How to Photograph Food

There comes a point in the “career” of any Photo Food Blogger ( “Phood-logger,” if you will ) when said blogger thinks thinks he knows enough about how to shoot food photos and is compelled to share it with the world. I am not there yet but I thought it would be a good idea to set aside page to capture things as I grow closer. If this page grows too big, I will probably break it up into separate posts.

To get this out of the way, here is what I use:

  • Camera: Canon D60 – This is not some magical camera that is 20 times better than the Canon 30D. This is actually the second digital SLR that Canon made. I got it second hand off eBay about 5 years ago.
  • Lens: Either a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II or a Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Zoom.
  • Lights: Two Nikon SB-26s on light stands, one of which is diffused with a shoot-through umbrella and triggered using the wireless remotes from Cactus.

The Camera

I am sure this is the first question that comes to mind, but I think I will tackle this last. The short answer is that almost any camera will work. A better camera will work better, but only if you know how to use it correctly. A $4000 camera on auto, using natural lighting will not get you remarkably different photos than one from a decent point and shoot camera.

The Lighting

This is really the question you should be asking. Forget about the camera, how you plan the lighting of your shot is much important. Light paints the picture, the camera just captures it.

There are two schools of thought on this. The first is those who say natural lighting is the way to go. Natural lighting from a nearby window can deliver great results. In general, you may be able to just compose a photo and shoot away.

Soft Light

In general, defused or soft lighting is used for food photography. This style of lighting gives soft shadows, which are shadows that a gradually transition between lightness and darkness. On a cloudy day the light you will receive from a window will already be defused. The rays of light from the sun will be going through the clouds and turning the entire sky into the source of light. On a cloudy day the direction the light is coming from is less obvious because it is not apparent where the sun is. With this type of indirect lighting there is not as distinct direction for where the light is coming from. Instead of having the light apparently come from a single spot in the sky (aka the sun) it appears to cover the entire sky.

Hard Light

If you are shooting on a sunny day, the light may be a “hard light” or more direct. This is because the light will be coming directly from the sun and will appear to be a much smaller light source and more directional. This smaller, more directional light, will give a more distinct shadow because the lighting is coming from one small distinct area. Light coming from an apparently large source will appear to hit the food at many different angles and will create a less distinct shadow.

There are two easy ways to modify a hard light source (aka a sunny window)–reflection and diffusion. Both techniques work for all type of light–artificial, natural and of course super-natural…made that last one up, just want to see if you were paying attention. Below are some practical solutions for modifying natural window light.

Diffusing Natural Light

Diffusing natural light is pretty easy. The goal is to make a light source that appears relatively small, such as the sun, appear larger. To do this you want to make the entire window appear to be lit evenly, not just the part where the sun is. You can do this by placing a translucent cover over the window. Wax paper or tracing paper work great. This will turn the entire window into a light source. Although the sun is really big, and the window is small in comparison, the sun is very far away. When compared relatively, the window is much larger than the sun. Light from the entire window will be able to hit the plate of food from many different angles because it is larger.

Reflecting Natural Light

Diffusing light lets you create a larger light source and in turn create those nice soft shadows. Reflecting light from a window lets you create another light source which can help reduce the strength of shadows. This additional source of light can help cover the areas of the shot not lit the main source of light, the window. Since the light will be reflected, it will not be as strong as the light from the window, but will help lighten dark shadows making them appear less harsh. To reflect window light all you need is a white card or pieces of paper. Position the reflector on the opposite side of the dish from the window. You want to angle it so the light from the window gets reflected back onto the food, filling the areas of shadow you wish to lighten.

These two techniques will provide enough horsepower to make some great images and are the basis for more complex setups and images.

Artificial Light

While natural lighting is great, there is only so much control you can have over it. Some days you will want a nice bright sunlight and are stuck with a cloudy one, or vise versa. You are also limited in where you can place the lighting. Unfortunately, the sun moves across the sky rather slowly, so you may have to wait a while for side lighting to turn into top lighting. You also may not be fortunate enough to have a window near your table or kitchen. Even worse, you could be like me and be stuck working during the day and not have access to all that great daylight.

If you want a little more control over your lighting options, good old artificial man-made lighting is the way to go. There are two broad categories of artificial lighting–constant light sources and flashes. Constant light, aka a house lamp, provides a constant source of light, but is rather dim. Photo flashes provide a lot of light, but only for a really, really short amount of time.

Constant Lighting

Constant lighting is an easy and cheap way to get started, with a number of advantages. If you are using the kitchen lights, this is something you are already doing. One big benefit is that since the light is always on, it is easy to visualize how the light will look, making it easier to modify. Also, since you have a number of lamps sitting around you may already have much of what you need. There are also lights specifically built for photography. They are brighter, can be easily attached to light stands which make them easier to position, and the light they give off is color calibrated. More on color calibration will follow.

Of course there are trade offs. Lamps will have cords that you will have to run through your kitchen potentially creating a tangle. They also put off a lot of heat, potentially making a hot kitchen even hotter. The heat also makes them trickier to diffuse, because you don’t want to set anything on fire. The other big drawback is that even bright lights do not give off that much light, even after being diffused. To compensate for the lack of light, you will either have to use a lower f-stop which will give you less depth of field, or decrease the shutter speed which will force you to use a tripod. Both of these options may be perfectly acceptable, it all depends on the space you are working in and the look you are going for. There is no perfect solution; there will always be tradeoffs with every approach.

Flash Lighting

Flash photography has gotten a bad name from the dinky flashes on cameras. The worst place for a light is right above the lens of a camera. You get much better results by removing the flash from the camera. In fact, once you start using a flash off camera it is really the same as any other light, the sun included. Since this is what I am using for all my photography, I am going to leave this to a follow up post.