Understanding Light for Better Food Photography

Lighting Set upLight is everything in photography. Light drives the f-stops and shutter speed and light tells what filters to use. Understanding light is crucial for photography and yet light is something that very few new photographers think about. Starting this post, we will talk about light and lighting for food photography.

Lighting for Food Photography

Lighting scares photographers that don’t understand light. It gives people nightmares and makes food photography challenging. As we’ve talked, light is the single most important element of a great photo. It defines everything in photography.

A desired exposure and true color are two essentials for food photography. We have talked about importance of correct color in food photography. In almost all forms of food photography, accurate color of food is a requirement.

Anyone can take improve their food images by understanding light and how it works and by learning to light. So before jumping into bounces and reflectors and flashes and the lighting gear, lets understand the basics. 

What is Light?

How would you define light? What is “light”? No I don’t want to make you a physicist by the end of this post. But for becoming a better photographer, understanding light is mandatory. So coming back to the question, what is light?

One dictionary defines light as, “something that makes things visible..” another defines light as “radiance or illumination” from a particular source. Without getting into too much physics there are two things about light that you should know: 1) light has direction and 2) light has a color.

Light Has a Direction

Light has a direction. It travels in a straight line. “So what does this have to do with food photography?” you may ask. Well, everything. A reader asked “How do I know where to place a reflector or mirror?” Understanding the direction of light will help you to determine where to place the bounces and reflectors. Using bounces and reflectors, is coming up in a later post.

Light Has a Color

Right color is absolutely critical for appetizing food photos. Color of a subject is often changed by the light available while taking the picture. We have talked about why cranberries won’t have true colors and how light affects their color. Color of light depends on the source of the light. Tungsten bulbs, for example, radiate yellowish light and give a warmth to photographs. As a photographer, understanding color of light and how to achieve “colorless” light is important so that the color of your food is not manipulated by light.

Direction and color are two aspects of light that will improve your photography. In the next post, we’ll start talking about controlling light.

What is Your Lighting Challenge?

What do you struggle with when it comes to lighting for food photography? Is it the reflectors and bounces? Flash? Tell us in the comments below, what would you like to learn and what is challenging in food photography for you? What would you add?

Photo by Illusive Photography

  • http://mybflikeitsoimbg.blogspot.com Peggy

    I think the thing I struggle with the most with my photos is the “color” of light. I definitely try to use natural daylight when taking my photos, but I also have a photo light for night time. And how to downplay shadows is also another challenge I face! Your articles definitely help a ton and can’t wait for the upcoming ones!

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  • Mei Teng

    I try to photograph food in natural light as much as possible. I am less inclined towards complicated lighting set-up.

    • http://www.learnfoodphotography.com Neel

      Mei, I wish I could shoot in natural light as well. Specially with the winter approaching and days getting shorter, the natural light is insufficient for photography, after I come home from my day job. This is true for almost anyone with a day job… (As many readers have shared on Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/learnfoodphotography )

  • http://kathleeniscookinginmexico.wordpress.com/ Cooking in Mexico

    I struggle with getting a white object in my photo to look really white. I know about the white card. My Olympus Zoom 5050 even has a white setting. Still, my whites aren’t white. Maybe I need some bleach. :)

    I also struggle to get tomato color to look right .. the “cranberry problem.” I’ll read the cranberry article again and see if that helps.

    I only use natural light.

    Thanks for asking…


    • http://www.learnfoodphotography.com Neel


      In most cases, white not being white is usually a white balance issue. Mostly to do with settings on a camera. If you mean tomato is not red enough (and not blueish or yellowish) then it is mostly because your color profile (or vibrancy settings) are set to low saturation. If the color of tomato is yellowish or blueish then its back to white balance issue.

      Hope this helps.

      • http://www.foodopera.com Ingrid

        Hi Neel,
        Do you mean Color profile/ vibrancy settings in your camera or in post processing?

        Cheers Ingrid

  • Mary

    How do you cope with lighting in a confined space – for example I’ve recently been to a develoment kitchen where the food is prepared ready for shooting. There is no natural light and the place is tiny. The food prep areas are all there is to work with – what lighting can be used in these conditions? Mary at Food Processors

  • http://gardenlawnmowerreview.com Margaret Snodin

    I am so glad that I am not the only one who struggles with lighting for food photography.

    These posts and the comments from other have given me a much better insight into fixing the recurring issues I have with food color and the use of artificial light.


  • http://www.epicureanmom.com Katie

    I have trouble with getting the light bright. Everywhere. Lately I’ve been doing my food photography during noon or so and it’s still not right! Help! My blog is http://www.epicureanmom.com. Please look through some of my pictures. I’ve submitted some to foodgawkers but they more often then not deny for under exposure. Can’t figure out what I need to do to improve this! Thanks!

  • http://wmedphotography.viewbook.com Mark (Chefmed…Said

    Well I guess I conquer with everyone here. My whites aren’t white, they have a bluish tint to them or I have a lighting issue in general to create the right light.

    I also try to shoot more in daytime natural light from my photography area I have created in my apartment and I seem to do better with this natural light. But I want to know and learn how to use light to create different effects to my photography.

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