Magazine Article


Illuminating Edibles
Shooting Fine Fare in Its Best Possible Light

Patrick Wadley

Patrick Wadley

Patrick Wadley

This lighting diagram shows where the lighting and camera angle was for the shot of the bowl of cereal, (photo above). Note main, fill and reflectors.
Patrick Wadley

All still lifes require considerable lighting expertise and discipline, but food photography has its own special challenges. Unlike jewelry, toasters, or apparel, food moves. It shrinks, expands, shifts, melts, and changes shape and color. On the set, you need to work quickly, and, depending on the type of food, you may need multiple setups to get the perfect shot. Before setting the first light, there are some preliminaries to think about.

The most important aspect of food photography is preparation. There are three essential areas that demand attention: understanding the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) rules about "truth-in-advertising," knowing how to deal with the client or art director, and recognizing the value of a good food stylist.

The FTC regulates advertising and sets policies for the protection of consumers. These policies and rules affect verbal and visual advertising claims. There is a lot of information about truth-in-advertising at, but in a nutshell, "Advertising must be truthful and nondeceptive." This means you cannot misrepresent a product in an image or in writing.

Making Food Look its Best

If you are selling a generic food shot to a client, you can do anything necessary to make the food look more appetizing. Paint the turkey with artificial colors to make it look browner; spray vegetables with a water/glycerin solution to make them look fresher; put chemicals on a steak to simulate steam rising; place small glass ice cubes in the bottom of a bowl to make the chicken and noodles look like they are swimming on top of the soup. All of this fakery stops when you put a branded food product in front of the camera. You cannot alter the product. Steam from the steak must be there because the steak is hot; if the chicken and noodles languish on the bottom of the bowl, so be it. You are obligated to visually tell the truth about the product. This is why a good food stylist can be your best ally when shooting branded food products-or any food for that matter.

Food stylists are artists at arranging food so that it looks most appetizing and delicious. The stylist designs everything about the presentation, from the food itself to the china, glassware, silverware, and props. The stylist is involved from the beginning so she or he understands the scope of the project from start to finish. The stylist's input and magic can make the difference between an average shot and a great image.

Remember that the client or art director has the last word. If the art director likes working with you and likes your style, he may give you carte blanche to create the image any way you want. However, the odds of this happening are somewhere between slim and none. Most art directors want to work with you. They will design the layout for a shot, ask for your input, and may even take some of your suggestions. A few art directors are so anal they want to control every aspect of the image, including lighting, camera position, lens focal length, and composition. If you must work with an uncompromising art director, think about the money you're making, smile warmly, and do whatever he says.

Adding Texture, Illusion

Lighting for food can be soft or hard, but it must be clean. Its purpose is to make the viewer want to buy and eat the product; it is all about selling the product. In this business, a pretty picture has no value if it does not sell.

Side lighting and backlighting are traditional lighting methods that many art directors prefer. The reason is that sidelight and backlight maximize texture. In portraiture, we want to minimize texture, so we mostly use front light for smooth skin. Food images need texture, however, to help the viewer get an idea of the "mouth feel" of a product. Whipped cream needs to look soft with a very fine texture; a granola bar should give the illusion of crunch with a rough texture. Backlight casts a shadow in front of the food, which makes the food look like it is moving toward the viewer as if to say "Eat me, eat me." All of the images shown were made using sidelight or backlight techniques. The lighting diagram (below) for the cereal illustrates the basic setup, which was only slightly modified for the other shots.

You can increase or decrease the amount of texture by raising or lowering the main light. Raising the light decreases texture; lowering the light closer to the surface of the food increases texture. Light ratios also affect texture. A 6:1 ratio will give the appearance of greater texture than a 2:1 ratio.

Light quality is extremely important for food photography. Both hard and soft lighting are necessary and desirable. Soft boxes are great light sources for the comfort-food look. Hard light, which can be slightly diffused direct light from a parabolic reflector, provides vibrant, crisp lighting that duplicates sunlight. This creates the illusion of sunlight streaming through a window and lighting the food. Often food is shot outdoors in sunlight or open shade to tie the food to the environment (seafood at the ocean, or steak and potatoes in a rustic setting). Whether you're in the studio or on location, lighting techniques remain the same.

In the end, the goal of food photography is to sell the product. A great food shot may not be the most creative image, but it is the image that sells.

Patrick Wadley, received a Bachelor of Science degree in cinema and photography from Southern Illinois University. He worked for commercial studios before striking out on his own. He currently works full-time at Promark International; and part-time as a freelance photographer.