For beautiful salivating food photography, you don't need a lot of lighting equipment. To create a shot that will make your viewer's stomach start to rumble you only need one diffused light source. Using only one light source creates a natural look with one set of shadows. By changing the direction and intensity of these shadows, you can create countless lighting scenarios that will leave your viewers hungry. Let me show you how one light can provide many options.
When using one light source, you will only have one set of shadows. This shadow will fall on the opposite side of the light source. For example, if you have your light source on the left side of the subject, the shadow will fall on the right. Above is an example of a muffin with two very different looks. On the left is a set that has been filled. On the right is a set without any fill. Which do you prefer?
I tend to find shadows without any fill to be too harsh for the look that I am trying to achieve. Filling in your shadows involves placing a piece of white foam board on the opposite side of the light source. Below is how the filled in muffin shot was taken. Notice how the light source is on the left and the foam board fill card is on the right.
Filling in the shadows is a way to control the contrast in your one light food photography. Changing the direction of your light source will change where those shadows fall on your set. Here is an example of a plate of chicken wings lit from four different directions. Notice how the shadows changes direction in each image.
Is there one direction you prefer over the other? (Back lighting is my favorite, Here is another example from a few weeks ago). Can you tell a difference in where the shadows fall? Every food that you shoot will be different, so play around with your light's direction and choose the one that best complements your dish. You aren't limited to these four directions. You could place the light in between right and back to create a look that is in-between the two.
Below is an example form a recent shoot I did at a pizza restaurant. Both images were taken with the same light source and foam board reflector. Can you tell where the light was placed?
In both these images, the light source was in the same position. What changed was my camera angle. When shooting keep in mind how your camera position will change the shadows that are visible and how they will look. If you move your camera, it can have the same effect as moving the light source. The key to this one light approach to food photography is experimenting and finding a lighting direction and amount of fill that fits your dish and your style!
Want to learn more about food photography? Check out the tips, tutorials, and techniques found in issues 1-8 of photographing FOOD.