March 18, 2013

Food Photography Behind The Scenes

How do you take your food photos? It's one of the questions that I get asked most frequently by other bloggers. There are several important components, but I can't stress enough that it's virtually impossible to take appetizing food photos without great lighting.

For some of us, beautiful light can be found by propping a table up near a window. Even if you're using your cellphone to snap a pic of your latest recipe, natural light will give your photo dimension and make it look more true-to-life.

Here in lies the problem for many of us. What if we cook in the evening? The sun is usually down when I'm ready to serve dinner. This is what fueled my desire for an artificial lighting setup.

It was important to me that this setup be inexpensive, small enough to fit on my dining room table, easy to setup/ put away and that it was made with items that I could repurpose.

I was lucky enough to take a food photography course where I gained some great tips from my very talented instructor. Today I'm sharing what I've learned coupled with some of my own ideas that have worked well for me.

This lighting setup should take about 10 minutes to assemble, has only five components and costs less than $50! Here's what you'll need:

1.) 500 watt halogen work light. Most home improvement stores carry these for around $10.

2.) 5-in-1 reflector. I purchased mine here for under $20. You could also make a diffuser using things in your own home like a white bed sheet or t-shirt. I chose a 5-in-1 because I could use it for other photography purposes.

3.) Muslin clamps. They carry these at most home improvement stores or you can buy them here.

4.) White foam core board.

5.) Duct tape (I find myself constantly in awe by its limitless uses).

How to setup:

I use my dining room table, but any table large enough for what you are photographing would suffice.

1.) Set up two chairs (or anything sturdy and free standing) against the table. Put the chairs about the width of the diffuser apart. Clamp the diffuser to the chairs.

Hint: The diffuser is the inside part of the 5-in-1 when you unzip the reflector.

2.) Place the work light on another chair or step ladder behind diffuser (careful not to put it too close).

Tip: Experiment with the direction of light. Changing between backlighting and lighting from the side changes the feel and quality of light on your food. I usually do a variety of set ups for each dish so that I have more to choose from.

Caution: The work light gets very hot while on. Be careful not to touch it or to put it near anything flammable.

3.) Make reflectors out of foam core board and duct tape. Do this by cutting the foam core board in half. Reassemble the foam core board by wrapping it on the inside seam with duct tape (like a book). This will allow you to bend the foam core board and to use it as a free standing reflector (see picture above).

Tip: Experiment with how raising and moving the light may cause shadows and/or may change the way the light hits the food. I usually find myself moving the light around a little bit to get it exactly where I want it. Sometimes I stack a couple of books underneath it to get it at the proper height. If you see any unappealing shadows on your dish or on the table, adjust the placement of your foam core board reflectors.

4.) Set up food and props on table, turn on light, arrange reflectors where appropriate and get snapping!

Bonus Tips:

Once you've taken the leap to create a lighting setup, there are several things that you can do that will improve your food photos. I totally understand that not everyone has the budget for the list below. I took these things on over the course of two years, so please don't let this list overwhelm you:

Shoot in manual mode. Nothing gives you more creative control. If you shoot in auto your camera may expose the image based on the light coming from the window or from your work light. This can make your food underexposed/ dark. Check out my tutorials on shooting in manual here, here and here. There are tons of great YouTube videos out there that should get you started.

Start collecting food related props. I buy vintage cooking utensils at thrift stores and dishes that I love at places like Target and Homegoods. I collect cloth napkins and fabric scraps to fold to look like napkins. Different place mats are a great way to add texture to a photo. I recently purchased faux wood table tops on Amazon and am happy with the way they have changed up my photos.

Get creative with styling. I usually saturate my mind with food images that inspire me. This means visiting some of my favorite food blogs and looking at magazines and food photography books. I study what it is about the image that I love and think of ways to use them as inspiration moving forward. I plan on sharing more about styling in a future post.

Edit your photos. I know everyone doesn't have the budget to purchase editing software but, If you're ready to invest some money into creating quality images I suggest using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I took a fantastic online course geared towards Lightroom that really took my editing to the next level called, Super Photo Editing Skills.

I packed in a lot of information, so please feel free to comment with any questions that you might have.


  1. Great tips, it's so fun to see a behind the scenes post like that.

  2. also,you could dress up the outside with a little landscaping such as flower pots and small shrubs.

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