I often get asked how do I light my food shots. And the truth is no two shoots are the same and the lighting requirement is different every time.

There are lots of terms in lighting  – Hard light / Soft light / Diffused light / Dappled light / Softboxes / Grids / Snoots/ Barn doors / Fill – The list goes on and on! So I’ve got some examples to explain covering hard light, soft light, diffuse light and how we achieve certain looks and style using artificial light.

I shoot all my work with high end Elichrom flash heads and a variety of modifiers and usually use 3-4 lights per shoot.

Hard Light Example 1

Hard light is usually defined as giving moderate to hard shadows and can be used to replicate sunlight giving those typical midday shadows. It can also be used in the example above to create a dark and moody look.

This was a shoot I did for a cinema group and as you can see from the left image was shot in a cinema mock up. The brief was to capture the food which is served at the seat. So we needed to capture elements of the seat, tray as well as showcasing the food. The lighting brief was dark cinema moody lighting. Being in an actual cinema setting it was quite tricky to get the lighting exactly where I wanted it but managed to get it set up in around an hour or so.

I used four lights on this shoot –

Light A – Key light with a zoom spot attachment. No gobos was used this time I just adjusted the aperture blades to set the area in shot that I wanted to light. As its a very focused light source it creates the hard shadows you can see in the right image.

Light B – Accent light with a set of barn doors on which allowed me to light a very small specific area of the shot which is the metal strip of the left hand side.

Light C – Another accent light with a set of barn doors on to slightly illuminate the fabric on the leather chair. This helped to set the mood that it’s set in a cinema.

Light D – Fill light with a snoot and grid to fill in the bottom right hand right hand side of the shot as without the light it had faded away and lost detail in the tray table and metalwork  on the edge.

I also used a white bounce card as shown to reflect some light back to help illuminate the edges of the cheese facing the camera.

Hard Light Example 2

This next example of hard lighting is from a shoot I did for a Manuka honey company who wanted individual honey drops (the size of your finger nail) but wanted to be able to see the structure of the honey as they had such a unique product.

This needed some thoughts on the lighting set up to capture the detail but also the shape.

So the honey was placed on a clear piece of acrylic sheet which underneath I had a scrim to diffuse the light.

This was a three light set up –

Light A – Bare bulb (no modifier) Placed directly underneath the product with a scrim above. This lit the product showing the structure of the honey and also created the pure white surround on the rest of the image.

Light B – Bare bulb again, this time being diffused by Lee 216 paper. I diffused the light as the honey was quite reflective so this ensured that we didn’t get harsh reflections on the honey itself. It created a nice controlled reflection of the top left of the honey which helps to give depth and shape to the honey.

Light C – Bare bulb again but from the righthand side achieving the same effect as light B.

Now you remember in the previous example there are lots of hard shadows? With the way that the key light had to be underneath the product this blew out the shadows being created by light B and C. So I had to add the shadow in post production after to help ground it and give it shape.

Dappled Light

What is dappled light?

The easiest way to describe dappled light is – Dappled light is produced when sunlight is
filtered through the leaves of trees. So how do we recreate dappled light in the studio?

We use a zoom spot attachment with gobos. – A zoom spot allows me to change the shape, focus and sharpness of the light and the gobo which is a fancy name for a metal stencil ( I used a leaf gobo) is placed in the zoom spot to artificially dapple the light.

This was a four light set up and is a combination of soft diffuse light (Light A&B) and hard light (Light C&D)

Light A (was moved right as shown in left image for the actual shot) Octobox soft box as the key light for the shot.

Light B – Square soft box providing fill light on the right hand side.

Light C – Zoom spot with tree gobo to produce the sunlight through trees effect over the tomatoes and cheese.

Light D – Snoot and grid to give an extra pop of light on the front of the dish.

Note I didn’t use a white bounce card this time (would have been bottom left of image) as I wanted that side of the dish to fall a bit more into shadow as it would have looked unrealistic with the way the rest of the image was lit.

Soft Light Example 1

So soft light what is it? Soft light is generally a bright and balanced light and transition between the light and shadows is more refined and smoother.

To achieve soft light we use a large light source in relation to the subject (hard light is the opposite) and is more often than not diffused. (Or twice diffused as in this shot)

This was a three light shoot –

Light A – Key light nearly directly straight behind with Lee 216 diffusion in front. The light is set further back than I usually would have it as I needed to ensure even light on the white table top from top to bottom (Inverse square law).The diffusion paper helped with diffusing the light also and helped with reflections (I had a dish of very reflective chilli sauce in another shot I did)

Light B – Softbox providing fill on the right hand side

Light C – Accent light with a snoot and grid attached. This was to highlight the herbs and give a pop of light to the bottom dish.

Soft Light Example 2

So this is strictly not a complete soft lighting example as there are elements of hard lighting but the main elements and hero of the shot have been shot with soft lighting.

This was a four light shoot –

Light A – Octobox key light set to the back and right of the shot providing the main spread of light.

Light B – Softbox set off to the right hand side providing fill light and set to approximately half the power of the key light.

Light C – Snoot and grid providing highlights on the top go the pastry and across the beef.

Light D – Bare bulb accent light proving some ambient light to illuminate the couch and wall at the back of the shot. This has given the overall shot depth. Without this light the background would have faded out to black.

Wrapping up. .

These are just a few examples (I don’t always get the behind the scenes set up shots!) of some different lighting set ups that I have used for clients in the past.

I’ll be putting together a blog post on lighting drinks and splash photography in the next few weeks as these use completely different lighting set ups and modifiers to food.

I do offer workshops where you can learn from me in the studio to further your food / drink photography knowledge which covers more than just the lighting.

You can have a look here https://dereksmith.co.nz/food-photography-workshops/

As ever if you are need of any food or drinks photography then get in touch either by email hello@dereksmith.co.nz

Or feel free to give me a call on 0204 130 7231 

Until next time.


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