Shooting Better Food Photos in Natural Light

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It’s summertime, so naturally, barbecues and family gatherings are on the roster for many of us. Summer is a time for rest and relaxation, good weather, and dining al fresco. There is a good chance you’ll want to document your picnics, barbecues, and the food and beverages you’ll be serving. We all love to do that, especially in recent years. If you want your food photos to stand out while keeping your workflow simple, here are a few tips that may help you.

Working with Available Light

Direct sunlight can be harsh as a single source for food photography. If you are indoors, photographing food on a sunny day, your best bet would be to use the sunlight coming through a window. Try placing the food to the side of or in front of the window. Avoid shooting with the window behind you―your shadow will fall on the main subject.

If the light is too harsh, there are some modifications you can make to enhance your lighting:

  • Place a sheer white curtain or diffusion material over the window to temper the strong sunlight. Alternatively, you can also use wax or parchment paper and place it over the window to cut down the intensity of the light. Gaffer tape will keep these in place and leaves no adhesive residue.

  • Turn off the other lights in the room. You don’t want mixed lighting sources to throw off your color balance.

  • Take a custom white balance reading for accuracy.

  • Place a white reflector board opposite the window to open up the shadows a bit.

  • Use mirrors, aluminum foil, or a silver reflector to add reflected specular highlights to your subject. Specular highlights add some life to an otherwise flat photograph.

Working the Angles

As you move the camera around your subject, you'll notice that the shadows will fall differently in the frame. To avoid disappointment later, apply some of the following tips:

  • Position your subject where you want it. Prepare the set. Do what’s necessary to diffuse the lighting, add reflectors, mirrors for specular highlights, and whatnot. Observe how each element modifies the appearance of the subject.

  • Move the camera around while looking through the viewfinder to determine the best angle for your photograph.

For extra flexibility, you can try shooting handheld, but for stability, use a tripod to avoid camera shake. You may need to make a few exposures before you nail the one you have envisioned.

“I’m ready for my close-up!”

Get close to the food. This will render texture and detail that will, hopefully, make your food photo look absolutely sumptuous. The idea is to draw the viewer in and convey a sense of wonderful cuisine and delicious flavors.

Use Color and Shapes to Your Advantage

Coordinating color in your food photos can add an appetizing look to your images. Effective lighting, correct exposure, and coordinated colors can evoke the wonderful essence of the food you have photographed. Additionally, consider the props around the plate―utensils, crumbs, drips, other dishes―and arrange them in a fashion that will frame the dish tastefully, and complement it.

Circular compositions work well to lead the viewer’s eye around the photo, and the plates or props. Sometimes, squaring up a composition can create a successful food photo, too.

Try using creative focus, also. Shallow depth of field, when applied properly, can add a distinct point of focus or an air of mystery to your photograph as the sharp focus falls off into softness.

Saturate Colors in Post-Production

One method you might want to try in Lightroom or Photoshop is to pump up the clarity, saturation, and vibrance slider bars. These help to make your image pop, just a bit more.

Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan
Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan

You can use these programs, but it helps to try and get your image as close to what you envision in camera and save yourself some headaches down the line.

Are you an avid food photographer? Do you have any tips of your own you’d care to share with your fellow enthusiasts? Please key them into the Comments section, just below. We’d love to hear from you!

Care to read more? Click here for our Food Photography page and more great content!

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