How to Use Direction and Quality of Light to Enhance Your Food Photos

Backlit Food Photos

Today we have Taylor Mathis from photographing FOOD series to show us how to use light direction correctly and enhance your food photos. Taylor is a food photographer from Charlotte, NC and will show you the concepts with simple subjects.

Take it away Taylor.

I’m going to show you how lighting direction and lighting quality can have a great impact on the look of your image. To keep the emphasis on the differences in lighting setups, I’m using honey and greek yogurt as my props.

For this shot, I want to keep it simple. Just the honey, a glass jar, and a wooden honey dipper. The classic wooden honey dipper is universally known as a great dispenser of this sticky, golden, sweet ingredient. Let me show you how I made it a focus of the shot. First, I decided on a lighting direction.

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Above are examples of the honey shot with side lighting. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t quite have that golden glow and slightly blown out background that I was looking for.

Below, the honey was shot with a backlit lighting set-up. Can you see how placing the light source behind the jar gives the honey a warm golden glow? Backlighting also removes any distracting highlights on the glass and creates slightly blown out background and gives a natural and light airy look to the image.

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Remember that when backlighting, your camera may tell you the incorrect exposure. Below is the same shot at three different shutter speeds. On the far left is what the camera said was correct. On the far right is the actual exposure that I used. With backlighting, there is another decision that had to be made. What quality of light to use? My two options were diffused or un-diffused. Below, the same jar of honey was shot with both types of light. The diffused light was created by hanging a bed sheet from the garage door.

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If you’re looking for harder shadow lines and more contrast, then the un-diffused light is the way to go. This could work if you were trying to convey an outdoor or summertime theme. For the following examples, I preferred the softer looking diffused light. Choose the one that is best going to complement your image.

The honey dipper was a prop that would add meaning and context to my image. When a viewer sees it with a jar, they immediately understand its purpose and relationship. The classic wooden material of the honey dipper fits in with the glass jar and natural warm tones I wanted in the image. Below are a few different compositions using the honey dipper. The three images at the bottom show the dipper coated in honey and drizzling the honey back into the jar.

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After trying several different compositions, I decided that I liked the honey dipper action shots the best. To elaborate on this theme, I wanted to have the dipper drizzling honey over food. The focus would still be on the honey and honey dipper, but adding a food item would help tell more of a story. With the warm golden tones of the wooden background and the honey, I was drawn to create a breakfast scene. From tea to toast, there are many breakfast foods that you could add honey to. For this image, I decide to go with honey drizzled over greek yogurt.

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In images 1-6, I show you how I styled the yogurt. I started with a single serving cup that you find in the grocery store and stirred it until it was a creamy consistency. I tried the image with both a spoon and without a spoon resting in the bowl. I saw that the spoon would get in the way of the honey dipper, so I went with no spoon. I used a second spoon to scrape the yogurt off of the first spoon, which allowed for easy placement of the yogurt in the bowl. I used a spoon to create waves in the top of the yogurt for the honey to flow over. Below is the final image.

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Thank you Taylor.

Taylor has created photographing FOOD series that includes 8 issues, each on a specific topic of food photography. We have worked out a special deal for LFP readers with Taylor. He is offering the series of 8 issues, for next 48 hours only (ending Friday Aug 22nd 11:59 PM Pacific Time), at whopping 50% off as never before. Just use LFP2014 code at the checkout to get this discount. You can get all the issues here.

Special LFP Bonus: If you get this series before next Thursday Aug 28th, you will be invited to a special Q&A Webinar with Neel. To avail this bonus, simply send the receipt and I’ll send you Webinar details. Offer valid where legally permitted. Get all the 8 issues here.

Full Disclosure: While LFP will earn commission from the sales, we only recommend products that are high quality and add value to our readers. All the 8 issues are here

  • deeba

    Hi Neel. Great step by step tutorial. I am all eyes.Had a question. Is that a white board or a foil reflector?

  • Lia Badicu

    I am going home and picking up my jar of honey. The article is great and helpful, but will learn even more if I try that myself :D. Thank you Neel!

  • Thank you so much, Taylor for tho lesson. And thank you, Neel for making it possible.

  • Hey Neel,
    you are weldone here for this creative thinking and shared it here . Hope that , everybody’ll benefited here who work on it .