What is often missed when approaching a plate of food is its unique architecture, which begins with the vessel or plate. There is no substitute for moving it around and rotating it in-camera, arranging the elements utilizing the unique perspective of the lens you're using. This is a lesson I learned photographing interiors. Many of the spaces that you see depicted in glossy architectural publications couldn't be lived in as photographed, but rather appear as though they could be.
So too, on a plate of food, the elements or building blocks of a dish form a kind of landscape which catches light and shadow in much the same way as its terrestrial counterpart does, with one important difference—you can consume it. More than that, you should want to consume it, and the inherently seductive nature of sustenance is strengthened by your placement of objects within the frame. The stem of your wine glass directs your attention to a certain area of the plate, or there might be a triangulation evident in the placement of knife, fork and other accessories and of course, your eye is led by the lighting.
Tom Kirkman Photo courtesy Dunn/Robbins Group NYC
While I have certainly had the luxury of using up to 10 lights in a given setup, I'd like to illustrate two- and three-light setups that will give the dish good graphic rendition backed with enough mood and drama to keep the image interesting.
We'll use two similar softboxes of different sizes, oriented vertically (like a window) for each setup. For light sources, I like a 1000-Watt flood for the larger, rear light. (Examples: Lowel DP, Arri, Altman, Mole or Desisti open faces). For the front, I use a smaller box (12 x 16") with similar light of lower wattage: 250-300 watts. Lots of 500-watt lights accept lower wattage lamps, and I'd prefer to do that rather than shift the (average 3200K) color balance by using a dimmer. That being said, if you go the dimmer route, the 12 x 16" box is a convenient size for clipping on light-balancing gels. See our selection of Rosco filters.
Note: As an alternative to the above tungsten lights, those with deep pockets or access to rental houses might opt for HMI sources, which output approximately 4 times as much light as a tungsten light of the same wattage, and are daylight-balanced as well.(5600-6000K).
The basic setup opposes a large rear box (36 x 48") with a small front one (12 x 16"). Light from the rear "edge lights" or "rim-lights" the subject while acting as a directional, or "window source." This, in effect, is your main light. Think of it as the sun streaming through a kitchen window, but unlike the specular sun, we have selected a large soft source which offers more manageable contrast. Over the years, I've noticed that new practitioners consistently seem to think that the closer the softbox is to the subject, the harsher the light, when in fact the opposite is true. This big source will envelope the dish with soft light when right on top of it, but more importantly, begins to mimic a hard source or raw light the further you pull it from the subject. Try it. Using a sharp-edged textural subject, move the large rear box forward and backward, as you observe the changing detail. This is an important control, because it puts a very wide contrast range at your disposal while creating pleasing rectilinear catch lights on the reflective objects in your set.
If you've ever tried some impromptu kitchen window photography, you've noticed that the foreground is always too dark. The common remedy is an on-camera flash or other light source that generally destroys the effect.
That's where the second light, which is essentially a fill light, comes in. I've chosen a 12 x 16-inch box because it fits readily over the lip of any table or bar, and so is capable of variable contrast adjustments. If I want a crisp front light to accentuate detail in the food, I can pull it back and forth, most times while looking through the viewfinder. And if I want a large, soft, rectangular catch light on the glassware, I can just about place the box on the table inches from the glass, if necessary.
A Question of Balance
Here's where the personal taste factor comes in. I usually have the rear box placed directly behind and approximately 3-6 feet from the subject at a 45-degree tilt, the lower part of the box approximately at table height. The front box is just off-camera left or right, and usually quite flat, since tilting will knock the catch lights out of square, but it's not written in stone. If this light is too strong for your desired effect and you would prefer not to move it back, you can reduce its output with neutral density gels, available in 21 x 24" sheets from Rosco, (as mentioned above) clipped onto the front panel of the box.
The final step is filling in the dull spot that is nearly always in the center of the plate. Small reflectors by Lastolite, Impact, Photoflex, Westcott and others are ideal for this and can be held by articulating arms from Bogen or Matthews that will clamp to your table or a light stand. While I favor the combined, silver-gold herringbone surfaces, others may prefer all-silver or all-gold for cooler or warmer effects. Alternatively, Fun Tack, a man-made, nontoxic, putty-like material that behaves like wax, is also great for holding shards of mirror or small pieces of Mylar or reflector board in light-catching positions.
This is a refinement of the above setup but adds a third active source in addition to, the two soft sources. I favor a small spot source or Fresnel for this, in the 200-300-watt range, such as the Arri 300F, Lowel Pro Light, Desisti Magis or LTM P300. My favorite, however, is the Dedo DLHM4300U or DLHM4300E, which more than doubles its nominal 150-watt output through special optics. In addition, it employs as an accessory a small, snoot-like projection attachment capable of a highly-controllable optical spot. This sort of quality can be pricey and there are alternatives.
Over the years I've used Rosco Cinefoil or Gam Blackwrap successfully to create malleable snoots on these lights that put a pool of light only where you want it: in the center of your plate. The matte-black foil comes in several sizes and lengths and is indispensable for detailed tabletop work.
The light should come from high enough overhead so that it's minimally evident in the reflective objects and so that the circle cast on the plate is not elongated. In any case, one benefit of using the foil approach is that it can easily be bent to correct problems or to accommodate irregular subject matter. This third light should be about one-half to one stop brighter than your base exposure, depending on whether you'd prefer a soft glow or a somewhat theatrical effect.
Photos by Tom Kirkman