Food Photography Lighting at Home, Part 1: Natural Light

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Food Photography Lighting at Home, Part 1: Natural Light

If you’re just getting started with food photography, you probably have some questions. I certainly did. There are countless ways to set up a beautiful shot of a meal or enticing ingredient. Where to start?

This three-part series will focus on how to light food for photographs. We’ll start with natural light since it is the most abundant and affordable light source. Many successful food photographers create stunning images using only natural light. Next, we will consider continuous lights, ranging from incandescent bulbs at home to tunable LEDs. Finally, we’ll take a look at the many possibilities that strobe lights can introduce to your food photos.

Want to create images like this without fancy lights? Read on to learn how.
Want to create images like this without fancy lights? Read on to learn how.

Gear for Food Photography

If you’re serious about food photography, or photography in general, then you most likely own a camera already. Many new smart devices can work for food photography, as well. The only requirement for the camera itself is that it can capture in manual mode. This is crucial. You don’t want the camera making decisions for you. It doesn’t have to be a top-of-the-line camera, but you want as much control as you can get. I’ll be shooting images with a Nikon Z7, but a Nikon Z30 would work just as well here.  

The lens you choose is arguably more important than your camera. There are specific lenses that render food more aesthetically. Anything in the 50mm range or higher is a great start. This is the preferred focal length for many food photographers. A longer lens, such as an 85mm or 105mm, will allow you to get even closer for detail shots.

If you have a tripod, use it. When relying on window light, it is difficult to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake. A sturdy tripod will virtually eliminate this risk when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The photos in this article were made using a Manfrotto tripod with a ball head to maximize my range of motion. A geared head can also be used to make precise adjustments.

A tripod is essential when working with natural light. A ball head will allow the most flexibility framing your shot.
A tripod is essential when working with natural light. A ball head will allow the most flexibility when framing your shot.

Choosing your ISO and Shutter Speed

Generally, I like to start with my ISO as low as possible and base the rest of my decisions around that setting. A low ISO means your images will show less digital noise. However, the tradeoff is you now need either a great deal of light or a very shallow (wider) aperture. However, it’s okay to start with a higher ISO if your natural light source doesn’t provide enough intensity to get your image lit the way you want it. If your camera is on a tripod, then you can keep your ISO and shutter speed low. On a tripod, a shutter speed of 1/50-second is no different than a shutter of 1/200-second except that it allows light through your lens for a longer duration.

Setting the Table

Food may be the main subject for your photo, but don’t overlook everything else in your image. I chose an old piece of wood as my stage and added a few weathered cooking utensils from an antique store to give my composition a little more visual interest. These offered valuable contrast to my subjects: fresh vine tomatoes.

Antique stores and lumber yards are great places to search for props.

Working with Natural Light

Search your home for the window with the best light. Knowing where the sun is in the sky helps. Does your space get more light from southern exposure? Go find a south-facing window. You’ll want to find the most abundant source you can. It’s always preferable to have to block bright light than have to add more light. If you’re shooting with only natural light and you don’t have enough of it, you’ll end up having to make compromises that will show in your final image.

Keep in mind that an ill-timed cloud might roll in just as you’re about to snap your first photo after an hour of setting up. You make changes to accommodate the loss in light, then that pesky cloud moves on and you’re back to your original light.

The temperature of natural light changes throughout the day, as well. Keep your white balance set to a constant Kelvin temperature, such as 5600K. This is the temperature of direct daylight. Adding a cloud to the situation will increase this temperature, but keep your camera fixed at 5600K. It will be easy in post to correct for this. Use a gray card to provide a frame of reference for when you edit your images. You don’t want to end up with a slew of images that have different temperature settings.

Find the brightest window available before setting up.
Find the brightest window available before setting up.

Once you’ve decided on your window, you have to position that light to best flatter your subject. Directionality is important. Food tends to look its best when lit from the side or from the rear. This is what gives it its depth and contrast. Lighting food from the front can make it look less appetizing, since it now lacks dimension and looks flat. You want to create a sense of drama in the image. Lighting with a single source is also good practice, since it will instantly create contrast.

Another important factor to consider with your window source is how hard or soft the light is. This comes down to personal preference. If you're going for a more dramatic look, then the light can be a little harder. This just means it’s a more direct source, with harder edges and deeper shadows. If you placed a thin white layer of diffusion over the window, such as a curtain or a sheet, the light will be diffused and create softer shadows with less defined edges. The light will wrap around your subjects more. Play around with different levels of diffusion until you like what you’re seeing. I happen to be shooting on a cloudy day, so the light coming into my window is already very diffused. No need to place anything in front of the window to soften the light.   

Final Touches

The light in this image is coming from the side and creating a nice highlight on the rounded surface of the tomato. You don’t want your shadows to be too deep, so a reflector in this case will help open up those shadows and give a better contrast ratio. If you don’t have a reflector, a simple white foam board will do the trick. I have dozens of these in all shapes and sizes that I use when I need to bounce existing light around a subject a little more. V-Flat World makes an assortment of tabletop sizes that can be used for the desired effect. You’re going to get a clean color bounce from a pure white surface. In a pinch, you can use a foam board, like I did here.

Fill light can be bounced from any white or neutral surface.
Fill light can be bounced from any white or neutral surface.

I’m shooting down slightly at the setting on a 70mm lens to help hide the background a little bit. I started with a base ISO of 200 to give myself a little extra latitude. I didn’t want the focus to be too narrow, so I chose an f/stop of f/5. Lastly, I adjusted my shutter speed accordingly to match my other settings and ended up at 1/30-second. Since I’m on a tripod and this is technically a still life, it doesn’t matter too much.

Use vegetable glycerin to help your water droplets stick to fruits and vegetables.

With a single source of light, we have a dramatic image that entices the viewer to take a bite of a fresh tomato. If you have a lens with macro capabilities, you can keep your setup the same and move in closer. At 105mm, I can get nice sharp water drops on the edge of the tomato. If you have a spritz bottle, fill it with a little water and mist the surface. The water makes the fruit look fresher and more appealing. Add a small amount of vegetable glycerin to the water to help it stick to the surface and bead up. For these images, my f/stop changes to f/7 to give me deeper depth of field, and my shutter speed drops to 1/13-second to compensate.

Our final product
Our final product

By utilizing these simple techniques, you can begin producing dramatic images of ingredients and food. Try swapping out a different item. If you have a darker food item, then try using a lighter color surface. Play around with composition so the subject looks as enticing as possible. In the next installment, we’re going to get away from the window and utilize artificial continuous light sources.

Do you use natural light for food photography? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!

9 Comments

Very good introductory tutorial. May I suggest using using links that open new tabs -- much less irritating than having to use the back button that goes back to the top of the parent page every time? Otherwise, nicely done. Thank you!

Thanks for the suggestion, John! We've fixed it.

One of the biggest cliches in photos of fruits and vegetables is that "dewy" look. It's tiresome in garden photographs. Dew doesn't form in my kitchen and not all that often in my garden.

 

My fruits and veggies always look like that after washing. To me it says freshness and getting ready to cook and eat. Cliche? Maybe. True to life? Yes.

 

the golden rule about brightening is to place the brightening screen next to the camera, otherwise you create a second light source; by moving this screen back and forth you will determine the degree of brightening; the last photo of this article could certainly have used some clarification, now the shadows are closing

My fruits and veggies always look like that after washing. To me it says freshness and getting ready to cook and eat. Cliche? Maybe. True to life? Yes.

Sorry, Eddie. I meant this comment to go on a different thread. Please disregard.

Beautiful photos of a very simple subject! It is always so helpful to see the wide-angle "how we set up this [product/food] shot" because obviously not everyone has a beautiful rustic kitchen countertop with ideal side-lighting. The cropped photo you took looks great and shows no trace of a large air conditioner outside!

Hi Artie, thanks so much for your comment! We're glad you enjoyed the photos and the tips.