Hot Polka Dot
28Feb/12

How To Tuesday: Photography Lighting Part II.

I'm going to pick up where I left off with my photography tutorials from months ago. I was talking about lighting and white balance last time. This week I'll discuss lighting directions and the importance of bouncing or reflecting light.

For food photography in particular, lighting couldn't be more of a challenge. Highlight here, shadow there, shine here, contrast there all with the goal to make your dish look appetizing. Lighting can mean the difference between a monotonous meal and a gourmet masterpiece.

Understanding light and how to manipulate it is key to taking a good photo. Too much or too little can be disastrous. It's all about control. In order to battle light you should always have two weapons in your arsenal: diffuser and reflector.

The diffuser could be anything from a expensive professional photography light diffuser to an old thin white sheet to a semi-sheer window curtain. It just needs to be sheer enough to let the light in and opaque enough to soften shadows. I use the simple Ikea curtains already installed in my kitchen. Before that I used a thin white tablecloth from the dollar store. It doesn't have to be fancy. It just has to work.

The reflector could be a professional photography scrim or a piece of white foam core board from an office supply store or even aluminum foil found in any kitchen. I use foam core board to bounce light onto my subject because its rigidity makes it easy to prop up without a lot of fussing. Your reflector doesn't need to be shiny, but it does need to be light in colour in order to bounce your light source back effectively doubling the light and minimizing shadows.






































Depending on the mood you're trying to convey, your own personal style and the quality of natural light, your diffusing and reflecting choices may change. High contrast, highlights and shadows convey a bold, dynamic, even mysterious feeling like in the photo of the egg shells. You can increase this effect by choosing not to diffuse the light. Low contrast minimized shadows and soft light convey a sweet and airy feeling like in the photo of the strawberries.

Side lighting is my personal favourite lighting direction because it's easy, highlights texture, creates beautiful definition and casts lovely shadows. Conveniently it also happens to be the direction in which the sunlight streams through my south-facing window and onto my kitchen table. With these two photos of the Banana Bread you can see the different effects created by the simple choice of bouncing the light or not bouncing the light.






































In the first photo the colours appear less saturated and almost washed out while the shadows are nearly non-existent. The subject also appears to be floating in space because the light seems to be coming from everywhere at once. In the second photo the pronounced shadows and highlights add shape and definition to the slices. The higher contrast make the colours pop and anchor the subject on the backdrop.

Back lighting is not a lighting direction I use often because it presents a whole new set of challenges for exposure and reflecting. It feels kind of wrong because all amateur photographers have been told not to shoot the subject directly in front of the light source. If the light isn't properly bounced it can cause harsh highlights and formless silhouettes. It is an excellent choice when your goal is to accentuate shine because it exaggerates highlights and shadows.






































In the photo of the Chocolate Hazelnut Cherry Tart the ripples of smooth ganache are given prominence due to the soft highlights of back lighting. In the photo of the Caramel Apple Cupcakes the eye is drawn to the gleam of the velvety frosting as the light hits the peaks and misses the valleys of the piped roses.

The next two photos of the Banana Bread exemplify the importance of reflecting. In the first photo the light is bounced using a foam core board. There is obvious contrast between the background and the subject, but not so much that the bread appears dark and undefined. In the second photo no attempts were made to reflect the harsh back light. Because the light is coming from behind, part of the Banana Bread blocks the light from the slices leaving them dull, flat, unclear and almost burnt looking.






































I'm not going to tell you what is right and what is wrong when it comes to diffusing, reflecting and lighting directions. It's all relative and, ultimately, up to you. The only thing I will encourage is for you to step outside your comfort zone. Walk around, crouch down to different angles and analyze how the light hits or doesn't hit your subject. Don't be afraid of the light!








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  1. Thanks for this post! I’m really working hard to improve the quality of my photos, especially paying special attention to lighting. Maybe you could post a photo of your setup?


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