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Hungry Yet? How Lighting Can Enhance the Appearance of Food


The angle at which light strikes an object, such as the peppers, is the same at which light is reflected.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs lasagna
Different light sources have various contrast ranges between the highlights and shadows, which affect the “quality” of the edge of the shadow cast.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs lasagna
Lou lit this serving of lasagna from the right side with a 2'x3' softbox to enhance the color of the basil. A mirror on the left filled in some of the shadows on the food.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs a fruit tart
Lou always uses an incident light meter to determine exposure in the highlights and shadows.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs a fruit tart
For the fruit tart, Lou placed a 2'x3' softbox on the left side and a 40" umbrella with a white interior and a black exterior in the back.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs pudding
For Lou, "specular" highlights, pinpoints of white light, are essential for getting food to jump off the page.
Lou Manna


Lou Manna photographs candy
Whether the effect is achieved with lighting and mirrors, or with any other tasty tricks, the key is to create images that tantalize viewers and satisfy clients.
Lou Manna



Of all the challenges facing food photographers, lighting is probably the most crucial. Constantly dealing with different shapes, textures, and reflective objects can make photographing food very complicated. Lighting is the variable with the greatest potential for turning a good photograph into a great one.

The other challenge, of course, is keeping the food looking fresh, crisp, and visually enticing. Over the years, a number of tricks have been used to enhance appetite appeal. I will share a few of these below.

In the old days, food photographers shot with 8x10 and 4x5 view cameras from an overhead angle, used hot tungsten lights for illumination with harsh shadows. The lights spoiled the food quickly and didn’t allow enough time to check exposures with Polaroids, shoot final sheet film, and have the food look fresh and appetizing.

As time passed, we began to see changes in lighting techniques. Warm, romantic lighting with softer shadows took the place of traditional harsh, direct lighting in food photography. Today, the trend is a simple, clean, fresh, natural approach to lighting, one that’s far more attractive to the eye and the viewer’s palette. Lower camera angles and shallow focus dominate the look of food photography today.

Digital imaging replaced traditional film in my studio for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to share with my clients the overall look and direction of the images on a bright color monitor, on-set or 3,000 miles away.

Shooting handheld with my small, lightweight Olympus Evolt E-500 digital ., gives me the added flexibility to move around the set with ease, capturing my subjects from a variety of angles in a matter of seconds. Fast results, a greater variety of perspectives, and the ability to approve my work on the spot make for very happy clients.

Creating Tantalizing Images

After 30 years of photographing food for The New York Times, restaurants, and agencies, I’ve welcomed digital technology into my workflow for the past 10 years. In my recent book, Digital Food Photography, I address every aspect of photographing food, including the latest lighting techniques. Highlights from the book follow...

Every object reflects light just as a mirror does. The angle at which light strikes an object, such as the peppers, is the same at which light is reflected. This is important when determining the angle of the light source and angle of reflectors to properly expose an image. Generally, the larger the light source, the more widely distributed it is; highlights on the subject are larger, as well.

The shape of the light source also determines the shape of the highlights. For example, a rectangular softbox will create a rectangular highlight, while a round umbrella forms a round highlight. See Chapter 7, “The Recipe for Light,” in Digital Food Photography, for details.

I lit this serving of lasagna from the right side with a 2’x3’ softbox to enhance the color of the basil. A mirror on the left filled in some of the shadows on the food. I didn’t use a white board or a backlight because the dark shadows on the wood added drama to the photo.

Different light sources have various contrast ranges between the highlights and shadows, which affect the “quality” of the edge of the shadow cast. My personal rule of thumb: keep the contrast range between highlights and shadows to about one f/stop for proper reproduction and best image detail.

For the fruit tart, I placed a 2’x3’ softbox on the left side and a 40” umbrella with a white interior and a black exterior in the back. I placed the umbrella at a high angle behind the tart to add “specular” highlights to the top of the fruit. A white board on the right fills in the shadows. I held a mirror in front to lighten up the crust of the tart.

I always use an incident light meter to determine exposure in the highlights and shadows. This gives me a more accurate indication of the amount of light actually falling on different parts of my subject as opposed to light being reflected from my subject. Expose properly for the highlights; it’s difficult to replace detail that was never there.

For me, “specular” highlights, pinpoints of white light, are essential for getting food to jump off the page. Whether the effect is achieved with lighting and mirrors, or with any other tasty tricks, the key is to create images that tantalize viewers and satisfy clients. Pudding or candy, anyone?

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