with heavy obvious flash. Works fine for edgy fashion shoots. Not so much with food. I say this as I sit here looking at a bon appétit issue on the top of the pile of food magazines on my desk. Yuck. That steak shot with a hard overhead flash looks greasy, not yummy. I also don't like my fills to be the same quality. Which brings me to the next photo.

This shot is also SOOC but shot with a white fill card to camera left and a silver reflector to camera right. Again, converted in ACR accepting the defaults and opened and saved as a JPG. Why a white card and a silver? Why not two silvers or two whites? Because the white is a softer fill and the silver a little sharper. Using the same on both sides would again flatten out the food. In this setup, my main light is the window light coming from behind. My next brightest "light" is the silver reflector to camera right which acts to throw brighter specular highlights on the shinier surfaces. The white card acts as my third "light" and is the softest in intensity just lightening up the deeper shadows enough to bring out some detail.

An iPhone capture of the scene with the fill cards both in place: I move my table over to catch the southern light coming in from my half windows in my dining room.

From this angle, you can see the surface of the silver reflector.

So this is the final shot (same as the one at the start of this post). Most of the correction was done in ACR: I lightened the exposure a few points, bumped clarity and vibrance up a bit, opened up the shadows a few points and then once in Photoshop, I dodged the tomato bowl ever so slightly just to open up those shadows a bit more to accentuate detail, brought in my watermark and then saved. I use Camera Bag for the Mac just to put the rounded corners on the photo because I like that finished for presenting the images on the web. My print portfolio is all full bleed.  (Note: Rarely do I use the filters in the Camera Bag program. I prefer creating Photoshop actions for the grunge and retro looks I like when I'm working with image captures from my 5D. Actions give me much more control.)

To recap:
  • Shoot manual to get the best combination of focus and speed.
  • Set a manual or custom white balance if your AWB is giving you an unwanted color cast.
  • Use a tripod so you can use slower shutter speeds giving you more options to control your DOF.
  • Use a combination of white cards, silver or gold reflectors to throw light back into the areas you want to "open" up. Move the cards around and watch the light move.
  • Have a main – or key – light either coming from behind or from the side for maximum impact.
  • Have fun!
This set up is a behind the scenes look at a shoot for a blog post I wrote for the Food & Dining channel on The recipe I created is for the tortellini pasta salad I posted photos for earlier this week. It looks kinda like this one:

You can find the recipe for this dish here.
Until next time,