Sunday, August 7, 2011

Food Photography Tips 1: Food Photography Lighting

Welcome to the first in a series of four posts that will cover food photography tips.  The four posts will cover food photography lighting (this post), food photo camera settings, food photo composition, and food styling photo props and backgrounds.

I've been learning about food photography techniques for the last few months - reading about techniques, practicing them, and looking critically at professional food photos - and the work is slowly beginning to pay off.  I still have a lot more practice ahead, but I wanted to share what I've learned so far with other beginning food photographers and bloggers.

I'm still using the standard point-and-shoot digital pocket camera I've had all along, but my photos have improved drastically through the new knowledge and techniques I've been practicing. The archived posts provide a rich source of comparison for how my photos have improved over just a few months.

For example, compare the recent honey, almond & date treat photo to the gingerbread leaf photo taken about 10 months ago:
Honey, almond & date treat: Not over/under exposed, natural light source (window),
appropriate white balance,  composed background w/depth of field. (Jun 2011)
Gingerbread cookies: Overexposed/light too intense, poor white balance = plate looks yellow,
incandescent light, highlights on black teakettle in background distract viewer's eye,
and photo background is messy kitchen! (Nov 2010)
I've geared the advice below toward any beginner, regardless of camera make and model, but have kept owners of digital point-and-shoot cameras in mind in particular. The food photography tips below don't require fancy equipment, lenses, or expensive cameras - just time, patience, and a new attention to detail. Hope you enjoy!

BakerGal Food Photography Tips, Part 1:

Food Photography Lighting Techniques

DON'T use flash: Food is full of fine details and you'll want to get very close shots of your food to showcase these details. At close range, flash will wash out the details and provide overwhelming brightness. It will also cast an unpleasant light and unnatural shadows on your food.

Light source: Use natural daylight. Try to shoot near a window, in a bright, naturally lit room, or outdoors. Consider how the color of the light changes at different times of day and the direction, length, and darkness of the shadows it will cast.

Light intensity: The ideal light is uniform and bright. The more universal the light source, the fewer deep shadows you'll have obscuring your food. A list follows of common light intensity problems and the food photography lighting techniques that address them:
  • Bright light that casts deep shadows (i.e. bright sunlight through the window): Try placing the food between the window and a white panel to bounce light from the window onto the dark side of the food. You can arrange one or more large styrofoam panels, white cardboard panels, or other flat surfaces covered in a white material around the food, you have much greater control over the light. You can also experiment with filtering the light through a curtain.
  • Low light, resulting in blurry photos: Shooting in low light is not ideal. It can result in interesting shots, but most often it just means a grainy photo (see "ISO" under Part 2: Food Photography Camera Settings) and blurriness. A lot of blur in low light photos happens when the photographer fails to hold the camera steady or presses the button to take a photo, causing camera shake (assuming that the subject is stationary). To prevent this, try using a tripod or level surface to steady the camera and use at least a 2 second shutter delay so the camera can settle between when you press the button and when it shoots the photo.
  • The food is ready, but the sun has set: Sometimes the food is ready, but the sun is not.  You can often just throw the food in the fridge or freezer and wait until the next day, or until the light quality has improved. If refrigerating or freezing the food doesn't change its appearance and you aren't trying to convey the temperature of the food through the photo (steam, condensation, etc.), this should work okay.
Use light to bring attention to the subject: You want to do everything you can to draw the viewers' attention to the main subject of the photo: delicious food. One food photography lighting setup toward this end is to use white or light-colored panels and curtains to reflect more light onto the subject of the photo and to block bright light that is hitting the background. Pay close attention to the photo as you set it one of the items in the background - props or objects, or tablecloth - brighter than the main subject of the photo? Are there reflections on shiny surfaces in the background that will distract the viewer from the main subject (see gingerbread cookie photo above)?   Luckily, you are not taking a landscape have almost full control over lighting and objects and can easily move things around until you're satisfied.

I hope you've found these food photography lighting techniques helpful. In the next part of this series, I'll cover some basic camera settings that are helpful for the beginning food photographer.