What is cheaper and more readily available then good, old daylight? And it’s a lovely light for food photography, so if you’re on a tight budget or just want to start simple, choose daylight!!
Now one of the first ‘mistakes’ I see happen a lot is that many people start using flash as soon as the light levels drop below a certain point. Part of the reason is obviously that some of the compacts have the flash turned on automatically, so it just happens and that is that. However; part of the problem that you have with using flash (especially on a compact camera) is that the light is hardly ever very flattering to the food. You create harsh shadows, uneven lighting and in general it does not looks too good.
So, the solution is quite simple really; turn of the flash to begin with and start using a tripod. If you’re camera pops open the flash that usually means that the level of light is too low to handheld the camera, but if you put the camera on a tripod (and really for a compact camera, most – cheap – tripods are ok) the problem is solved. You do have to make sure you turn of the flash!
Once you’ve made the decision to only use daylight, there are a couple of other things you need to be aware of and the first one is the direction of the light. Take a good look at any cooking magazine and you will see that in most cases the light will come from behind the subject or from the side. Hardly ever is the light from the front as that tends to be dull and boring and will not bring out the best of the food. Just give it a try and have a look what happens when you turn the dish or yourself around and let the light come from various directions.
Ok, so we’ve figured out that daylight is the way to go and that the light needs to come from the side. You take a lovely little cupcake, put it in front of a large window, take a photo and this is what you get….
There are a couple of things you need to pay attention to here; the first is the amount of white in the scene and the second is the heavy shadow on the right (as the window is on the left). Now what happens if there is a lot of white in any scene is that the camera sensor mistakenly ‘thinks’ that there is more light in the scene then there actually is thereby underexposing the scene. So what you need to do to fix that problem is to add a little light, by making the shutter speed a little slower, allowing more light on the scene. Most cameras have a very quick tool for this which is called the EXPOSURE COMPENSATION button, also referred to as EV (exposure value) and it usually shown with a little +/- symbol. You have the option there to either increase the exposure by going to the + area or decreasing the exposure by going to the – value. In this case, we need to add a bit of light, so we move the cursor to the + area, which then gives us this photo
Now that is better as you can see, but we are still left with that ugly shadow, so how do we fix that? The easiest way to do that is to reflect a bit of light back onto the side of the cake so the shadows become less pronounced. Getting rid of all shadows is not always something you want, as it can also become very ‘flat’ but in this case we want to see what happens if we add a reflection. Now this can be something very simple, such as a piece of white paper, a piece of white foam board or anything else that is white. The important part to remember is that it needs to be pure white. Any hint of color will have an effect on the final color of your photo. Adding in this case the lid of a cake-box the result is this:
As you can see there is still some shadow left, but the overall look of the picture is much better then the first one! And that was with just a few very simple steps! For reflection material you can also use small mirrors which are great if you want to add a bit of shine to certain areas or a piece of aluminum foil wrapped around foam board also gives it just that bit more contrast.
And this is what the setup looks like! As you can see; nothing complicated!
You will find that experimenting with the way the light falls on your subject and how you use the reflection material is a great way to learn. That is one of the major advantages of digital; you can play around until it gives you the result you want. And instant feedback is a great way to learn!