On our upcoming EAT LEARN LOVE CAMBODIA culinary travel writing and photography tour I’ll be providing support to participants and running photography workshops on subjects like natural light food photography. In preparation, I thought I’d share some pre-trip advice on how to use available light and a couple of little tricks on how to improve your food photography.

I love natural light food photography yet as a professional photographer who spends a fair chunk of my time on assignments shooting food, sadly it’s not always possible to use natural light. In many situations, such as in dark restaurants or restaurants without windows, I’ll need to use strobes (flashes) to get the shots required for a story.

Sometimes when we’re on the road, however, we’ll have no choice but to photograph, eat and run, and in these circumstances will generally be shooting with what we call ‘available’ light. Light is the single most important ingredient to good food photography and that goes for whether you’re shooting with an iPhone or a top of the range DSLR.

While shooting in a studio for a cookbook shoot, pro photographers will often use off-camera flash units mounted in large soft boxes to soften the light and give consistent results. On the streets, however, we have to deal with different levels of light throughout the course of a day’s shooting.

It’s therefore essential to learn to work with available light in all its forms so that you can nearly always get the shot.

Use of Light and Shade for Natural Light Food Photography

Early morning at the markets is a great time of day to shoot fresh produce and steal a couple of snaps of the vendors slurping soup before you tuck into bowl of your own. When it comes to photographing your own food at a street stall, always try to keep everything in your frame in the shade or in indirect sunlight.

If the sun is streaming through a window, position the dish so that it is ‘back-lit’. In other words, the light is coming from behind the dish, lighting the rear of the plate, and you and your camera are positioned on the opposite side. This is a fairly conventional food photography rule for good reason.

Controlling and Reflecting Light in Natural Light Food Photography

Don’t worry if the light seems too strong. With a few simple tools you can control the natural light to make it as soft as possible, either through diffusing the light coming towards the food, or reflecting light back towards the food to make the shadows less harsh. Quite often on a shoot I’ll be doing both.

The easiest way to do this is with a reflector. I always travel with a reflector. I like to use the foldable discs with interchangeable materials, such as gold, soft gold, silver, white, and translucent. These allow you to easily give warmth to a shot by using the gold material, to add strength with the silver, to make a shot softer by using the white, and, one of my favourite uses of this particular reflector, using it with just the transparent centre of the reflector to diffuse light.

All food photographers carry sheets of white and black foam core to use as reflectors as well. As these are generally quite large, large enough to reflect light from a whole table of food, a more portable solution is a small reflector kit like this one from Lastolite. These are small enough to fit into a handbag or a backpack.

If you only have one reflector kit, you might use this to diffuse light coming from behind the food and then use a menu, a sheet of paper, a napkin, or a white scarf to reflect light into the front of the dish to decrease the amount of shadow on the food. Food photographers also use mirrors and aluminium foil to reflect light as well — often just to highlight certain parts of the dish.

Shooting Natural Light Food Photography in Restaurants

When in comes to shooting food in a restaurant, we usually organize a shoot in between restaurant services, however, if I have to shoot during a meal, I always try to get a window table so I can use that window light for my food photos.

Not only will the window table have the best light in the room, it will also mean that you’ll have less chance of horrid room lights affecting your photos. It depends on the restaurant, but I can sometimes discreetly pull out a small reflector and shoot without annoying other guests.

Using a Flash to cheat with Natural Light Food Photography

No decent professional photographer would ever use an on-camera flash for food photography — and you shouldn’t either. When a pro uses flashes for food photography, it’s as I’ve described above, with soft boxes to soften and direct the light.

If it’s too dark to shoot your meal at your table and you really want that shot, ask if you can move the plate to a spot with better light.

If it’s a dark or candle-lit restaurant, I usually just put the camera down and enjoy my meal. If I’m on assignment and I really like the food, I’ll arrange to come back and photograph it the next day. While everyone wants to photograph their food for Facebook or Instagram these days, sometimes it’s better to just enjoy the food.

Demonstration of manipulating light for natural light food photography

In my sequence of photographs of a Northern Thai nam prik, above, you can see the light changing — subtly — from left to right. The photo on the far left is with indirect light coming from the left of the frame. We have a nice quality of light as a starting point and many people would be happy with this.

But I want the light to be a little softer, so in the middle shot I have used a translucent reflector, which is to the left of the camera frame. You can see that the light is a little more even.

In the photo on the right, I have used a foam-core reflector just off the right of the frame to bounce light back into the bowl and you can see that there is less shadow in the bowl because of this.

In this photo you can also see that there is less contrast in the overall image and that it lacks the ‘punch’ of the photo on the left. Having said that, I always consider the RAW file from the camera as a starting point ‘negative’ where I’m trying to capture the photo with as much good light as possible and then adjust the contrast and other parameters in Photoshop to create the final file.

When I first studied photography at university many years ago my first photography teacher used to quote the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams when we were in the darkroom. I still remember the quote to this day: “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.”

It’s not only about the light, however… before making any photos for this shoot we had to clean up those bowls. That piece of coriander on the left was annoying me, as was the ‘backwash’, as we call the messy-looking bits of dip going up the side of the dish. Nothing a damp napkin couldn’t fix. Those small details can make all the difference to a shot.

Also see my earlier posts on food photography, depth of field, aperture and f-stops and lenses for food photography on the road.

You’ll find more photography tips in my series Monday Memories, where I reflect on moments from my work as a professional photographer.

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