Editorial Food Photography

Lt Thumb


As a commercial photographer, food and product photography assignments are very common for me. Based in the Silicon Valley in California, I work with a lot of start-up companies who are bringing a new product to market. However, my absolute favorite assignments with food photography are for editorial clients.

My editorial clients include mostly magazines and the reason I like working with them so much is the room for creativity. With a magazine client, an assignment may look something like this; the magazine is doing a story on the health benefits of citrus fruit and they need an accompanying hero image of citrus that will really catch the eye. Not a boring image, but something really creative and fun.

A white background is a common request as often the creative team wants to “float” the image within a larger article. Let’s start here and examine how we can light food subjects on white without creating boring photos.

The first step for me is to set up a table top surface to work on. My preference is a product table that holds a large piece of white plexiglass with a curve at the foreground. This insures a horizon-less shooting space and the semi-opaque quality of the plexiglass allows me to shoot light through it as well as onto it. When I don’t have a fancy product table to use or when space is limited, a white piece of tag board with a bend placed behind the subject can work just as well.

My style with food photography is to always have the key light coming primarily from behind the subject. This looks the most natural to me and also has the added benefit of lighting the white background in addition to the subject. However, if you only have light coming from behind, then the front of the subject can look muddy and lack detail so the next step is to add a light in front to act as a kicker. This light is set at a much lower power to add just enough light to insure detail and a proper exposure in the front.

In the behind-the-scenes example below, you can see that I have a Photoflex OctoDome White: Extra Small soft box and strobe placed behind the product table, angled down. This is my key light and placing it behind the table allows light to shine through the plexiglass as well as over the top. To make sure the details on the front of the subject were there, I placed a second light with a LiteDome: Small soft box to act as a kicker in front and back a bit from the table.

For the first set of images the key light (strobe) was set to just under 1/2 power. On the kicker in the front the strobe was set at a much lower power setting of 1/3 power. It was also placed further from the table, about 4 feet back. I wanted everything to be in focus so I used f8.0 with a shutter speed of 1/125th and my ISO was set at 100 for maximum detail.

The kicker (strobe) in front was illuminating the citrus fruit nicely but I felt that I could get a little more color and detail so I added a small white reflector in front. Placed at an angle, the reflector bounces more light onto the fruit, increasing the specular highlights and putting a little more light into the shadow areas.

The resulting image shows the fruit illuminated on white with a bright white background. The shot on the left shows the fruit captured with just the two strobes while the image on the right includes the addition of the small white reflector. Both work but I prefer the extra detail and snap of the image with reflection.

Here are some examples of past editorial assignments where this lighting style was used. I have found that when you are working with a white background, the focus is primarily on the subject. This is a great excuse to make the subject look really exciting with how you style and pose it.

When a white background is not a part of the product brief, I love adding color to really help a subject pop. In the example below, I used the citrus fruit again but added a blue background. Blue is opposite yellow on the color wheel so I knew that a blue background would help to compliment the natural citrus colors.

This time I switched my modifiers and used the LiteDome: Small in the back on the key light and the OctoDome White: Extra Small in the front on the kicker. I chose to use the LiteDome on the key light as I wanted to focus the light down onto the subject and table while the OctoDome in front creates a broader field of light. Set at the lowest power, the kicker just adds a kiss of light for detail.

For the these images, the key light was set really high at just under full power while the kicker in the front was set at the lowest power setting. Again, the kicker was also placed further back from the table, about 4 feet.

I placed the key light at a very high angle and in addition to illuminating the subject from behind, the key light acted as a bit of a spotlight on the subject, creating a natural vignette with the blue paper. If I wanted to avoid this I could have moved the light higher but I liked the effect. I was working with a lot of light coming from behind the subject so I shot these images at f11 with a shutter speed of 1/125 at ISO 100 for maximum detail.

Once again I saw that I was getting enough light in front but wanted to really punch the specular highlights so I added my 22″ LiteDisc reflector in front. This time around I used the Soft Gold side as it creates more punch and I felt the golden color complimented the warm colors of the fruit.

In the final images, you can see detail and texture in each subject and the metallic finish on the reflector helped to add shine to each piece of cut fruit. The shot on the left shows the fruit captured with just the two strobes while the image on the right includes the addition of the Soft Gold reflector.

Here’s an additional example from a past assignment when I used this lighting technique. The key light is always primarily coming from behind the subject which really helps to pop it out from a busy or colored background. The darker the background color, the more dramatic the effect.

Let’s take this lighting a step further and really make the subject sing. Similar to the previous images I kept the key light high and behind the subject for a super dramatic backlight effect. To increase the intensity of the key light I removed the soft box and used just the bare 7″ metal reflector. This is still a modifier as it helps to concentrate the light in a much tighter field of light than when I was using a soft box with diffusion material on the front.

In the behind-the-scenes example below, you can see where the key light was placed. This time I removed the plexiglass product table and shot on the flat table surface. To keep things simple I used the black panel of my Photoflex 42″ 9-in-1 MultiDisc reflector for a black background. Hanging it from the key light stand was easy and I didn’t have to add a background stand (which I didn’t really have room for). I still wanted plenty of details on the front of the subject so the kicker was used with the OctoDome White: Extra Small. This time it’s even further back from the table, about 6 feet.

I also chose to make this shot a little more exciting by adding a panel of black plexiglass beneath the subject. The reflection of the subject on the plexiglass can create an interesting effect, especially with minimal styling in the rest of the shot.

To get a shot like this right, the light from behind needs to be bright and intense while slightly wrapping around the subject. So the first test shots I did included the key light only so I could make sure we were getting the backlight effect right. For this shot the key light was set to 1/3 power and I used f8 with shutter speed 1/125th at ISO 100. Below is a test image with only the key light firing.

The backlight looked great but there wasn’t enough detail on the front of the subject and we weren’t getting any reflection in the shiny plexiglass. Adding a kicker in front on the lowest power did the trick to illuminate the front of the bok choy just enough to give it detail. To increase the reflection, I added the white 22″ LiteDisc reflector in front at an angle. In the examples below you can see the key light only on the far left, the kicker added in the middle and the shot on the right includes both strobes and the added reflector.

This is the lighting I use when a creative director asks me to “make it sexy”. In the example below, the accompanying article was about kifer yogurt and this was the best way I could think of to make yogurt look its’ sexiest.

This backlighting technique also lends itself well to product photography as you can see in the example below.

For the next lighting technique, we are going to go in a completely different direction and work with natural light. I really love shooting food images in natural light as this is what we have most available to us as photographers and natural light is how you are used to seeing food on a day-to-day basis. For images that have a true “lifestyle” feel, you can’t beat natural light.

Even though I am working with available light for this next technique I am still going to place the light source behind the subject. This creates a beautiful wash of light through the frame and in the case of my first subject below, helps to illuminate translucent and semi-translucent surfaces.

For this shot I am working with a glass tea cup and a few props to bring the shot to life. I usually place a clean cutting board under a subject like this for a clean but organic look. A pretty little copper tea pot and fresh mint are on hand to add some color and vibrance. I shot this in the late afternoon and used a large LiteDisc: Oval to block the light where it was spilling into the frame too much. With natural light you can use reflectors where needed as “kickers”. In this setup I used my 22″ LiteDisc in white to bounce more light onto the front of the subject.

In the result image below, you can see that the window light coming from behind the subject really helps to illuminate the liquid and create a brighter area behind the subject, helping it to pop out from it’s surroundings. I wanted the background to only be somewhat in focus on this image so I shot with a wider aperture of f5.6 and pushed my ISO to 400 to give me more flexibility. I used a sturdy tripod as the shutter speed varied and was too slow for hand held shooting.

When shooting an editorial assignment, it’s a good idea to leave some blank space so that your client has room to add the copy or headline. In the example below I left space above the subject for this purpose.

When working with natural light, I also like to use window light coming from the side and shoot overhead. This works great when you are shooting more of a scene vs a single object. The setup below included a chocolate dessert and I added a few baking and kitchen accessories to give the scene some context.

In order to be all the way overhead I handheld my camera and stood on the top step of a short step stool. I captured the image below at f5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/30 and ISO 400.

I liked seeing the blue sides of the little baking dish so for the rest of the images I settled on more of an angle so that the blue colors of the dish and towel would tie together. In both cases the light is soft and flattering and lends itself well to this kind of styling.

Here are some examples of these natural light techniques used with a few of my past editorial assignments.

I hope that this lesson inspires you to explore food photography and get your hands dirty. We have beautiful food and objects all around us to practice with so get shooting!

Written and photographed by Laura Tillinghast.

Newest Lessons,

Product/Still Life,

Leave Your Comment