Feeding the Eyes!

Discussion in 'Lighting Tutorials' started by MichaelSewell, Feb 3, 2016.

  1. MichaelSewell

    MichaelSewell Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Sep 1, 2015
    Burnley, UK
    Michael A. Sewell

    Food photography depends very much on good light, and yet the textures and shapes can respond extremely well to quite a simple lighting setup.

    Whether I'm shooting on location in a restaurant, or in a studio for Getty Images, my lighting setup tends to be similar.
    I'm particularly careful to ensure the food glistens to add allure. I don't mean “glisten”, as in added oil. I mean the specular highlights caused by the light. As light travels in straight lines, then placing the light on the far side of the food, in line with the camera, will potentiate the reflective properties of anything glossy. Glossy can be fluid, oils or just the wet nature of the food itself. It can be seen above, along the ketchup and mustard, the side of the bratwurst, and also along the edges of the onion rings.

    If you bear in mind the angle of incidence, you can pretty much place the light, and know where the highlights will appear. That said, as the light is basically being directed towards the camera lens, a grid is essential to negate flare, and therefore reduce the possibility of loss of contrast.

    I tend to use the Godox AD360 or AD180 for food photography, as the lights tend to be quite close, to the point that sometimes, the AD360s are operating at minimum output. AD180s are probably the better choice, allowing a little more manoeuvrability in the power output.

    In the above image, the rim light was placed frame right, beyond the table. I usually have the rimlight head slightly above the camera height, so as to ensure the light source doesn't appear in the frame. I fire it through a dedicated beauty dish with a grid fitted. This provides a larger pool of light than a gridded standard reflector, but maintains quite tight control over the light. For the above image, I used an AD360, firing through the mentioned Beauty Dish and grid at a power output of 1/128th

    The main, or key light, is another AD360 (or AD180), usually firing through a 80x80 folding softbox. Normally, this is placed as close to the table as possible, almost directly overhead. Here, I wanted it slightly further back. In fact, it was pretty much in line with me. Again, the output was set to 1/128th power output.

    To be honest, this setup varies little, other than the position of the lights, which depends on the food being photographed, as I'm looking to get the best from the specular highlights.
    E-M1 1/125th sec ISO400 12-40mm @40mm f8


    This is a pull back, showing the setup. E-M1 1/125th sec ISO400 12-40mm @40mm f8

    Photographing food for a restaurant or bistro, tends to be quite different to photographing food for Gettys. With a restaurant, your aim is to include the ambience of the restaurant, which can be attained by including out of focus lit areas of the bar, or branded condiments and cutlery etc. Often the plates are particular to that restaurant. We are aiming to create a familiarity within the image for past customers, hoping to stir them to return, as well as new customers, whom we are hoping to tempt into a welcoming environment.
    When shooting for a stock library or recipe book, there isn't the familiarity aspect to draw on. No brand, house crockery or cutlery etc. We have to build the whole set from scratch, sometimes to a brief, sometimes not.
    In this case, it starts with a table, then the food support. As it's a hotdog, a brown paper “wrapper” seemed best suited. We also sort the supporting cast of props that are suited to the scene.
    The hotdog was part of a series of images along a street food theme, such as burgers and steak sandwiches etc.


    The above is again the same two light setup, but with the accent light switched to left of frame.
    E-M1 1/125th sec ISO400 12-40mm @40mm f8


    If there is the potential for steam from the dish, I have a third AD360 (or AD180) set to fire across the dish at 90 degrees to the camera, and at the same height as the dish. Again, I make use of a dedicated Beauty Dish and grid, and once again, it tends to be at the lowest possible power output, due to the small distances from the light source to the food.
    Here, I needed a longer exposure and an increased sensitivity to ensure the candle registered.

    E-M1 1/30th sec ISO800 12-40mm @29mm f5.6

    All above images are E-M1 captured, the two below are a few months earlier, and Nikon captured.


    ok, it's not a real table, It's a painted interior door we found.
    Same two light setup, although the lights were positioned a little further away than usual, due to the required broader scene.

    This was shot a week or so before the E-M1 arrived.
    I've found the Olympus to be particularly suited for food photography for a number of reasons, not least the depth of field and close focus ability of the 12-40mm f2.8. The stabilisation means no tripod is required, even when shooting at 1/30th sec and slower, allowing the capture of candle light etc.


    This is a pull back of the same scene as above. And before anyone makes a crack about the shape of my head, Wayne was on a D810 with a wide angle lens. Honest!

    Food photography is one of those disciplines that can very easily be done on a budget. Due to the closeness of the light sources, a couple of speedlights will suffice, and you are very unlikely to be above ¼ output. A shoot through brolley could be used for the main light, but you will need some sort of grid to control the accent light.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 23, 2016
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  2. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
  3. thenextpage

    thenextpage Mu-43 Regular

    Oct 13, 2014
    Thank you for the excellent tutorial Michael. When selecting a strobe system for food photography, would you advise opting for a modeling light? From what I can tell, neither the 180 or 360 have one.

    Are there situations in which you'd use a grid on your main light softbox?

    Also out of interest, Are you typically working with a food stylist during these food shoots?
  4. MichaelSewell

    MichaelSewell Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Sep 1, 2015
    Burnley, UK
    Michael A. Sewell
    There are pro's and con's to modelling lights. On the plus side, it allows you to see where your light will hit, and give you an idea as to how your shadows will develop the shape, form and texture of your subject. However, even those lights with variable output modelling lights, do not really mimic the output of the main flash tube. So where you think you may have about the right balance between your accent and key light, you can find your accent is lost, or blows the hell out of it.

    Another downside, although this is becoming less so with the advent of LED modelling bulbs, is heat. Especially with food, using tungsten modelling bulbs can very quickly cause some food items to wilt or deteriorate extremely quickly. It's bad enough photographing ice cream quickly, without a hot modelling bulb reducing it to a puddle in the time it takes you to figure out where the off switch is for the modelling bulb. :( 

    To be honest, once you have a little experience, you no longer rely on modelling bulbs. Although modelling bulbs can quicken the learning cycle.

    I will use a grid/honeycomb when the subject dictates it. Having said that, honeycombs can be a real PITA when shooting food, as quite often the honeycomb can be seen in the reflection within sauces, or even on the white plate itself. The tip here is to just be very observant.

    I do have a food stylist I use, but the brief of the shoot and type of client will dictate whether the stylist is involved or not.

    Shooting for the likes of Getty Images, a recipe book or supermarket advertising campaign would dictate the involvement of a stylist. Mine or theirs.

    If I'm shooting for a restaurant, I leave the actual food styling to the Chef, as the aim is the photograph the dish as it would be presented to potential clients. No point is styling it to such an extent that clients don't recognise what they've been served when it looks nothing like the image they've seen in a magazine or on the website.

    Whilst Chefs can style food in their sleep, styling the table and other "props" is outside their comfort zone. Here, it's generally (read that with a pinch of salt!) not worthwhile having a stylist on hand, and most food photographers have enough experience to be able to style a setting effectively.

    I've taught food styling as part of my food photography courses, but will recommend a food stylist any day of the week. They get paid to do what they do, because they are experts in their field.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2017
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  5. CWRailman

    CWRailman Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Jun 2, 2015
    Scottsdale, Arizona
    I am seeing a pattern here. You have done stills of unprepared food, ( the Rembrandt type shoot) then you take us through shots of prepared food, then you do shots of garbage trucks. I guess we can say you go from table to dump and in that manner are a full service provider. :) 
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  6. rloewy

    rloewy Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    May 5, 2014
    I hope there is no bathroom series coming soon.
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  7. MichaelSewell

    MichaelSewell Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Sep 1, 2015
    Burnley, UK
    Michael A. Sewell
    Now that's funny!!!
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