Today I’m sharing with you the number one food photography lighting tip I wish I had known when I first set out as a food blogger. Learning this tip sooner would have saved me time and energy and improved my confidence and success behind the lens. And once I learned this food photography lighting tip, my photos improved dramatically.
Two shots. Four shots. More lighting. Less lighting. Standing above. Crouching at eye level. Angling from the side. 246 shots later, I still did NOT get the food photography lighting setup I wanted. And I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I had 246 shots of the same food. So one of them, ONE of them should have turned out okay, right? WRONG.
Every one of those 246 photos was OFF.
The time I spent preparing the food, setting it up, and placing it just so seemed all for nothing. I felt like a total failure, or at least a really bad judge of how best to use my time. I noticed some of the shots were overexposed, and when I adjusted my lighting unit or my reflector, then the photos were underexposed. So went the cycle for 246 photos.
I won’t lie, I finally settled for the least worst photo of that shoot to use in my blog post. In a later photoshoot, however, I finally discovered the answer, and it was totally by accident. When the vicious cycle started up again, I huffed to myself, Fine, I’ll just nudge the lighting unit a little bit in one direction and see what happens. Like it’s gonna work anyway.
Except that it did work. And that’s when I learned the number one food photography lighting tip I wished I had known sooner:
MAKE SUBTLE ADJUSTMENTS TO YOUR LIGHTING SETUP.
Small, incremental adjustments will be much more effective than large-scale movements. Why? Because you can more easily discover the lighting balance that is right for your subject (in this case, the food you are photographing). More specifically, since the right balance is often somewhere in the middle, moving from one extreme to the other is a surefire way to constantly hop over the spot that is just right for your photoshoot.
So what counts as a subtle adjustment? Every photoshoot is a little different. But I can tell you in my own layout it means I am moving my lighting unit and/or reflector a centimeter or two. Sometimes it’s a millimeter. Maybe an inch or two when I’m just getting started with the shoot. And I’m not being dramatic. I really do just nudge my lighting unit or reflector more often than not to get the right lighting balance.
This is all because of the Inverse Square Law of Light, which, it turns out, is a pretty complex mathematical concept. As it relates to food photography, though, we’ll keep it quite simple. According to Johannes Dauner at PetaPixel, “Because of the inverse-square relationship of the described law, the light intensity drops rather heavily when the subject is first moved further away from the light source. After that, it continuously decreases on a weaker level.”
So, when your subject (the food) is relatively close to the light source and you make adjustments to the photography setup or layout, those seemingly small changes have a dramatic impact (sometimes overly so, as I originally discovered) on the photoshoot. By the same token, if your subject is rather far away from the light source, those same subtle adjustments may have virtually no impact on the outcome of your photography.
Let me provide you with another example that has nothing to do with food photography. Imagine playing flashlight tag with friends at night in your backyard. If you use the flashlight to scan the backyard, looking for players, the light from your flashlight will spread out across the yard, producing a less intense light source. Subtle adjustments of your flashlight are unlikely to produce drastically different results in what you are able to see as you scan for players to “tag”.
However, once you find one of your friends and get close enough to shine the flashlight on her shirt, you’ll notice the light is now narrowed in on the shirt and is intense (much more so than when you scanned the backyard). Subtle adjustments with your flashlight while your friend is standing near you will likely produce drastically different lighting. If you and your friend spread apart again, you’ll notice the light spreads out, too, softening in nature and decreasing in intensity.
And that’s why those subtle movements in food photography make such a huge difference. This is especially true if you are photographing your food in a small space such as on a tiny table or close to a window.
The bottom line? More isn’t always better. Small, subtle adjustments may be all you need for the right lighting balance. Good luck and happy photographing!
If you are hungry for more food photography tips, then check out these posts: