Modern Food Photography Lighting Techniques

Modern food photography seems to have been stuck on the “one softbox motif” for quite a while now. And while shooting with a single softbox can get great results, the look is now so ubiquitous that some photographers, including Steve Hansen, believe it’s time to shake things up a bit. Hansen demonstrates how to creatively use a number of lights to add interest, color, and texture to what might otherwise be a flat food photograph:

Food photography offers an amazing array of opportunities for being creative, but lately it seems the net has been taken over by a single look: the shallow depth of field macro shot with a single softbox. There are infinitely more options out there. All you need are a few cups of different lighting sources, a couple of tablespoons of different colored gels (quite inexpensive), and a few pounds of imagination. Mix together and you can create a texture-rich, stylized food shot that will stand apart from the rest.

That said, it’s still helpful to have some gear, including a softbox. The other lights will depend on your budget, but they don’t need to be as fancy as Hansen’s.

Hansen’s Food Photography Gear

Interactive Lighting Set up for Food Photography

One big challenge when using this many lights on a reflective surface, is that the light from the various modifiers can and will reflect in every possible direction, including back to your lens. Hansen uses a few different methods to combat this, the most creative of which is using the shadow of part of the subject to shade out trouble spots. He also uses barn doors and a snoot to sculpt the light and a matte box and polarizer to restrict the unwanted reflections from entering his camera.

Lighting Food Creatively

Laying out the ingredients in front of the tray was also a beautiful touch, and the colors added by the gels allow for a swirling color of highlights and shadows. Sure, it’s a bit complex, but many find the end result far more nuanced and interesting than the standard “light with a single softbox” technique.

unconventional lighting for food photography

What do you think about the look? Does the complexity work for you?

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One Comment

  1. Wendy says:

    Nope. Doesn’t work. The glazed donuts are too flat (the highlights are too strong and washing out detail), the chocolate-frosted ones are too dark, and the ingredients are competing with the donuts for point of interest. If you’re shooting for someone who’s thinking about making or eating these donuts, you’ve FAILED as a photographer because you’re not providing enough information about the donuts as a perspective baker/consumer needs to make a good decision.

    This is the foodie equivalent of those fashion photographers that shoot illustrations for knitting/crocheting patterns where you can’t even tell if the sweater’s a cardigan or a pullover because the photog’s so absorbed with creating a pretty picture that they forget the whole point of the picture is to show the needlework in a way that helps a crafter see how the pattern comes together.

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