As I begin working my way through the Tasty Food Photography eBook from Lindsay at Pinch of Yum and learning more about food photography techniques, the first (and most important) thing that I have learned is how crucial it is to use natural lighting for your food photos. This means utilizing sunlight from nearby open windows, or packing up the food and taking it outside to use direct sunlight! (Also known as “open shade”)
When taking food photos, all artificial light should be turned off. I was doing this all wrong with my initial photos! Since I work full-time, it made the most sense for my schedule to prepare my food Monday evenings after work.
When I started my blog, it was still winter in Ohio, so this meant all of my photography was done after the sun had already set (you know, like 3 pm…). I thought it made sense to turn on ALL the lights in the kitchen to get the “best lighting” for my photos. I also thought all of my pictures had to be taken in the kitchen since it was a food blog.
Now I’ve learned that the artificial light gives the food an unnatural coloring and you lose the natural highlights and shadows that you get from real sunlight. This natural lighting makes the food look more realistic and appetizing, so you want to use it as much as you can! I also have realized that food photography doesn’t have to be in a kitchen just because it’s food. A lot of bloggers transport their food to areas in their house with better lighting to improve their photos.
In this post we’re going to focus on what I have learned about natural lighting, specifically light scraping, and how to find and utilize the best lighting in your home to help improve your food photography! So let’s get started!
One technique Lindsay teaches is something called “light scraping.” This means that when you take photos you should determine from which direction the light is coming in and ‘scraping’ over your food. You can then utilize this lighting to determine where you want the light to highlight or where you want shadows to be on your dish. Highlights and shadows are beneficial to your photographs, as it adds more texture and interest to your food. I’ve included some examples below, but Lindsey does a much better job of explaining this concept in her eBook with images and examples!
This is an example of light scraping in from the left. Notice the highlights on the left hand side of the sour cream and the shadows of the chili right hand side of the bowl.
This image is an example of light scraping from the right. Notice the highlights on the right side of the grapes and the shadows on the left hand side, as well as the shadows on the left hand side of the quesadilla.
Don’t be afraid to move your food around to different angles to determine which setting compliments your food the best! Think about what areas of your dish you want highlighted and arrange your food so that you best achieve this lighting. Sometimes it can be hard to tell, so you can always start by taking a few photos at different angles then comparing them to determine the best lighting before you begin your true photoshoot.
The Tasty Food Photography ebook also provides examples on how to use reflectors (either purchased or homemade) to increase highlights and decrease shadows in your photos. It also teaches you how to use white sheets to soften or diffuse the light you are using, for instances where the natural sunlight may be too harsh. I’m not going to provide examples of these because I have very limited experience with them but Lindsay does a phenomenal job in the book of providing examples and explaining this more!
Lindsay also teaches you about “backlighting” which is essentially using the light behind your food to provide a different look. I have yet to master any photos where I prefer to the backlighting appearance but I will keep trying! Of course, she provides some examples of good backlighting photos!
Finding the best lighting for your photography
One of the first things I put into practice from Lindsey’s Tasty Food Photography ebook was to figure out where in my house has the best lighting for my photography. You can determine this by taking a sample of food to various windows in your house and practicing with different angles to determine the best positioning and lighting.
So, what I did was get a plate of sample food items that are similar to what I would photograph. I chose an apple, a labelled wedge of gouda, and some grapes.
- The apple was interesting because I knew it would pick up the light and look shiny in some photos and dull in others so it would be a good tool for me to use for comparison and to learn more about light scraping.
- I chose the gouda because I like to provide brands occasionally so I wanted to see which locations would give the best light for reading labels.
- I included the grapes because they’re all so unique and can be used for light scraping comparison between photos as well.
I then took the plate to various rooms in my house to determine which windows had the best lighting. I did this around 11 am so I am sure these images would vary throughout the day, but this gave me a good starting point!
Below are the images I took. None of them have been edited at all and they were all taken with my iPhone 6 camera. I am providing these examples just so you can see what a difference using different windows can make, as well as to demonstrate the process I used for finding my best lighting. It should give you a good starting point if you’re looking to do the same!
Upstairs room in back of house, one window. With and without blinds.
These images were taken in an upstairs room with one window. I took one photo with light scraping from the right with and without blinds. You can see how the light ‘scrapes’ over the food from the right, resulting in a shiny right side of the apple with shadows on the left side.
You can then see how the lighting changes drastically with the blinds closed, giving the food a duller, darker appearance and more shadows on the left hand side of the apple.
Upstairs room, back of house, two windows perpendicular to each other
These photos were taken in another upstairs room that has two windows perpendicular to each other (not quite corner windows but close.)
The first photo is right sided scraping, similar to the previous set of images (the window is to the right of this plate. There is a window behind the plate as well but the blinds are closed).
The middle photo is backlighting, meaning the window is now behind the plate.
The third photo is still in the backlighting position but with the blinds are now open on the window to the left. You can see how with the blinds open you get more of a shine on the left hand side of the apple.
Front downstairs window, two parallel windows
These images are from a window in the front of our house. These windows are on the opposite side of the house from the first two examples and you can really tell the difference in lighting! I was surprised how dark and shadowy these images came out. I was expecting these larger windows to provide much more light.
The first image has side scraping from the right, as you can tell by the highlights on the right hand side of the apple again.
The second image is backlighting. My backlighting images always look really dark like this which is why I don’t prefer this arrangement, but I will keep practicing with it!
Room, back of house, corner windows
These images are taken between corner windows in the back of the house.
The first image has side scraping from the left (notice how the apple is shiny on the left side now? The scraping side is different from the other images in this post.)
The middle image is backlighting and angled between the two windows.
In the last image I rotated the plate so that now it gets some backlighting from the window in front of it, and some scraping from the right hand side from the open window on the right. Notice how the shininess of the apple has now changed positions? All from just rotating the food to utilize different light! (*This location was used to photograph spaghetti squash florentine, as I couldn’t get the lighting right in my kitchen!)
Kitchen, back of house, multiple windows and sliding door
These images were taken on our kitchen table in the back of our house, next to our patio door. They really show the difference between right side light scraping and back lighting.
The first image has the same right side scraping as the other images, but you can see how much extra light is let it by the multiple windows, resulting in a brighter picture.
All I did in the second image was rotate the plate/placemat 90 degrees to the left to try backlighting. This obviously made a huge change as far as lighting and shadows!
Thankfully I liked these images the best (the side scraping one at least) so I am able to take most of my photos right on my kitchen table! This makes my life so much easier because I can cook, plate and photograph all in one room!
Weather and timing
Another thing to consider is weather and time of day. Since shooting on Monday nights after the sun has set is not ideal, I have now started cooking most of my dishes on Sunday during the day instead.
Since I work full-time I don’t have the ability to plan my photoshoots around the weather so I kind of have to work with what I am given. I did an entire photoshoot on my gouda, bacon, onion, apple quesadillas on a cloudy day and 2 seconds after I finished eating the quesadilla, the sun came out and was PERFECT for photos! Sigh….I imagine this will happen to me a lot. Just do the best you can with the lighting you have!
Lindsay also discusses how to use artificial lighting with tabletop light units and lightboxes, should you have to photograph in the evening. Fortunately, I have been able to schedule my sessions during daytime hours so I haven’t had to delve into this yet. However, she provides specific examples of recommended units and even tutorials on how to create your own lightbox so if you have no time for daytime photoshoots, I highly recommend using the ebook to learn more about using artificial lighting!
You can really notice the difference when you check out some of my before and after natural lighting photos! For example, my skinny blueberry banana muffins, bruschetta with mini peppers, and chocolate chip brownies were taken in artificial light.
Look at what a difference just utilizing natural light made to these pictures!! Of course I bought some new props and started practicing with better arrangements but it’s obvious what a change the lighting made in these images! (I think my more recent images have improved even more, but I also purchased a DSLR camera, so I have provided the 6 examples above since they were taken with the same iPhone!)
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