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Using Natural Light For Authentic Looking Food Photography

By Christopher Kimball on December 11th 2013

Setting up your studio to photograph food is a little different than setting up for portraits. One of the big differences is the current trend to use natural light in food photography. The resulting images typically look much more natural than those captured under strobes or hot lights.


This image was captured in the late afternoon light using nothing but natural light and a couple reflectors to light it.

Natural light can be tough to deal with in a couple of ways, but it is readily available to most of us. The biggest concern is that the light can be too harsh if you are in direct sunlight, resulting in harsh shadows and hard edges on everything in the image. If your only usable light is very direct, adding a scrim or filter to take the light down a stop or two can help a lot.

[REWIND: DIY Studio Backdrops and Reflectors]

When I am working on food, I set my table up next to a large sliding glass door that I have here. It faces north, so the light coming through it is good but not direct most of the year. I really like to back light food when I am shooting it, so I set up facing the door, allowing the light to spill onto the plate or subject from the rear. This produces a shadow on the front edge of the plate, so we need to address that.

Table top setup

This is a really basic example of a natural light setup for food or products.

I have to tell you that I am not one to run out and buy gear. Reflectors are no exception. I find that the 2×3-foot pieces of white foam core I can buy at my local Wal-Mart for $1.50 work very well as reflectors. I have cut many pieces of foam board into small, medium, and large sizes for different-sized reflectors, and several have been covered in foil for a brighter reflection.

Sigma Lens

This is the image straight out of the camera that I shot above. The point is just to show how few shadows you get with just the reflectors in the setup picture.

I set the reflectors up in a “V” shape, leaving a gap just large enough to shoot though and with a little adjustment, I can reduce or even remove the shadows at the front of the plate. If the “V” setup doesn’t work for you, move the foam core around until you get the light just the way you want it. You can also use reflectors to side light the plate by spinning the setup to one side or angle it to light from above. It is a versatile setup and with a little practice, you can get some great images without spending a lot of money on lighting equipment.


What Do You Think? Would You Try Using This Setup For Shooting Small Products and Food? We Welcome Your Comments and Questions.

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Christopher is a commercial and stock photographer based in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He specializes in shooting food, commercial real estate, and editorial projects related to food, sports, and products. His work has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and around the internet and his photography experience dates back some 30 years. Connect with Chris on social media or visit his website to see his work.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tyler Brown

    I used a very similar setup for a food photography job I did recently, but I used a 50″ soft box since it was night and I had much larger foam core reflectors

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  2. Ed King

    I’ve done a few restaurant shoots for their websites and always love using natural light when I can. I’ve worked on some projects at home and have also used some foam core with some really good results as well, I do need to get some clamps thought as I always ended up rigging it up with very little room for adjustment.

    Thanks for sharing

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  3. JB

    I also like to shoot on my kitchen table in front of a great window. I’ve always struggled with setting up reflectors trying to balance and tape them to chairs, etc. I love the way you used clamps to hold the foamcore and l-brackets. I own all of these, and think it will be a very simple way to go. Great tip.

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    • Christopher Kimball

      I will be talking more about that in a future post but I picked that up from a fellow food photographer. Glad you found it helpful.

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