Food Photography: Window Light vs Strobe

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by john_stock, Oct 24, 2014.

  1. Hello,
    A client wants me to recreate the light feeling from these photos for his restaurant's sandwiches.
    I read a lot of blogers' explanations on how they use natural window light to obtain beautiful images. (See here:
    I've experimented with bounced window light and can't get it to look anything like the images below. I've read posts on this forum that say that the only way to shot food is with strobes. I'd appreciate your thoughts and any input on how these images were shot.
  2. NOTE: I've to tried to include the link to where the photos are stored, but they only showed up as question marks. So here are the links:
  3. Read "Light Science and Magic." Once you understand light, you should be able to look at the images you've taken and figure out what to do different to achieve the desired result. .
  4. Window light is great if you have a big window and it faces north or has large open sky outside. It's easy to analyze the photos by looking at shadows and highlights to see where and how big the light sources are.
    The salad looks like the window is quite large compared to the salad, is behind and to the right of the salad, and a reflector was used to provide some fill. Why is that difficult to match?
    +100 on Allen's recommendation of "L, S, & M"

  5. John, I do food photography (advanced hobby and several classes), and food can absolutely be shot with either natural light or studio
    strobes. Natural light is harder to control since it changes frequently, and a north-facing window is indeed the best light, although an
    overcast day can provide good light through any window at times. Do you have a food stylist, or is the restaurant styling the plates/food
    for you? Because first and foremost, the food has to look good, and that means the most perfect piece of lettuce, perfect bread, etc. along
    with the appropriate plating and props. Beyond that, if you have good window light, try positioning your light at around the 10:00 or 2:00
    position (as you're facing the subject, think of the top edge of the plate as 12:00), and then try a white reflector opposite. If you need more
    "punch", switch to a silver reflector. I use a white foamcore board with shiny silver wrapping paper glued to the other side, so I have 2-in-1
    and it's cheap to make. Beyond that, feel free to PM me and I'd be happy to help you out via email.
  6. +1 on the foamcore reflector, I use a bunch of these in my product photography.
  7. Thanks all for the advice.
    I do have a copy of S,L,&M that i read when I first took my photo classes many years ago. I started in fashion, got sick of it, moved onto interiors and real estate, and now am dabbling in food. The reason I started this thread was to gage whether one could adequately achieve "natural lighting" without strobes. having seen it done so well by the blogging masses, I wondered if i was doing something wrong!
    I've been practicing at home with a frozen patty. The window is facing west (as is the resto's). I started adding 1/64 from my 580EX (as the setup photo will show) from camera left. The Apple TV box is my foreground bounce.
    Obviously, things will look different with real props and a different table/background!
    I'm also including 2 shots I did for the same resto a few weeks ago. They liked the photos, but want it without plates this time. Everything is shot with natural light and bounced with a white card camera left. Even though I used a gray card and adjusted in Lightroom, I still couldn't get rid of the blue tinge. The owner sent me the photos (many come from Panera Bread) that I included in my first post with the comment "As long as we get a light image with the food in focus and properly displayed, they should come out fine."
    Everything is shot with a Canon 5D MkII. The resto shots are with a 100 2.8 macro and the home shots are from a 24-70L lens.
    Additional question: The 24-70L seems to cover most bases in this case, but is it worth renting a 50mm 1.4L (or other lens)?
    Resto shots:
    At home:
  8. Do want a pat on the back or real advice?

    My real advice is: Photographing food for restaurants is a lot like photographing sex; in both cases the goal is to
    stimulate some very basic desires.

    Ask yourself: Do these your photos make you hungry? Do they make you feel a smidgen of desire to see what the food
    tastes like?

    If the answer is no, then the photos don't work.
  9. John, on your home photos, it looks from the overhead shot like the sandwich is below the level of the windowsill, so you
    need to get it up higher. Try putting your window light at the 10:00 position as I mentioned before, and use a much larger
    white bounce (I use a 24x36 foamcore from the local craft store) opposite, so around the 4:00 position. I assume you're
    shooting in RAW, which will give you much more latitude in post processing. The blue tint in the plate on the restaurant
    shot is probably due to the fact that it was cloudy. Also, I see a speedlight in your home setup, which you shouldn't try
    mixing with the window light. The lenses you have are fine for the work you're doing. Food photography is one of the most
    difficult genres to master, so it will take some time.
  10. "Window light only and I used the napkin dispenser to bounce window light back into the shadow side of the food."​
    Bingo. Don't underestimate the value of reflected light from any available source. Even when doing spontaneous portraits in street snaps I look for reflected light, or pull a folded up sheet of paper out of my pocket or notebook out my bag and use it to add a little sparkle to the eyes and brighten the shadows. With flash units that have heads that can swivel around to face the rear, I'll bounce off my open palm to add a tiny bit of warm reflection.

    Regarding food aesthetics, it's an art unto itself. Some pro photographers hire food stylists - seriously, makeup artists for food. And it's not simple. Depending on the country's laws and intended usage the photographer, food stylist and art directors or editors may need to understand how much manipulation is legally permissible.
    One of the more interesting examples I've seen was in a video documentary in which a guy asked the fast food burger joint - politely - to remake his burger so that it actually looked like the photo on the menu. The manager and food prep people took up the challenge and did so.
  11. To follow up on what Lex said: every professional I know who photographs food as a specialty uses a food stylist.
  12. it


    Yes, a food stylist is absolutely essential if you want a professional product.
    I have a good friend who is one of Canada's top food stylists. I have done some fun little shoots with her, but she is normally working with the biggest chefs and shooters. She told me some of them do use natural light, but those that do use a lot of cutters for negative fill (obviously) and a lot of little mirrors for highlights. I visited her while she was shooting and the photographer had a massive studio with huge windows that had elaborate blinds and shears to control the quantity and quality of light.
  13. Here's what happens when a chef-slash-photographer-slash-stylist-slash-slasher wears too many hats. It's not pretty.
  14. John,
    I think the issue you're having when working with window light at the restaurant is the mixing of interior restaurant lighting with the window light. The interior ambient light is warmer than the outside light coming through the window. When you color balance for the interior ambient light, the window light is blue and blue light is not a good thing on food.
    North light through a window on a sunny day will by its very nature be blue because it's light reflected from the blue sky. You can mitigate the blueness by hanging a piece of diffusion material such as vellum or drafting paper between the window light and the food, as close to the food as possible. That will mix the color of the blue light with the interior light and add its own warmth from the vellum.
    I shoot good bit of food and occasionally have to shoot in a restaurant location. I bring my own strobe lighting and setup away from any windows. When I say strobe lighting I don't mean speed-light flash. I use a pack and head system of studio lighting with soft boxes, grid spots, diffusion panels and a Fresnel spot. Because I bring my own lighting I can shoot at anytime of day or night, independent of the weather.
    The sample photography from the blogs that you linked to shows very soft lighting which is popular for food and has been for a long time. Current trends now seem to favor a mix of hard light and soft light with the hard light simulating the sun, emphasizing texture and providing a strong directional quality to the light.
    Add a soft box or diffusion panel from the same direction for a softer treatment of the shadow and highlight transfers and you have the best of both worlds. Place your key light at the side or rear/side to create a form of short lighting with the shadows falling toward the camera and add fill with either soft white cards, harder silver foil cards or even small mirrors from the opposite side or front.
    We always bring light stands, booms, flags and reflectors so every possible lighting scheme is available and we always shoot tethered to either a laptop or iMac for image lighting, composition, focus, exposure, and client approval.
    With all that said, the photography and lighting is the easiest part by far of food photography. It's the food stylist that makes the real magic.

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