Basic Food Photography

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Along with covering a few of the many issues that can arise when photographing food, this lesson illustrates one of the many uses of the FirstStudio® Kit, as well as effective methods for using LitePanel reflectors.

Topics Covered:

  • Preparation for Food Photography
  • Using the FirstStudio® Lights Effectively
  • Diffusion with LitePanels
  • Alternative Setups for Different Looks
  • Comparing the Results

Preparation is Key

As with many things in photography and in life, it is best to be prepared well beforehand. But when it comes to photographing food, being prepared becomes an absolute necessity.

Preparation is definitely not limited to the food on the set, and may also include things such as ironing or steaming your tablecloth so that it is free of wrinkles. This can make your image look more elegant and save a tremendous amount of time retouching later.

When preparing the set, you should keep your food in the refrigerator or in the freezer until the absolutely necessary. Using a “stand-in” is imperative for developing the shot, and allows you some creative breathing room. Otherwise, the food on the plate may not hold up over time as you develop the shot.

As you can see here, we decided to use an empty place setting at first and give ourselves ample time to set up our lights and equipment.

Getting the Right Look

We began by setting up our first light, a FirstStudio® FirstStar™, on a small LiteStand. As we were setting up our light, we knew that we wanted to create a side-lit scene for this particular subject. With that in mind, the placement of the light became an easy decision: it should be positioned to the left of the product.

Starting our set with one light, we knew that this would not be the lighting we would finish with. The direct, high-contrast lighting created hard shadows and highlights that wouldn’t help in making an appealing food shot.

At this point, we also knew that by adding a second FirstStar™ light, although useful in reducing shadow levels, it would still provide us with a relatively harsh and uncontrolled quality of light.

In reviewing the result, we knew we would need to substantially soften the lighting in order to render a more natural, elegant look.

Next, we positioned a translucent LitePanel in between the main light and the plate. This helped a great deal to eliminate many of the dark shadows and bright highlights from our first light.

However, we still had harsh shadows coming from the fill light, so we simply positioned another LitePanel in between it and the set and took another shot. By diffusing both lights, we felt we had solved the problem of overly harsh lighting and achieved the quality of lighting we desired.

NOTE: We secured these LitePanels using GripJaws™ and swivels attached to LiteStands. Using these accessories, we were able to balance the LitePanels on the table, getting them as close as possible to the subject.

The Finale

Now that we had the right look for our image, we decided it was time to add our plate of food. We also chose to remove the goblet and silverware so as to focus more on the plate of food.

In reviewing the result, we decided to add some final touches. We made some slight adjustments to bring down the exposure, and came in a little tighter on the crop in order to eliminate the edge of the table. Voila! We had our finished product.

Alternate Lighting?

Because there are many ways to light a plate of food, we wanted to demonstrate a few simple changes to this setup using the same equipment. Changing or adding a few elements within the set can give you significantly different results.

1st Addition

Our first additional shot consists of placing the main light and LitePanel two feet to the right of our subject at 45 degrees. This already gives us a very different feel from the first plate of food.

We then added a silver reflector one foot to the left of the subject, which acted as more of a mirror and gave us inventive highlights, rather than just a shadow fill.

And lastly, we included another light and LitePanel as additional fill. This was placed just to the right of the camera to bring down our shadows under the front of the plate.

2nd Addition

Now let’s look at another way of lighting a plate of food. For our last set, we used an overhead style of lighting. We moved the main light to a LiteDisc Holder atop the GripJaw® and gave ourselves a direct overhead placement. Taking things a step further we went back to add silverware and a goblet to the set. We felt this heightened the overall mood, or ambiance, of this image.

With a strong fill light from the right to soften the shadows, you can create some great results.

To apply the finishing touches, we placed a QuikDisc™ on the left to act as a small reflector. This helped to fill in a few shadows on the left that our other lights could not reach.


As we’ve demonstrated here, basic food photography can be a very straightforward process as long as you come prepared and have specific results in mind.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Feel free to use these setups and lighting strategies as a jumping off point for your own creative projects. Once you get started, you’ll see how easy it can be to walk away with great food shots!

Written and photographed by David Cross and Gene Kester.

Basic Lighting,

Product/Still Life,

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