Food Talk

Photography Tips: Basic Lighting

This article is the first in a four part series on photography tips written by Marika of Madcap Cupcake

Lighting is one of the most important elements to consider in order to create a successful photograph. In addition to your light source, one must consider the color, intensity and quality of the light. Improving your lighting technique is the first step to taking better photographs.

When it comes to lighting for photography, volumes could be written on any of a thousand different specific areas. The purpose of this article is to provide some easy quick tips for beginners seeking to improve their food shots. After putting so much effort into creating your Daring Kitchen challenges, you want to make sure your photos do your hard work justice.

Keep in mind that photography is a very personal thing. Different people have different visual aesthetics. Experiment with different methods. Look at the work of others. Ask questions. Take as many shots as you have patience for. It’s not unusual for me to take upwards of 50-100 shots, or more, in the hope that I’ll get one shot that I like. Sometimes I’m disappointed. When it comes to food shots, most days I only have a few minutes to get a shot together in order to include it on my blog. The more you practice, the more likely you will get a half decent shot in a short amount of time. You really do get out what you put into it – this is especially true of food photography. I always get a better shot if I invest a fair amount of time shooting my subject.

Natural Light:

The simplest way to improve your shots, especially if you have basic equipment, is to use natural light. If you’ve been using that little pop-up or built in flash on your camera, making this one change will improve your photographs exponentially.

This is not always an option for everyone. If you have the luxury of choice however, shut that flash off. That little onboard flash on your point and shoot, or DSLR for that matter, will do nothing to help your photo. A flash that is aimed directly at the subject is always going to visually flatten your image, wash everything out, distort your colors and create harsh, unattractive shadows.

Find the best natural light in your home – it may not be the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to carry your plate to another room where it’s brighter or even set a side table or chair near the window. Also, move your subject around within the space you have chosen. With the slightest rotation of your subject, the way it is lit up may change drastically.

Pears shot by windowPears shot with flash

While adequate light is needed, avoid direct sunlight which is too harsh. Diffused light is best. If your preferred location is in direct sun, and you can’t wait for the sun to shift, you can diffuse the light with a makeshift diffuser. You can purchase one of these or you can make your own. Tissue paper, wax paper or parchment paper work well. Try taping the paper to the window and see how your light changes. If you would like more control, make a hand-held diffuser. I’ve made diffuser frames out of paint sticks. I’ve also used old picture frames (with the back removed). Simply tape your paper to the frame and voila, instant hand-held diffuser. You will be able to change the quality and intensity of the light by moving the diffuser closer or further away from your subject. This method can also be used in combination with auxiliary lights.

If your light is very directional you will have a subject that is strongly lit on one side and rather dark on the other. In these situations you can experiment with a bounce card or reflector to help fill the dark side of your subject. Bounce cards and reflectors are white, light-colored or silver cards or discs that are used to aim light where you need it. A straightforward and often helpful way to use them is to place one on one side of your subject, opposite your light source (out of view of the camera). You can buy such cards. You can also easily make your own. A piece of white foam core board works perfectly. White paper works too. Even a cereal box or shopping bag can make an excellent stand-in for a bounce card in a pinch. A bounce card provides fill light. Fill light is not always needed. Experiment. When it is needed, fill light reduces shadows that may otherwise have been too harsh. It will make your subject appear more evenly lit and will reduce contrast. Some contrast is desirable but an overly contrasty scene usually does not translate well in the final photo. Digital cameras have particular difficulty rendering very contrasty shots. You will either lose detail in your shadows (completely black) or blow out your highlights (completely white). If you see this phenomenon occurring in your photos, try using a bounce card to create some fill lighting. You can also use a bounce card when working with portable or auxiliary lights.

If you own a DSLR with a separate, tiltable flash unit, you can also experiment with bounced flash to create fill lighting. Bounced flash is achieved by bouncing the light off a wall or the ceiling – never directly at the subject. You do this by tilting the flash unit towards one of these surfaces. This effect can help to augment a weak source of sunlight and make your subject more evenly lit.

Don’t be afraid to move your subject around. Rotate your plate or place it in a slightly different position. Keep taking shots and compare your results.

Auxiliary Lighting:

Some of you may have a hard time accessing adequate sunlight or would like the freedom to shoot at any time of day. Whether you live in a dark apartment or bake late at night, you will need an alternative lighting source. It’s still not okay to use that onboard flash – so don’t even think about it.

You may have tried overhead lights or used table lamps with dismal results. Regular tungsten or incandescent light bulbs will give your photos a yellow or orange cast. Standard fluorescent bulbs will turn your photos green. In order to achieve a clean white light for your shots, you will need to make at least a small investment in one or more lights.

There is a bit of a learning curve involved when it comes to making artificial light look natural. If you’re a beginner, I recommend keeping things simple. Get a very basic lighting kit to start. Something like the Lowel EGO light is a simple, non-electronic system that can be found for under $100. This light uses a special fluorescent bulb balanced for daylight, meaning it will produce a whiter light than a standard bulb. When used properly, these lights mimic sunlight. When used improperly, the photos look a tad cooked. Don’t be afraid to move the light, or lights, around. Once you’re a whiz with a basic lighting system, and if you love it, the sky’s the limit in terms of what you can invest in. Start simple and work your way up from there.

When working with auxiliary lighting, one can also make good use of diffusers, bounce cards or reflectors, as well as the method of bouncing light off of walls and ceilings.

Knowing that lighting is a key element of a great shot, photographers will wait for the right time of day in order to get the shot they want. Beyond that, photographers will manipulate the light in order to achieve the result they’re looking for. As you become more confident with your photography and get more successful shots under your belt, you will learn to use lighting to accentuate the shape and texture of your subject. It’s not just about lighting your subject up, it’s about enhancing it.

Audax Artifex
Audax Artifex's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 weeks 4 days ago. Offline

Joined: 03/07/2009

Very useful and interesting information will be using most of this. Thank you for this very good article cannot wait for the others.

airmathew's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 weeks 2 days ago. Offline

Joined: 03/21/2009

That was very informative Marika! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with all of us here Big Hug


Lori Lipsmacking
User offline. Last seen 3 years 36 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/07/2009

Good tips for photography are always helpful. Thank you.

User offline. Last seen 3 years 44 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/19/2009

Thanks so much for those valuable tips described in a way that is easy to follow. Photography is very new to me and even though I have inherited a great DSLR my limited knowledge on lighting produces results I am often very disappointed in particularly during these winter months with limited natural light. I have searched for what to buy on lighting but it’s a mine field, I like your suggestion of EGO light to start with and will investigate further. Looking forward to more tips and thanks for sharing!

chipie_chocolat's picture
User offline. Last seen 2 years 25 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/11/2009

This was so helpful! I’ve only just started a food blog, and am struggling with taking proper pictures. I was aware of the importance of lighting, but didn’t really know how to work with it: I get decent light near the window during a portion of the day, but that means I can never take good pictures of dinner… So your tips about auxiliary lighting were particularly useful for me. Thank you so much!

rose_bitemekitchen's picture
User offline. Last seen 4 years 3 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/10/2009

Great article! I love those Lowel EGO lights Smile Thank you for your informative and well-written submission!

MadcapCupcake's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 40 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/10/2009

Hi Everyone! Thank you so much for your appreciation and support – it makes me so happy to know you are getting a benefit from reading these articles. If anyone has a particular area they need help in, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly through the DB contact form. I will happily try to answer any questions you have as best I can.

User offline. Last seen 1 year 1 week ago. Offline

Joined: 05/04/2009

Thanks for useful and great tips!
I just started a food blog, and I find it hard to get the right lighting.
I’ll have to remember this for my next posts! Smile

chef_baron's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 16 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 05/20/2009

I’m interested in the food styling and photography part, Does anyone knoww how much will this cost?

sweetsadies's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 weeks 5 days ago. Offline

Joined: 03/12/2009

Great information! I just received a little lighting kit as a gift but haven’t used it yet. Any additional tips for using it?

MadcapCupcake's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 40 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/10/2009

@chef_baron – Hi there – What are you referring to with regard to cost? Cameras, lighting, hiring a stylist? – I wasn’t sure Smile

@sweetsadies – What a nice gift! What type of kit do you have? Is it manually controlled (you turn it on and off yourself) or is it electronically controlled by your camera? If you could tell me a bit about it I could probably point you in the right direction Smile

Lisa Michele
Lisa Michele's picture
User offline. Last seen 10 weeks 1 day ago. Offline

Joined: 03/07/2009

Marika. I just read every single one of your photography articles, and wow, you have no idea how much it has helped me in understanding so much! There are so many facets to good photography, and I hope to one day get them all down pat without confusion and some kind of expertise. Your articles have made things a lot easier to grasp. Now, if I could only wave my magic wand and get some natural light, I’d be golden..LOL

BTW, I had no idea there were so many Food Talk articles written up already! I thought deeba’s was the first! I’m far too ‘out of it’ these days. Looking forward to reading your alternative foods article sometime this weekend, as I want to start adding some vegan fare, along with low fat, vegetarian etc.. to my blog, as artery clogging chow isn’t the only good food out there, and I need to expand my culinary and pastry horizons!

MadcapCupcake's picture
User offline. Last seen 3 years 40 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/10/2009

Hi Lisa Smile Thank you so much – you’re so sweet. I’m so happy to hear that you’re getting something out of the articles! And I’m stoked to read about your future veggie posts!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *