An Introduction to Outdoor Food Photography

An Introduction to Outdoor Food Photography

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, Summer is officially here! This means plenty of picnics, outdoor barbecues, and many more occasions where you can take pictures of food outside! When outside, you won't have control of the weather conditions. To be able to have nice, soft, diffused light in any weather, there is one piece of equipment that I always bring with me. It is small, light-weight, and essential to creating mouthwatering pictures of food on a bright sunny day. Can you guess what it is?


If you guessed a collapsible diffuser, you are correct. A 22" translucent collapsible reflector   (referred to as a collapsible diffuser) is something that I carry in my camera bag at all times. The disc collapses to about 8" in size so it can easily fit in most backpacks.

Here are just a few of the many situations where you may use the diffusion disc this summer.

A Backyard Barbecue


Pretend you are having a backyard barbecue, or are shooting an outdoor entertaining feature for a magazine. If items are on the grill, you will probably want to capture some shots of it! On a bright sunny day, your grilled items may not look that great. The harsh specular light created by a cloudless sky is not ideal for your food shots. Notice how harsh the shadow lines are and how the highlights on the chicken are small and blown out. Any sauce that you apply to your grilled items will create a reflective surface on the meat. When shooting, keep in mind how the sun will effect the highlights on your saucy reflective surface.

The solution is to use a collapsible diffuser!


When the diffuser is held over the grill, it creates nice and even diffused lighting! Can you tell a difference in the chicken? Which do you find more appetizing?

In this example, I used the inside section from a 5 in 1, but the 22" or any other size collapsible diffuser will work just as well.

Now what happens when you take your grilled entree off of the grill? If you are outdoors in a cloudless sky, you may be left with chicken like this.


Above is the same situation as the grill. Again, notice the harsh shadow lines and small blown out highlights. The solution is simple. Add a collapsible diffuser.


Under this soft diffused light, the chicken looks much more appetizing! If you are shooting a recipe for a magazine or a cookbook which one do you think the client is going to prefer?

An Outdoor Picnic

Spring and Summer are the ideal times for a  picnic! If you plan on taking shots of your food while on location, packing space and weight are a concern. In addition to your camera gear, you will also have to bring the food. Bringing a collapsible diffuser along is a lightweight and compact lighting solution. Here is how a diffuser could help your picnic shots.


Image 1 shows the picnic set under the harsh light of a cloudless sky. It is beautiful weather to be outside, but it isn't ideal for taking pictures of your food.

Image 2 shows what happens when you add the diffuser. You can see the circle of diffusion it creates. As long as your subject is in that circle, you will have soft, even light on it.

Image 3 shows the same framing as shot 1, but with the travel diffuser in place.

Controlling your quality of light on location is a valuable skill for every photographer to have. The smaller set size that most food shots will have allows for lightweight and very portable solutions. If you are shooting a larger food set that than the images seen above, you will need a larger diffusion panel. Enjoy shooting your food outdoors this summer!

For more tips and tricks for your Outdoor and Travel and food photography this summer, check out Issue 6 of photographing FOOD.


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Richard James's picture

While the diffused light does make the food look much better then direct harsh light, it still needs more. either a reflector or light source (speedlight/strobe) should be used as a backlight to give the food some dimension. Reflector is easy, simple, and cheap, a speedlight or strobe is self explanatory.

I do admit, it's not the greatest, but the photo I took was my first attempt. Camera settings will be changed for next time, but the light source (canon 600ex) as a backlight clearly ads dimension.

Also, a diffuser is not necessarily needed, you can always shoot in the shade.

Andrew Griswold's picture

I agree there seems to be something missing from the shots in the terms of depth. Though appetite is the key in any food photography and these look pretty damn delicious (or maybe its just 11:45 and close to lunch time) but this is a nice simple way to create one effect needed for food photography on a budget. I will say though the depth can be had with a smaller aperture and possible different angles vs straight above and still with just one single reflector. Maybe even adding another reflector to the other end to add just a little bit of light back to the subject. Those reflectors always have '5 in 1' deals and you can always hold the dividers up to create that next light vs a speedlight or ex flash.

Andrew Griswold's picture

diffuser (not reflector) I have one of those 5 in 1 and just call it the same thing

Jr Miller's picture

Thanks for the tips..agree on the "it needs something". Maybe a pop of speedlite on the lowest setting to add a little sparkle and color.

Product Photographer's picture

Another great tip for all the aspiring food togs out there. I love to see what you come up with and have used some of your tips in my own development of my food photography skills. Thanks and keep the good stuff coming Taylor!!

Andrew Griswold's picture

Great little post! Always refreshing to see success in simple lighting food shots. I am always looking to shoot on a budget and with my camera and a diffuser like that its a great way to light a subject outdoors.

Bjoern Lubetzki's picture

I have to say, I like the shot without the diffusion. The highlights let the food look fresh. It looks like a picnic in a park and reminds me of a barbecue in the sun. Sure, the image with the diffusion may be more "technically correct", but sometimes the technique isn't everything. But maybe it is just the edit. The images just look a bit flat. At least to me.

BDWT's picture

I think how the images will be published after has a big influence on the look you're going for. I generally think food looks best with a diffused light but I could see where the shot of the bbq in direct sun could work for certain situations, ie. a bqq heavy summer cookbook for example.

Bjoern Lubetzki's picture

That's what I meant. The images above reminds me exactly of that. That's why I said, that I liked the ones without more than the ones with. I do see, where a diffuser may be helpful, but especially with bbq food like chicken, it looks better with some highlights. it reminds people of the sun.

Pratik Naik's picture

Thank you!

Todd Douglas's picture

I personally think it's a great article. Love the behind the scenes shots to really support the writing.

It's a quick, simple article that someone can put into practice right away and get nice results. Thanks again Taylor!

Simon's picture

The diffused chicken is slightly underexposed.

M K's picture

Great tips! Thanks for the post again.
On a side note, chicken wings, hmmmmmmmmmm.

Abigail Stoops's picture

I actually like the some of the shots without the diffuser better. They look more colorful which equals delicious. Thank you for the article though.

Daniel Hine's picture

Some of you are saying you like the shots without the diffuser. I'd agree, but I think it's more the fact of the angle of the sun. I believe the shots above were taken during midday, so the light is gonna be fairly drab on the food. This photo I did, however, was taken at about 2 or 3pm, so there was angle to the light. I did use a diffuser as the sun was quite direct. A diffuser can indeed be useful

Daniel Hine's picture

You can also see this photo at:
Shameless plug

Ideas_R_Bulletproof's picture

nice tip.... though it also depends on the ultimate purpose of the shoot..... if the aim is to show summer BBQ on a bright sunny day, harsh sun may not be very bad... some afternoon sun may even be better.... it tells a story.... and also, don't forget that direct sun makes food more shiny and succulent.... to rival that shine, a diffused pic may have to be backed up by a reflector or a strobe as backlight.... anyway, sometimes to capture cooking process, it may be a little too cumbersome to set up diffusers and reflectors.... capturing the spontaneity of summer festivals may be more important.... thats where the story lies....

Lila y sus Recetas de Cocina's picture

Madre mia que cosa mas rica!!

Una entrada magnifica

Te mando un besazo