Light food

If in real estate the three most important things are location, location location, then in food photography the top three things are, lighting, lighting lighting.

Recently my family and I had the opportunity to go to two different restaurants for the first time. Both, like many other eateries, had menus with photographs of the dishes that they serve. The first restaurant’s menus were definitely amateurish. They looked like they were made by someone with a point-and-shoot camera and an inkjet printer. The shots were blasted out with an on-camera flash or perhaps even a built-in one. The second restaurant had a professionally produced menu, both in photography and printing. The pictures were well lit and appetizing. Ironically, it was the first restaurant that had the better food, but you couldn’t tell by the menu.

The basic aim of food photography is to make the food look appetizing. Although there might be some clever things you can do with composition, the key to making food look good is lighting. And there are two key things to remember about lighting food: quality and direction.

Natural-looking soft light is nearly always the best for making food look tasty. A simple softbox on a strobe can do wonders for a photo. You can even use a cloth hung in front of a bare bulb or flood lamp to help modify the light. You can bounce the strobe off a wall, as well. The idea is to avoid the harshness of direct lighting, which can be the kiss of death to a food picture.

The direction from which the light comes is important, too. Rarely is something that is front lit very appealing. Side lighting can help a lot. It can give the subject some depth and shape. I like to use skim lighting. Like backlighting, the light source is placed behind the subject, but it’s angled so that the light “skims” off the surface. It can help to make foods more succulent and juicy. If some light is needed in the shadows, then a simple bounce card can reflect light into the darker areas.

Having a studio helps but it’s not always necessary. Simple indirect window light is very desirable for food shots. In fact, trying to imitate it is the aim of most food lighting set ups. Krysta Guerrero, who writes the blog, has some wonderful pictures on her site. She mostly shoots her photos in a small laundry room off her kitchen. Adorned with white walls and large windows, the room is filled with a beautiful soft and even light.

The window above the kitchen sink at my home looks out onto the backyard. There’s a slatted patio cover that partially shades the window but allows some dappled light through. I can pull back the food from the window and use the soft light filtering in or get closer and use a thin beam to highlight just a portion of it.

Whatever your light source, it should be set up and ready to go before the food is shot, sometimes even before it’s prepared. Foods can dry up, melt or become soggy if left to sit for a while. Setting up beforehand can save a lot of time and give you more opportunity to shoot the food while it’s fresh.

The Dominos Pizza chain is currently running its “Show Us Your Pizza” ad campaign in which they’re running photos of their food shot by their customers. They claim that their pizzas are so mouth-watering that no special photographic manipulation is necessary to make their products look good. The best photo will win $500 and a chance to be in a Dominos ad. Looking through Dominos’ online gallery only a few were gems. The others, well, let’s just say they weren’t. The most appetizing photos were the ones with the best lighting, whether by design or accident. So if you want a to enter and get a leg up on the competition, just remember: lighting, lighting lighting.

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