Whether you’re flipping through your favorite culinary magazine or pinning to your food board on Pinterest, it’s difficult to ignore how even the simplest dishes look so appealing. So why does the food in these pictures look so appetizing? Besides the fact that you might be hungry, the next best answer is that the photographer knew how to use light. Reproducing these mouth-watering pictures can be a difficult task if lighting isn’t used correctly. Below are a few lighting tips that will make your food look just as delicious as it tastes.
Using Natural Light
One of the best and most inexpensive methods for enhancing the appearance of your food is to use plenty of natural light. Whether it’s LED, incandescent, or CFL, residential lighting tends to be on the warmer end of the color spectrum and can cause pictures to have a bright orange or yellow tint without the use of a flash (like the picture to the right). In most cases, residential lights aren’t bright enough just by themselves. Photographing your food next to a sun-drenched window in your kitchen (or any other room) will give your photo a more natural appearance without distorting the colors of the dish.
Using Artificial Light
For those of you who don’t have a ton of natural light to work with, or if you happen to be shooting at night, there are ways to use artificial light to achieve the same effect. First, the trick is to use a bulb that mimics natural daylight. Full spectrum compact fluorescents are great for this, because they typically have a high color temperature of 5000K or above – about the same as natural daylight – and won’t get hot like halogen lamps. Also, be sure that they have a high lumen output, preferably well above 1000 lumens. Color Rendering Index (CRI) of the bulb is an important factor to consider as well. Keeping the CRI above 80 will help the color of your food appear as natural as possible.
Once you pick a light source, stick to it. Using two light sources with different color temperatures will cause different coloration in each part of the picture’s frame, something that’s extremely hard to fix in Photoshop. So, if you only use natural light, make sure all other lights in the room are turned off.
Manipulate the Light
In order to control and use light to your advantage, you’ll need some tools of manipulation. This is where light reflectors come in. If you’re not a professional photographer or you don’t have a ton of money to spend on lighting equipment, there are a few inexpensive solutions that will work just fine. Using a piece of strategically placed white foam board will reflect light to eliminate shadows and brighten certain areas of the dish. Tin foil and white printer paper are just a few other cheap yet incredibly effective reflecting tools you could use to bounce light back over your food.
Experiment with Angles
Once you have the details of your lighting figured out, finding the perfect angle to shoot your food is the next step. The angle at which the light is hitting the subject can be extremely important in highlighting textures and colors or masking any flaws.
One of the most common techniques in food photography is back lighting. Place your light source behind your food and the reflector in front while still leaving enough room for you to get in there and take photographs. The picture to the right is a perfect example of back lighting being used to enhance the complex textures of the food. Most importantly, it’s all about experimentation and finding the technique that’s right for you.
Don’t think we’ve forgotten about you smartphone users. As someone who likes to post a food pic to their Instagram every now and then, I know that some lighting conditions are not always conducive to like-worthy pictures. While the lighting tips above can also be applied to smartphone users, here are a few more that might help you out.
- Don’t use the flash. As I mentioned before, natural light is the way to go. The flash on your smartphone is often way too harsh to produce a good picture. Plus, you don’t want to be that person who ruins the atmosphere of a dimly lit restaurant with their flash.
- Find good photography apps. Even if you are in moody restaurant with soft lighting, those lighting conditions can sometimes be fixed with a few adjustments using one of the many photography apps out there for smartphones. Adding filters and adjusting brightness, contrast, shadows, and saturation can make a big difference.