In this article I aim to help people learn how to photograph food with controlled lighting. I have met many food photographers who swear by natural lighting. I love natural light, but it can be unpredictable and changeable. Sometimes certain situations call for more control over the lighting situation to either create consistency or specific effects. Or sometimes the location I’m working in does not have suitable natural light. I will demonstrate below using just one controlled light, how I can mimic the effects of shooting next to a window.
It doesn’t matter whether your light is constant or not. However, if you were shooting ice cream or chocolate, you might have melting problems from the heat of a constant lamp. When working with natural light by a window you would normally diffuse the sunlight to create a giant softbox. This stops harsh shadows forming on the set. So this is what I have here. I’m using a 1 meter squared softbox on a Bowens flash head. A large softbox placed close to the set creates a similar lighting effect to daylight through a window.
I can increase or decrease the amount of light the flash produces at the head. I can also move the light up and down on the stand. Or move it more to the back of the set or more to the side of set. Moving the light around I can change where and how the shadows fall on the set. Remember in food photography, you want your key (main) light to be anywhere between the twelve o’clock and three o’clock position. It could also be overhead though I personally dislike that style.
I used some white card as fill to blend out the shadows. And the large reflector you see propped up, is black on the side facing the background. I used this to darken the fireplace.
So that’s a basic setup for how to photograph food with controlled lighting. Now here is the technical part you need to learn if you are using flash. You need to have your camera set to manual. Using flash in this situation you can usually set your ISO to 100. Next you will want to set your aperture to create the desired depth of field from an artistic point of view. The key thing to understand here, is that changing the shutter speed will do little to change the exposure of the flash light. Adjusting the shutter speed will allow in more or less of the ambient light. To correctly expose the image adjust the light level on the flash itself. Get the main over light effect correct then lift or add shadows as desired. You can do this with card or reflectors. As you become more confident using flash, you can add fill and create other effects using additional lights. As in all cases you should also take a manual white balance exposure using a white or grey card. This allows the camera to account for the correct colour temperature of the light and removes unrealistic colour casts.
I hope you find this tutorial on how to photograph food with controlled lighting helpful. If you have an comments or questions feel free to leave them in the comments line below.