Natural light food photography: Tips for photographing food at home
Food photography can be challenging, but in its simplest form it couldn’t be easier — you don’t need extraordinary culinary skills, fancy lighting equipment or masses of props. You can get some great results photographing in your own kitchen using store bought products and only natural light.
Here I’ve summarised some of the key points covered in our natural light food photography classes, explaining the planning, preparation, equipment, lighting and techniques used for each.
How to photograph food at home
For many photographers just starting out, working from home is common practice. You don’t need a lot of equipment or much space to take great photos. What you will need is just a few simple accessories and an understanding of light and how to control it, as you’ll see in our new classes.
Planning & preparation
If you’re photographing food at home, it’s not unrealistic to say you could create two to three complete shots if you worked quickly and efficiently. This is what we hoped to achieve when we set out to film our natural light food photography series. For each shot we carefully planned the props and accessories we would need, keeping in mind the lighting and styling of the shot.
For those already shooting at home, you won’t have to worry about this, but if, like us, you’re travelling to shoot on location, it’s worth putting together a check list of items you’ll need for the shoot to ensure you don’t leave anything behind. For our shoots, we needed our camera equipment (camera, lens, tripod, laptop and tethering cable) and the food items we planned to photograph, along with accessories such as mirrors, reflective cards, reflectors and all Anna’s props (cutlery, chopping boards, bowls, plates etc).
Once we arrived at the location Anna started preparing the different dishes for photographing. The first was a bowl of pasta, the second a charcuterie board and the third a breakfast scene of fresh pastries. Herbs needed to be covered and put in the fridge, pasta needed to be cooked and fruit needed to be washed. Everything that could be done when we arrived was, while other things, like cutting the cheese, was left until just before shooting to preserve the freshness of the products.
The second shot was a charcuterie board, which involved a selection of meats, cheeses, etc.
Styling & shooting
We shot three images for our natural light food photography series and each was shot in the dining room, using the dining room table as the shooting surface and light from the adjacent conservatory. We shot the images using a Canon 5D III and Anna’s 100mm macro lens. We fixed the camera to a Manfrotto 055 tripod to ensure the camera was steady and remained fixed in position. You’ll see in any of our product photography courses that I always have my camera fixed — this makes it easier than finding your composition each time and means all your shots should already be lined up if you need to do any composite work.
When in studio, I always shoot tethered (as does Anna when she works) and this was no different. We’d brought along a laptop and shot tethered into Lightroom so that we could see the results.
The styling of each shot was done by Anna. For the first image, she complimented the hero item — the bowl of spaghetti — with raw ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, cheese and spices. She also included a napkin under the bowl and a spoon and fork. Each of these items were included to build narrative around the image: the wooden table top mimicked what you would expect at a simple family meal and coupled with the rustic cutlery and dishes created a welcoming, homely feel.
The fresh ingredients complimented the dish — the tomatoes, garlic and oil were all items you would expect in the food and the cheese and spices were what you would normally serve with such as dish.
As part of the styling, Anna had to make sure each element of the food looked as appetising as possible. This included making sure the herbs remained fresh and looked good, so they were added at the last minute. To add an element of gloss to the pasta, Anna added a generous amount of sauce with a touch of oil to give it a fresh, tasty look. She also had to make sure the pasta didn’t look flat and filled the bowl.
The second shot, the charcuterie board, included a selection of meats, cheese, crackers, grapes and nuts, placed on a wooden board on the table. Anna complimented this with a few simple bowls filled with chutneys and olives and she ‘served’ the dish with glasses of red wine.
Both images featured the same background — the dining table — and yet looked very different. You can clearly see from the final images how, through clever use of just a few different props and thoughtful composition, you really can produce unique images with really very little equipment.
One valuable piece of advice that Anna gave was to have a selection of table napkins that can double up as your backgrounds. You can see in the pasta and charcuterie board images how she’s used them as props to form part of her scene, but in the image of the croissant (which you saw at the start of this post) she’s used one as her background.
All the images took a couple of hours to style. This is a crucial part of the process and really shouldn’t be rushed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re working with fresh ingredients and they do lose freshness over time. Where you can, use stand-in items and switch them out for the final products just before you’re ready to shoot. This way you’ll be able to take your time composing the image and testing the lighting but still have the best item in your shot.
Both the pasta and charcuterie board were shot using only natural light, which is a great option for food photography. However, one of the things that can be intimidating when working with natural light is the perceived lack of control. But as you’ll see from the full tutorials for both the pasta and charcuterie board shots, there are a number of techniques you can use to control and enhance natural light.
For the bowl of spaghetti we decided to backlight the shot. We did do a test shot using side lighting (which you can see in the full tutorial) but decided it didn’t work as well. Once we were happy with the initial lighting, I tested a variety of coloured cards, mirrors and negative fill to show how you can easily control light with just a few simple accessories.
I demonstrated how you could use coloured card, such as the gold card, to add a lovely, gold glow to the shot, but you could easily change this and use something like blue, for example, if you wanted colder tones.
You can see the results from each different card and how I used them in the full class here.
The charcuterie board also made use of backlighting, but for that shot I also experimented with creating just a narrow strip of light, similar to what you’d get with a 30x120 softbox used horizontally. As you can imagine, this cut out a lot of light, which meant I had to use mirrors to reflect light back into the shot. As we were working on a rainy, overcast day, there wasn’t too much light to begin with. This meant cutting out that amount of light wasn’t ideal, which is why in the end the final shot was done with full backlighting.
The key thing about the space we were working in was, although it wasn’t particularly big, I knew there was an area adjacent to a conservatory with good light that we could work in. Now you don’t necessarily need a conservatory, but you should think about what available lighting you can utilise for your photography. Try and find a big window and think about when and how the light comes through that window. Photographing with natural light is great for those with minimal lighting equipment, but don’t make life more difficult than it needs to be — avoid small windows or those covered by trees or bushes.
To help control the light you can use affordable accessories such as the reflective card or mirrors I used throughout these classes. You can use silver, white, gold or even black card, depending on what you want to achieve. Other ways you could control the light is to use some sort of diffusion material, which would soften the light if you’ve got a bright, harsh light source. Although I didn’t use this technique for these classes, you can see exactly how to do this in our natural light portrait photography class - Indoor Photography.
It’s also worth mentioning that even if you’re shooting at home, you’re not limited to using only natural light. Even if you’re working in a small space, you can introduce studio light. Again, you don’t need expensive or fancy modifiers, you can get great results using umbrellas or softboxes.
For examples of food photography using studio lights, you’ll find one light and more advanced studio lighting setup tutorials in our Food Photography section.
Food photography is a genre of photography that you can get really creative with and you can get some amazing results with just natural light and minimal equipment, as you’ll have seen here and in our classes. Key points to remember are:
- Plan your shot and figure out what equipment, props and accessories you'll need
- Find a good light source
- Experiment with the lighting
- Take the time to compose and style your shot
If you're looking for more ideas and inspiration, you can view more of Anna's work here.
To learn more about food photography, make sure to head to our food photography classes, which can be found in the Product section. You'll find a wide selection of classes that cover everything from key skills food photographers need to one light setups and live shoots.