Most of my food photography is lit with only one light source and after a few years of taking a special interest in shooting food and drink, I know exactly where I want the light to be and why.
However, when I first started shooting food, finding the right light position was a bit hit and miss. I remember finding it useful to see how different ways of lighting the same subject got different results, so here is a bit of a food photography lighting walkthrough.
For this test, the camera has been left on a studio stand in the same spot (for those who are interested, I am using a Canon 5D and a Sigma 50mm Art lens). For lighting purposes, I have a Broncolor pulso 4 head, and a large softbox. This is pretty similar to my set up for all commercial food work. The reason I go for rectangular modifiers is both for the catchlights and also to make the lighting look as natural as possible. Here’s the reason; most of us probably eat our dinner by a large window, so we expect the catchlights on our tomatoes to be of a rectangle shape rather than octagonal or circular. Hence if you shoot with a circular modifier the catchlights look artificial – unless you’re used to eating your Caprese in a lighthouse with porthole windows. So, the best modifiers for this type of lighting are large indirect rectangular light sources. Here are eight ways to light with a single light source with soft light
Light to the Left
This is probably the most popular position. Because most of us read left to right, it makes "reading" the image feel more natural. This gives the impression of natural window light and is probably the most vanilla way to create pleasing food photography.
Light to Right
As with lighting from the left, this gives a beautifully soft and diffused quality of light. However, it means the image is lit in a contradictory way to before. This adds a feeling of imbalance and a slight uneasiness to the viewer. It is still well used when the only option.
45 Degrees to the Left (Front)
This is a lunchtime light for me. The sun is high in the sky and shining through the window. I often remove the middle baffle to create more of a hotspot through the window (ie/ my softbox). Lighting from the left keeps the natural flow for the person reading the image, but it allows for shorter shadows and a more punchy look.
45 Degrees to the Right (Front)
Again, this offers the same quality of light as from the left, but a slightly less easy view. I personally would say that this is more viewer friendly than the straight to the right lighting, but still a bit edgy for a lot of commercial food photography use.
Lit From the Back (45 Degrees)
If you are shooting clear items, this can look really cool. If not, a couple of reflectors near the camera lens will be your friend. Lighting from the back creates a moody look that can have some real impact. It doesn’t suit all foods, but it can create a contemporary, social media friendly look. A few years ago I used this to make it look like a person was eating food on a patio facing out to sea with the sun in the background lit.
From the Front
Something I wouldn’t usually do, but for the sake of this exercise, I thought it worth giving it a go. I think that this can be used in certain styles if the context is right, but it doesn't work here.
What is your preferred method of lighting for food photography? Do you have any tips you would like to share?