Food Talk

Photography Tips: Basic Lighting

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.

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.

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