Light food

On cooking shows such as Top Chef or Iron Chef, the chefs try not only to make food that tastes good but looks good as well. Presentation is a big part of their recipes.


Front lit chicken cooking on the grill at the EL Rancho Inn’s 70th birthday free barbecue in Stockton (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 200mm. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/8. ISO:100).

The idea behind shooting food is to make it look appetizing, and much of that can be achieved simply by using the right lighting. For the most part, front light is the kiss of death in food photography. It will make even the tastiest dishes look flat, dried out and unappealing and turn the most ardent meat lover in to a vegetarian. Try to use light from any direction other than straight on.


Chicken cooking on the grill lit with skim lighting at the EL Rancho Inn’s 70th birthday free barbecue in Stockton (Camera: Nikon D300. Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm @ 200mm. Exposure: 1/500th sec. @ f/8. ISO:100).

What I like to do is to use back lighting or skim lighting on the food. With this kind of lighting, the light source is either directly behind or behind and at an angle from the subject. The shadows created can add depth and contrast to the picture.  If the shadows are too much, just bounce a little light into with a reflector or fill them in with a flash. Either way whatever moisture there is on the food will glisten and shine and make for a dramatic photo.

I covered the El Rancho Inn’s 70th birthday celebration in Stockton. There was barbecuing galore at the event, which fed the restaurant’s faithful customers for free that day. Chicken, pork ribs and lamb steaks all sizzled on the grill. Steve Giannecchini cooked the chicken on his large circular grill. Although it smelled wonderful, the harsh near-midday sun from one angle shone straight on the cooking birds and visually washed them out.  But I just walked around to the other side, and then the light skimmed off the cooking meat and glistened with the spectacular highlights. It made them look plump, juicy and made for a mouth-watering photo.

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