Getting Started with Lighting for Food Photography


Are you new to food photography or looking to advance your lighting techniques? This article takes you through how to use existing light to your benefit as well as how to create it yourself. Both approaches will yield similar results, but each has its own unique advantages. It’s up to you which path to take. 

Natural: Work with Window Light

The simplest way to photograph food is to shape light that already exists. Beginners benefit because there is no cost for using the sun and natural light. It’s best to set up your surface next to a large window in your home, or even take the set outside. You don’t want your light to be ruined by the low quality of an average light bulb indoors. These uncorrected bulbs can create awkward shadows, and the color temperature will be tricky to balance properly.  

Peach Salad. This image was captured using natural light from a window and a single white card as a reflector to fill in the shadows. By looking at the shadows you can easily determine the direction of the light, a good trick when studying your favorite photographers.
This image was captured using natural light from a window and a single white reflector card to fill in the shadows. Shadows indicate the direction of the light—a good rule for studying your favorite photographers.

For this style, set up your shot so the light streams in from behind the subject—also known as backlighting. Specific instructions should have you place it directly opposite the camera, though a slightly off-axis placement works, too. It is an easy look to achieve and works with most kinds of food, making it a great place to start. If it’s a sunny day, you will want to have some form of diffusion to soften the light. You don’t need anything fancy. Just get an affordable sheet of diffusion that can be set up quickly and cover the window. All you need then is gaffer tape to hang it up and you’re ready to start composing. 

The next piece of equipment you’re going to need for this method is a fill card. Heavy white paper or a white sheet will do the trick. If you’re looking for something more permanent, I recommend a collapsible reflector. You can choose silver or white, depending on how much fill the shot needs. White is softer, while silver renders a brighter and harsher reflection. The linked 5-in-1 set also has a translucent option, which can be used for diffusion, as mentioned above. 

With a window off to the left of the frame and minimal fill you can create images with stronger contrast.
With a window off to the left of the frame and minimal fill you can create images with stronger contrast.

However, if you want something more serious or need a stand-alone option, the scrim and c-stand route allows for steadier control of the light, depending on what time of day you’re shooting. It’s also far superior when it comes to stability. 

Finally, a tripod should be used here. The shot itself might be quick, but the light can change quickly, so it is best practice to use a tripod for more control. You likely won’t be able to handhold the camera unless you want to bump the ISO way up and use a faster aperture.

Artificial: Creating your Own Soft Light

If you’re looking for a slightly more consistent method or you don’t have access to a lot of natural light, the artificial approach is for you. This style involves creating the same effect/look as natural light using continuous lights or strobes and modifiers. Luckily, there are budget and investment options so everyone can try it.

A flash with a softbox can create nearly the exact same look as natural lighting.
A flash with a softbox can create nearly the exact same look as natural lighting.

The affordable option uses LED bulbs optimized for photo and a couple of softboxes. The linked kit includes everything you need. You can get away with using a single light with a softbox, but two can help add some brightness, if you need it, or can work as a fill light instead of using a reflector. All you have to do is place the key light and modifier in position behind your chosen subject, opposite the camera, to mimic what a window would do, and then add a reflector or fill light to brighten the shadows. You should be using a tripod here, as well, because it is difficult to handhold the camera with this kind of light.

Beginners to using artificial lighting should know a couple of basic principles when setting up these lights. The first is that the larger the light source is, the softer the light will be. The second is that light drops in power based on the Inverse Square Law, meaning that every time you double the distance between the light and the subject, the power is only 25% of its original strength. For food, where soft lighting is a common look, getting your light closer to the subject is always beneficial, as long as you can keep it out of the frame.

If you want to make a bigger investment in your lighting, then consider some video-oriented lights, such as the Aputure Light Storm LS C120D II LED Light and its Light Dome Softbox. The benefit of going with continuous lights, even as an advanced user, is that they will still work if you opt to start shooting some video or want to take a quick snap with your phone for Instagram.

Another path you can take with artificial lighting is to invest in strobe lights. Strobe lighting is great because it’s fairly easy to find relatively affordable strobes that give off a lot of power. You don’t have to worry as much about shutter speed either, because when the flash fires it freezes motion in a way that continuous lighting is unable. The risk of hand shake is eliminated because of the speed at which the shot is captured. So, if you want to move quickly or shoot more angles more easily a flash is the way to go.

You can use nearly any type of flash, but monolights are great choices. These self-contained units are easy to set up and work with many common modifiers. An affordable and solid two-light kit is a good start. If you want to have a professional future in photography, investing in higher-end lights is always a good decision. My personal light is the Profoto B1X. It’s a higher-end light which comes with additional costs, but I’ve found it has more consistent color than less expensive lights, and the Air Remote system works very well. Now for how to use them.

Using a 2 x 3' softbox on a monolight and pushing it as close to the subject as possible can get beautiful soft lighting.
Using a 2 x 3' softbox on a monolight and pushing it as close to the subject as possible can get beautiful soft lighting.

For this style, you’re also going to want to tether to the computer as you are shooting because you won’t be able to see the full effect of how the strobes interact through the camera back alone. You will need a cable and shooting software such as Capture One or Adobe Lightroom. An extra benefit of tethering is that you can pick and choose images to edit in Photoshop if you like specific details in separate images. You will want to use a tripod if you’re going to composite images together, for consistency. You can read more about tethering here.

Hopefully, this is enough to get you started and experimenting with food photography. Some props such as glassware and polished utensils require more specific lighting to avoid hot spots or reflections—another topic for another day. 

Do you want to learn more about food photography and styling? Have some of your own advice to add or a specific issue you need addressed? Leave a comment, below, with your thoughts!

And for more of what we’re cooking up as part of Food Photography Week, including live sessions on YouTube, find us on social media at #BHFoodPhotoWeek!