This past week I had a funny conversation with my best friend.
Me- Oh, I took a ton of shots today. We had the most beautiful light!
Her- Um… really? I thought you said… it was sleeting.
Me- Oh yeah, it was! It was perrrrrfect.
Unlike many photographers who really dislike when winter comes, it’s probably my favorite time of year. Especially when it comes to opportunities for food photography. But, when I first started shooting indoors, I too used to lament the return of winter every year. That time when 4:30 suddenly seems like midnight. During the day, the light is crisp, diffused, soft & dim. It wasn’t until I taught myself how to really read the light & find the best way to manipulate it in these low light conditions that I saw a huge shift in my food photography, as well as a big shift in my enthusiasm for soft, cloudy days!
Hopefully these tips for shooting low light food photography will help you begin to understand how you too can create beautiful images on any given day!
My tips for shoothing low light food photography
Find the light
No, really find it. You have to think of light differently when it’s dim or cloudy outside. When you’re working with a bright, sunny day, the light is literally all around. When you’re shooting on a cloudy day, the light will still be there, it’s just not as easy to spot. You may have to work closer to your light source – a window. Notice what happens to your subject as you move farther away from the light.
If you remember the Natural Light section in Eat Pretty Things, I talk about ‘hot spots’ or areas where the sun is beaming in & very visible on the counter or floor. In that case, you want to move your subject just outside of that area.
In this case, when shooting low light food photography, you now have more opportunities to shoot in that very ‘hot spot’. Think of it as more of a ‘lukewarm spot’. Less hot. More tepid. And it could end up being the perfect natural spotlight for your subject. Hooray!
You may also find the opposite thing to be true. Perhaps it’s a cloudy, overcast day, but it still seems bright. In this case, don’t be afraid to use some large, black mat boards from the craft store. I have two I use & if I feel I have too much light, I’ll use them on two sides of my board my subject is lying on to suck up & direct that light so that it’s not coming into my shot from all angles. Black surfaces are amazing light suckers. Quote me on that.
This picture is the perfect example of me finding & using light. There’s no clever editing done here, I don’t even know how to use photoshop so I couldn’t begin to create something like this even if I wanted to! This is literally a cork, sitting on our black marble counter top, placed perfectly in the light & shot with a 105mm macro lens. The pull back shot will knock your socks off.
My embarrassingly messy kitchen below. Hey, don’t judge me. It was a shooting day. I should also note, this light isn’t exactly where the cork was when I took this shot. The light was shining more on the larger counter space, closer to the blue bowl, so the image was taken a bit further back, but you get the basic idea of seeing directional light!
This is another shot where my black out curtains in my kitchen were helping me shine a spotlight on the area in focus – my hands. Once I got myself into position, my son actually took these pictures for me.
Embrace the shadows
Sometimes when you’re shooting in a well lit area, you’ll use a white foam board to bounce light back into your frame onto your subject. This is especially helpful when you’re working with backlighting.
But in this case, since you’re already working with moody light anyway, why not go even further & really push for those shadows. It’s time to embrace the dark side.
When you’re shooting low light food photography, your eye will quickly begin to pick up on the amount of shadows if you’re working with a nice directional light. Sometimes you’re light is less directional or intense. In this case, you’ll have less shadows. When you have a very intense, directional light, it’s easier to really push those shadows & create dynamic contrast on images so when you get the chance, go for it.
In the shot below, I make no attempts to bring any extra light into my image. I’m very happy to be sitting quietly in the shadows. I have a large, black, mat board behind me & to the left of the frame to keep my orange-y cabinets from affecting the white balance.
In the soup image below, while it doesn’t have as strong a contrast in terms of shadows, I’m not making any attempt to bounce light into the entire frame. This image was specifically for a print magazine so I wanted to keep the depth of the shadows but not make them as strong as the marshmallow image above. But… notice the metal of the pan naturally bounces light back into the soup bowl! Hey!! I’d rather be lucky than good any day!
This is one of those situations where white balance can be a killer.
As I talk about in my ebook, you have several methods of white balance you can use but my most trusty, preferred method is using Kelvin for white balance.
White balance in low light food photography is critical to achieving the look you need & to be completely honest, sometimes I miss the mark too. When that happens, it makes my job even harder in Post Processing & the whole goal, when setting up your shot is to do as little as possible in PP.
Because someone on Instagram recently asked me about my PP method, I thought it would be good to touch on this here. I think I’ll save this topic as well to do a little video on my PP method, specifically in regards to editing low light images but for now, I’ll say, think about enhancing what you’ve already got.
If I’m working on low light photography, what’s my goal? To show a strong contrast between light & dark? To create an overall moody image? To play up shadows? Once I know my goal I can help achieve that with PP. When I’m editing, I typically increase my blacks & up my contrast. I may even hit the vignetting to achieve even more of a spotlight on my subject. I could choose to Dodge or lighten the subject if I’ve been unable to do naturally that with my light source. All of these editing ideas will be formed out of not only your particular style (some people don’t hit the vignetting as hard as others) but also out of the subject in your frame & what PP best lends itself to making that subject shine – literally.
A lot of photographers are very funny about sharing their unedited images but here’s a simple example to show my edit. Here’s a Before & After screen shot from Lightroom. In this image, I’ve simply enhanced what I shot RAW. I’ve upped the blacks, increased the contrast & added some vignetting. I used the Dodge or lighten tool to bring more exposure to the focus of the image. I also enhanced the cheery red thread in the string by using the selective color enhancer in the color module of Lightroom.
If you get a chance to try out any of these tips, tag me on Instagram @goeatyourbeets & let me see what ya got!20