Here's a fun fact about me: Before I was a food photographer hosting The Storied Recipe Podcast, I was a wedding photographer for almost 9 years. On those fast-paced, adrenaline-filled days, I had to walk in any room and immediately make a decision about how to use the light in the room to take beautiful, emotional photographs. I developed this trick for finding perfect natural lighting every time.
First, Turn off all the lights in the room!
You probably already know this, but the worst lighting you can use is mixed lighting. Every source of light has a different temperature. Incadescent lightbulbs have one temperature, flourescent have another, candles have a third temperature. These color temperatures are all wildly different to the light outdoors on a sunny day, which is different still to the temperature of light from a cloudy day filtered through your kitchen window.
As you can guess, when you use more than one color temperature in the same photo, it's almost impossible to get true colors in your photo. So step one to finding perfect natural lighting for your food photos is always to turn off the lights!
The second reason you want to turn off all the lights is that you want to control the direction of light in your photo. It's almost impossible to control the direction of light with fixed, overhead lighting.
And by the way - don't be afraid of a dark or dim room (unless it's nighttime, of course). DSLRs and even phone cameras these days can easily handle low light. Also, just because the room looks dark does NOT mean that your scene will be dark.
I promise: once you learn this trick and start to see beautiful natural light, this trick won't just be for photos - you'll never want to turn on the lights in your house again! There is just something so magical about beautiful natural light.
Next, to find the perfect lighting for food photography, the only tool you need is YOUR HAND.
Here's the secret to finding perfect lighting for food photography using only your hand:
Simply lay your hand down on the surfaces you're thinking of using, then look for SHADOWS next to your hand. The shadows will tell you if your spot is perfect light or not. Here's how to decide:
1) If you can't find any shadows, the light is FLAT and no matter what you do, the image will be dull and your food will look unappealing.
2) If you could take a pencil and trace the shadow around your hand, the light is HARSH. You're going to really struggle to get good photos. It's not impossible, but it does take a very comfortable, experienced relationship with both composition and light.
3) If you CAN see the shadow cast by your hand, but the shadow is so SOFT that you can't draw a firm line around where it fades away - if the shadow just gently eases away - THAT, my friends, is good light.
See for yourself:
Look at the shadow to the right of the Challah Bread in the image below. You can definitely see it, but it's hard to define exactly where it stops. Look at every little leaf and the vine and the shadows on the cloth. There's incredible depth in every one, but each fades out softly.
Likewise, scroll back up and take a look at that top lemon. You see a highlight that is almost white and a shadow that is almost black, but you really can't tell where either stops or starts. Stay on that image of lemons in the bowl a little longer. Look on the back side of the bowl. Look even at the shadow under the bookmark. You couldn't trace those shadows with a pencil. This is ideal lighting for food photography. The soft, directional natural light created a dynamic, dramatic image.
Read on the find out WHY this simple trick for perfect food photography lighting WORKS every time!
Why does this simple lighting trick work?
First, what happens if there are no shadows next to your hand?
A photo needs contrast - a range from light to dark. Your eye will go to the brightest spot, so you want the subject to be both sharp and most brightly lit.
If your hand doesn't create any shadow, it's impossible to create a range of tones in the image. Without any shadows, your image may be very light OR it may be very dark. But either way, it won't be lively. It will simply be dull or dim. An image taken in flat light won't have any contrast.
Also, in flat light, the viewer's eye will struggle to focus in on the subject. No matter how you compose the image, the subject won't stand out if it's the same brightness as everything else in the image.
Second, what happens if the shadows are very stark - if you could easily trace the outlie of your hand with a pencil?
This becomes a problem because of your camera's limitations. Even if you have the newest, most expensive camera in the world, it doesn't compare to the range of tones that your eye can detect.
Imagine walking outside on a very sunny day. Your eye has the capability of discerning all the petals of a white rose in the summer sun while also processing the green blades of grass in a shady spot of the yard.
Cameras have no hope of achieving that feat.
For instance, if you force your camera to record the tones of that white rose (you would do this by underexposing), then everything else in the image - and I mean EVERYTHING - will be totally black. It's just the limitation of the camera.
On the other hand, if you make the camera detect that green grass in the shade (by overexposing), the white rose will be one bright, blow-out splotch.
The camera simply cannot record the range of tones that your eye can process for you.
So, that's why you're looking for a spot where your hand makes a shadow, but a very soft shadow - one with blurry, fuzzy edges. In that situation, you will have a range of tones that is dramatic and full of contrast *but also* discernable by the camera.
Where should I start looking for good lighting for my food photography?
Yes! Great question!!! The super simple answer is by a window or door. Generally speaking, direct light should not be shining through that door or window. Keep in mind that the height (and the size, but that's for another post) of the window will affect everything. So, make sure you test a surface the same height that you'll be using to shoot. In other words, don't test the light on the floor if you'll be using a table to photograph.
That's it! Let me know if you have any questions below!!