Fundamentals, Light

Understanding light, part 2

Looking back at the first food pictures I took is disheartening: there are lots of bad shots! It isn’t that the subject wasn’t picture worthy, nor even that I did not understand fully how to use my camera. The problem in those pictures is light – or rather, my lack of understanding of light, and how to use it to my advantage for beautiful culinary imagery. I am still working on getting that stunning image, and on fully understanding light, but today I can say I am closer to taking that gorgeous shot I long to see on my camera screen.

In my first post about light I wrote about directionality, and suggested a clock face analogy, with the subject at the centre of the clock, to illustrate how the placement of subject in relation to the light source affects the outcome of a shot. Besides thinking of the direction of light in a two dimensional way, let’s also remember that the height of the light source (not only its position) affects the way light falls on the subject. Assuming your windows are at normal height, coffee table height would be a good choice for placing your subject. If your windows are low or at floor level, then placing the subject at floor level is optimal. Play with different heights to determine which setup you like best, and practice taking pictures in a flattering light. But what light is flattering anyway? In this post I try to unpack what is intensity of light, and the types of images different lighting scenarios present.

For this lighting exercise I chose a bowl of strawberries. You’ve noticed that I picked simple subjects for my lighting exercises, both here, and in the previous post on lighting. This is deliberate. I found I understood better if I wasn’t distracted by props or multiple elements in the image – I am hoping the same approach works for you, too.

Intensity of light

When considering the intensity of light, we speak of hard light versus soft light. When you are standing outdoors or next to a window, and there is direct sunlight (no clouds) falling on your beautiful plate of food, this is referred to as hard light. This kind of lighting is tougher to work with for food photographers, because the whites (think white plates, shiny cutlery, piece of white cheese etc.) tend to become too bright. There’s a term for those too-bright spots: “blown highlights.” There is no color information in those spots and even with skillful post-processing, they cannot be completely fixed. At the same time, the hard lighting creates harsh shadows with defined edges. These overly bright and dark extremes can create too much contrast, and they can distract the viewer from your subject.

To understand hard light in action, I arranged a bowl of strawberries and took it into my living room, where the afternoon sun was shining straight through one of the low windows. I set up the scene so that the bowl was sidelit from the right. Here’s the first shot:

f/4.5 1/100sec 60mm ISO100

This is hard, direct afternoon light. Notice how the rim of the bowl is super-bright, while the left half of the image is in deep shadow. I almost fail to notice the strawberry laying casually near the bowl on the left. It feels almost as though a flashlight has been aimed at the bowl, and the contrast is just too intense for it to be pleasing. There is a lot of room for improvement in this image – but how can it be improved?

When the light available in the frame is not creating the image we want, we can modify the light using bouncers/reflectors and/or diffusers (more on this later, too). As their name implies, reflectors return light back into the frame, onto the subject. Any white surface will do, and depending on the size of the subject, we can choose anything from a sheet of paper or a baking sheet, to large foam core boards or folding display boards (which can be cheaply had from the dollar store or craft store). Adding a piece of foam core board was the first intervention, and it resulted in this next image.

f/4.5 1/100 60mm ISO100

The berries look better now, and I do notice the lone berry under the rim, but that irregular dark shadow with hard edges remains. My goal is to have soft light in the scene, to really let the colour and texture of the strawberries be the star, without the distraction of strong highlights or harsh shadows. Therefore, in order to soften the light, I added a diffuser in front of the window with direct light coming through. Here’s what the setup looks like:

Basic lighting setup with a diffuser and a reflector on either side of the subject.

The diffuser softens the light coming through the window; the edges of shadows are less defined, and the strawberry bowl is illuminated more evenly as the reflector bounces light back onto the bowl. The colour is true and vibrant, the berries the only focus.

f/4.5 1/100sec 60mm ISO400

Looking at this image, there are two things to note. First, a little trick: I wish I’d spritzed the berries with a bit of water to add some dimension, another layer into the shot to create interest. The image is a bit flat, and this brings me to number two: I wish I’d taken a picture with the diffuser, but without the reflector – which is actually the typical way I shoot (diffused and no bounce). Well, hindsight is 20/20, they say. Notwithstanding these flaws I see now in the above image, the diffuser did its job very well, it is honestly worth every one of the 25-or so dollars I’ve spent on it years ago.

We can, however, use a diffuser without ever spending a dime. The best diffuser a food photographer can hope for is the cloud cover on an overcast day. I admit that initially, I was put off by darker days; but once I put my wrongful prejudices aside and embraced the shadows of cloudy days, I was much happier with the shots I created. In effect, clouds act like a huge diffuser, and the light available on an overcast day has an incredibly soft quality, almost embracing the subject in a muted silver glow. The way light looks in an image also depends on the size of the source, and the sun looks like a flashlight compared to the sky-wide cloud cover on gloomy days, for example. The light seems to come down like rain, from all over. I like the colours on these days the best – they are vibrant and full.

As I mentioned above, my own preference is to shoot with a diffused light source, and I have come to love overcast days for this reason. I typically prefer not to bounce/reflect, because this way I get dramatic shadows, but they are not too harsh nor have defined edges. (But remember also that other elements in the frame, like white bowls or napkins can act as reflectors, bouncing light back into the scene.) For the following two images I used the diffused light of a cloudy day, without a bounce:

Baking scene f/3.6 1/200 60mm ISO320


Roasted pepper and chickpea salad f/2.4 1/100sec 60mm ISO500

If my gushing over soft light on overcast days has given the impression that it’s the only “good” light to shoot in, then I have to make a note here. There is no good or bad light, there is just light that is more appropriate for one situation or another, for one story or another. Hard light is decidedly more difficult to work with, since exposing optimally for both highlights and shadows can be challenging. This is not to say, however, that hard light should never be used for food photography. On the contrary, it can be a great storyteller, suggesting a summery vibe, a lighthearted and bright mood for the images which feature it.

Strawberries in direct sunlight f/4 1/2000sec 60mm ISO250

The image above suggests perhaps that someone is picking fresh strawberries in their own garden in the morning light. The bowl was laid in the grass, ready to receive its small load of eagerly anticipated garden gems. By the same token, a beautiful picnic scene, or an al fresco lunch can both benefit from the storytelling qualities of hard light, when done right. And defined shadows can become part of a composition just as any prop can.

There is no universal recipe for creating a beautiful picture, just like there is no universal recipe for the best dish – our preferences dictate what best means to us. However, as with any recipe, starting out with the best ingredients is key, and as far as food photography goes, light is one of the essentials. Start with beautiful light, and you’re halfway to a great picture.

Until next time!

2 thoughts on “Understanding light, part 2

  1. I love seeing your behind the scenes set up! (Also I really appreciate all the info on tools/equipment — like diffusers, reflectors…) Your photos are so beautiful and well-composed (not to mention appetizing!) Thanks for sharing your knowledge!!!

    1. So grateful for your support, my dear friend! It was really helpful to me seeing other people’s behind-the-scene shots, so I figured it is a good idea to include something like that, even if my suburban living-room is not an epitome of stylish design lol. Thank you so much for your kind words!

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