Balancing Flash and Ambient Light In A Restaurant
Restaurant’s interiors can be just as beautiful and recognizable as the dishes that they create. When shooting a dish, you may want to include some of a restaurant’s interior elements in the shot. These can be chairs, walls, light fixtures, or anything else that shows off the restaurant’s character. To do this, you will need to be able to balance the light you are creating with a flash and the ambient light in the restaurant. Here is a look at how I did this on a recent assignment involving a burger and beer.
If you are brand new to restaurant food photography, you will find this article, An Introduction To Restaurant Photography, very helpful. In the following shots, I am using the same artificial lighting set-up that I use in the article.
Above is a picture of a burger lit with artificial light. The burger is properly exposed with the shutter speed set at my camera’s sync speed of 1/200 second. Generally, I like to shoot at this sync speed so I can work without a tripod and still have crisp sharp images. Inside the restaurant, it poses a problem. This fast shutter speed is too fast for the ambient light in the room to enter the picture. Only what is in the range of my flash will be illuminated. This creates a properly exposed subject and foreground with a very dark and underexposed background. There are times when a black background is what you are going for, but in this case I find it distracting. This is not what you would see if you were sitting down to dine. The solution is to put the camera on a tripod and decrease the shutter speed. I realize there are varying levels of photographers reading this, so this may be a repeat for some of you, but for some of you this may be new information. Your shutter speed will determine how much ambient light reaches your camera’s sensor. A longer shutter speed will allow for more ambient light to reach your camera’s sensor and increase the background’s exposure.
Above is what happens when the shutter speed is decreased from 1/200 sec to 1/3 of a second. Notice how the burger looks the same in each picture, but the backgrounds of the images look completely different. In the image on the right, you can now see some of the restaurant’s character and scenery! Here is what the final image shot at this shutter speed looks like.
At this slower shutter speed, the brighter, properly exposed background no longer distracts from the image. In a restaurant, there is something that you will need to pay attention to when increasing the shutter speed.
Increasing your shutter speed will let in more ambient light. This ambient light includes any overhead lighting that may be at your table. Take a look at the above areas circled in green. On the left the image was shot at the sync speed. On the right, the image was shot at a slower shutter speed. The bright circle that you see on the right is from an overhead ceiling light. These lights will leave spots on reflective table tops and can cause highlights on your food. They are usually a tungsten based or fluorescent light source. If most of your ambient light is daylight coming in from windows, then watch out for these additional light sources causing color shifts. If possible, I will ask the restaurant to turn off these lights, or move to a location where they won’t be a problem.
Balancing the ambient light with the artificial light you are creating is a very simple thing that might get overlooked. If you are working with a one light set-up and don’t want a distracting black background in your shot then this technique will be very helpful!
For more food photography tips and tutorials, check out issues 1-7 of photographing FOOD.