Fundamentals, Light

Understanding light, part 1

Regardless of whether you are using an expensive camera or your phone to take a picture, light is the essence, the alpha and omega of all photography. Without light, photography is simply not possible – if you don’t believe me, try taking a picture in the dark, and see what you get.

A photograph is created when light enters your camera through its lens, it hits the sensor, and then the camera (or your mobile device, if that’s what you are using) translates that information into a digital image displayed on the screen. How good that image is depends, in no small part, on the qualities of the light conditions you are working in/with. There is a lot to be said about light, however, and I could not fit all of it into one post. So today I have for you part 1 of a Fundamentals series on light, and how understanding and manipulating the light can make or break your images.

Painting with natural light at f/2.4 1/100sec 60mm ISO500

Natural versus artificial

Light can come from two types of sources: natural and artificial. My strong preference is to use natural light, for several reasons: it makes food look its best; is free; offers a lot of opportunity for learning because it is always changing from day to day and season to season. I plan to dedicate some time and effort further down the line to food photography using artificial light sources (the kind you buy in a photo store, a.k.a. strobes), but for now, and a long while going forward, my posts will be about shooting in natural light.

I will take the time here to insert a plea: please, please do not take pics of food under your household lights, that ugly overhead light makes even the most photogenic food look unappetizing. Even the best camera cannot compensate for this. If you take nothing else from this post, then please take away this: photograph your food during daylight hours, in natural light. And if you have a fave restaurant, go there for lunch and sit near a window! Here is a photo I took a long time ago under artificial light. A cranberry compote with a white chocolate mousse on top – it was  a great Christmas dessert. I cringe, really cringe when I look at it:

Yikes! Definitely not doing this dessert justice! f/5.3 2/5sec 36mm ISO200

Quality of light

When taking pictures of food, we are interested in certain qualities of the light which creates our image. This sounds maybe like something complicated, but bear with me, and let me know in the comments if I could clarify something further.

The qualities of light we are looking to understand are:

  • direction
  • intensity
  • cast/colour

The focus of today’s post is direction of light; intensity and cast/colour come next in the Fundamentals series.

Direction of light

Which direction is the light coming from in relation to your subject and the camera’s position? Imagine the face of a clock with your subject (the food) right at the centre. We make the assumption that the photographer (yes, you!) is always at six o’clock. Where on the clock is the light coming from? Here, let me show you. I am using a marble board (they are sometimes called pastry boards or cheese boards) as the background, and some pears as the subject. Look at these images, and based on the position of the shadows see if you can figure out where the light source was:

f/3.6 1/100sec. ISO800 60mm


f/3.6 1/100sec. ISO640 60mm

Pretty straightforward, yes? In the first, the light is coming from the right side – two o’clock. There are dark shadows on the left side of the subject. In the second, it’s coming from the left side, or eight o’clock. I shot the first image, then I rotated the marble board 180 degrees, and I obtained a very different image, even though the subject was the same. We call both these situations “side lighting” and this is considered a very flattering light for food. I bet you have read this before, but have you wondered why? The reason is: shadows. The presence of shadows gives more “definition,” or dimension, to the food itself, and creates a very natural look that we instinctively recognize and respond to.

The beets and pears pictures were shot from straight above the subject, to illustrate most effectively the clock face analogy. I will be returning (in a future post) to the question of the camera angle. This angle (shooting straight from above) is possibly the best angle for food photos taken with a phone camera; the tiny lens has a wide angle, which means that the edges and corners of your frame will be distorted – but less so when you are shooting food from above, and keeping subjects farther from the edges.

Coming back to the direction of light and the clock face analogy, there are two more lighting scenarios:

  • the subject is backlit: the light is coming from twelve o’clock, and you are shooting against the light (remember, the photographer is at six o’clock). This will typically give you a strongly lit background and shadows in front of your subject (foreground), but also a gleam on the surface of your subject which emphasizes the texture of the food. Many photographers consider this the best lighting for food, because it highlights the food so well. It is a great lighting scenario for translucent liquids, for example, like the turmeric tea I made a few days ago.
Backlit turmeric tea f/3.2 1/200 60mm ISO400
  • the subject is frontlit, and this is easier understood like this: the light source and the photographer (you!) are both coming to/hitting the food from the same direction. The light source is behind the photographer (six o’clock), and we are shooting from the same direction the light is coming from. This is typically considered a less flattering lighting situation for food, because the shadows -the very elements that give dimension and texture to your image – are not seen.

Really, the best way to understand lighting is to practice it for yourself.

  • What you’ll need: a piece of fruit with some height to it (an apple, or a bowl with grapes etc.); a white or light-coloured surface like a piece of cardboard from the craft store (you’ll have an easier time seeing the shadows on a light-coloured surface than on a dark one), and your camera or phone
  • When: during daylight hours, ideally on an overcast day
  • Where: find a window in your house that has light streaming through it, but not direct light (the sun isn’t shining right through). Switch off or otherwise close off (with more cardboard – I love this stuff!) all other light sources in the vicinity of your shooting area. The ONLY light source should be the aforementioned window.

Set your camera to achieve an optimal exposure (there is also a post coming on what a correct exposure is and how to achieve it using your aperture, shutter speed and ISO). And start taking pictures, paying attention to how the light hits your subject, and where the shadows fall. Rotate your board 90 degrees and see how the light has changed. And keep turning the board the taking pictures, to see which lighting situation is most appealing to you.

Here’s what this setup looks like in real-life, with me shooting in my spartan living-room which has really beautiful light. There is no window on the wall with the chair, so the light is only coming from the two tall windows to my side. So go find a window with nice lighting in your house -it can be any room at all, it doesn’t have to be the kitchen – and start shooting!

Photographing pears with light coming from the side of the subject

Train yourself to see the direction of light

When I first began reading about food photography, I found the information on light daunting. What shadows? What colour is the light?!? Umm… white? -ish? We see light every day, and we never stop to think about it consciously. I could not understand why the picture I was seeing in front of me was so different than the picture on the screen. Our brain looks for recognition, to quickly assess danger, and fills in the gaps in perception. Our survival as a species probably did not depend on determining correct exposure, so we have to train our brains to do the work we need it to.

My eureka! moment came after many, many shots (my hard drive is full of ugly, ugly images), when I started to really observe/look for and see the light: how the light is falling on a scene, how it feathers at the edges of shadows on a softly lit day, if it has a gold shimmer to it or it’s coolly blue, how it reflected off the snow in my front yard and it made the indoors brighter and bluer, and how all the colours seem to pop in the soft light of a cloudy day after a rainfall. I would cook slowly, paying attention at the ingredients and the process, then I’d rush through the picture-taking, only to exclaim in frustration when I got yet another lousy image. I’ve been there. Then I realized that I had to give the picture-taking part at least as much attention as the cooking. Where did I plan to set up the scene? How is the light in that particular spot? Will I need to manipulate the light to get a correct exposure? Where do I want the light falling on the dish so it brings out the grainy texture of an amaranth porridge, for example?

The lighting brings out all the little grains on the surface of the porridge f/2.4 1/125 60mm ISO1000

This is all I could fit in this post, but I have SO much more to share. If you’re an instagram user, then please tag me (@fxmaman) and add the hashtag #craftandmuse so I can see your food pics – I would love to get to know you!

The next post is a practical one, I’ve challenged myself to style and shoot a brownie three ways, and you can see what I came up with. Until next time!

5 thoughts on “Understanding light, part 1

  1. Wonderful post! Can’t agree more — no food pics under regular lights (leads to unappetizing food pics)! So much great information about lighting — a comprehensive post to get people started on their photographic stories! Well done Diana!

    1. I took my fair share of poorly-lit food pics, but I am hoping that sharing my own mistakes (just look at that old pic, yikes!) will help others to avoid making them!
      Thank you so much for your kind comment, Kris!

  2. Really appreciate you taking the time to explain this. I am a novice food photog eagerly trying to improve my skills. Have begun using nature light sources as often as possible. Keep the informative posts coming🎉My insta is if you choose to check it out. All feedback welcome😊

    1. Karen, thank you so much for your comment! Keep using natural light, and come back to the blog when you have a chance. Focus on one thing that you want to improve, and work on that until you feel more comfortable with it. Then switch to the next, and so on. Practice lots, and I am certain you’ll see improvement in your images soon!

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