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How to Get Good Lighting for Food Photography

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

A couple of years ago I wrote a cook book, describing what it is like working as a chef and including some killer recipes at the same time. This is where I got into food photography, but I also found that it was more of a challenge than most people say.

Learning how to light food photography is the difference between a good and a great shot. For example, if you are shooting at night with a flash or even without a flash, you are going to have problems because you have that tungsten artificial light to deal with.

Light is what makes the food stand out and come to life. You can have the greatest composition in the world. You can stand from different angles and use different plates, but at the end of the day it is the light that really matters. Believe me, I went through this!

food photography

phot credit: Lisa Williams

Stick to these pointers and practice

If you use a built in flash, you will immediately create shadows and highlights. So it is best that you shoot during the day or find artificial light indoors. The best way is to experiment.

  • Light can produce different qualities and effects. Obviously you will want to stay away from the shadows. The main thing you should focus on is the food, but you can enhance this with good lighting with the use of reflections.
  • Sometimes it is really cool to shoot someone eating the food. You don’t always have to take a shot of a simple salad or plate of something delicious. Often you capture more of the mood in this way. Don’t forget, here again, the focus is on the food and the light should pick up on that.
  • It also depends on what you are shooting. If the shape is round or in the shaped of a cube and you want to emphasize that, then you have to position the main light so that it is focusing on this aspect.
  • The best thing here is to experiment. You will find that if you change the main light around, you will start to see a difference in many different ways. For example, textures will become more pronounced as you move the light an inch or two up and it will change again as you move it behind the subject.
  • You want to aim for smaller light sources to be able to grab more texture into your shot. It is also a good idea to place the light on the side of the subject for more effect. Some like a salad offers a lot of different texture, with various leaves that you should be able to get a sense from in the end result, so this must be captured.

Don’t become frustrated if you don’t get this right the first time. With food photography, you have to be incredibly patient. Lighting is just one aspect, but it is a very big step and without it, you won’t have a descent shot, so make sure you master this first before moving on to style and composition.

How to use and make a lightbox

I thought it would be appropriate to learn how to make use of a light box for various aspects in food photography because this is a tool that you may often find useful. You will see how this comes into play as you start to experiment more and find out ways with working with light. It could turn out to be your most important tool.

You can actually make these quite easily. It is basically a box with a light source. You can have two or three light sources, depending on what you are wanting to achieve. But, don’t mix this up with the light box you install on your Facebook page! :)

Choose daylight energy efficient bulbs. Go to a proper lighting shop to get this. I got something great from a store that specializes in bulbs and lights. The light you choose should be the same all the way around. Once you find something that works with your project, don’t experiment with anything else because you are just going to go crazy.

You know by now that lights create shadow, but you can really work this so that there is as much shadow as you want, or none at all. Shadow is not necessarily a bad thing – it can make a boring apple have a really cool 3D look to it. This works well for advertising.


 photo credit: flickr.com/photos/rotofugi

To get rid of the shadow completely – for example, if you are shooting food, and you want to show all of the texture, then you need another light source. A light coming from above is totally going to take all of the shadows away. On top of that, it is going to give you a really clean looking background to work with.

White balance and exposure is important here. This is what every photographer will tell you. You can set this up beautifully, but if you don’t get your white balance matching your light source then you are going to be disappointed. You want to match the white balance to the lighting – that is your target. Also play around with the exposure. Experimenting with this is important.


This is where a DSLR is better, or at least a camera that allows you some degree of versatility. You should be able to customize these settings. A camera that does it all for you, is not going to give you the right kind of shot.

A few practical issues

Select the box size that is going to suit whatever you are trying to shoot. This is pretty obvious, but if you are shooting a small flower, then go for something, 30 cm wide by 1 foot. To make this, you need to cut out the front of the box and leave a bar in front. You then need to line the whole inside with white paper, making a curve in the horizontal corner.

This is to ensure that you won’t see the fold lines in the box because you don’t want this showing up on your shot. Position the lamps right over the box and you should also think of using a tripod.

I really recommend this because in a situation like this, it can be difficult not to have the shakes. You may like to head over to an editing program and see if there are any final touches that you can make. 



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