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Food Photography Lighting Setup: 3 Essential Tips

8 min read

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These tips for Food photography lighting setup can help you take mouth-watering images like these pancakes and blueberries

Food photography lighting is critical if you want to get beautiful food images. Your goal is to create an image of food that is appealing, even mouth-watering. 

To get that image, natural light is usually the preferred source of light, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always cooperate with your schedule or the location. And, there are tricks to shaping the light in order to capture those tantalizing shots.

So, what do you do to get the right light? Well, here are the most essential tips for food photography lighting setup that can help you create food images that will leave you salivating!

1. Food Photography Lighting Sources

The big consideration here is whether to use natural or artificial light sources. However, one thing to be aware of with your lighting setup, whether it’s natural or artificial, is that bright light tends to wash out the image, and that decreases the color saturation of your subject.

Bright lighting for food photography can wash out food's vibrant colors, such as those seen on these vegetables
Bright lights can wash out foods vibrant colors–post-production processing can help.

You should keep in mind that you might have to correct for this by increasing the vibrancy of the colors and their clarity in post-production processing. With that in mind, which is better–natural or artificial light?

Natural Light

Most food photography experts want natural lighting setup, or they want to be able to create a natural light appearance. But, there is more to natural light than meets the eye. 

The best advice anyone can give you is to study the light in your area. Notice how it changes throughout the day. You’ll see changes in color, intensity, and of course, direction. Once you understand those changes, you can begin to sculpt and tame the natural light beast to create the mood you want for your images.

Natural light as seen in this image of a pineapple outside, is preferred by most food photographers
Natural light is preferred by most professional food photographers.

Window Light

Direct light shining through the window gives you a constant natural light source. This is an advantage, because you can see how the light and shadows fall across the scene. But, it’s also often a hard light that creates sharply-defined shadows. That means you will need to shape the light with some of the tools, such as reflectors and diffusers, in your kit.

Artificial Light

Even if you have great natural light at your location, you’re likely going to want some artificial light sources. The natural light might only provide optimal lighting for a very short time during the day or the shoot might have to be at night, and thus, some kind of artificial light is a must.

The first rule of artificial light is NEVER use kitchen lights. It will not end well for you if you do. In fact, you should turn off any indoor lights. These will contaminate your images with color casts that will be difficult to correct in post-production. So, what kind of artificial light should you use? 

Well, strobe lights are standard equipment for food photographers. A strobe light is more powerful than most constant light sources, and the monohead strobes have a modelling lamp built into the head, which provides a small source of constant light.

Strobe light is a great source of lighting for food photography
Strobe lights are required equipment for food photographers.

For most shoots, you’ll need at least 300 watts of power on your strobes, but 500 watts is preferable. They’re not inexpensive, but it’s money well-spent. Strobe lights illuminate the entire lighting for food photography, thereby allowing you to capture exquisite detail in your image.  

Strobe light bursts, however, create light that doesn’t fall off quickly, so you’ll want to pair your strobe lights with a softbox diffuser, which is among the most common food photography props. But, even that might not be enough. You might need extra diffusers at the edge of your table to further soften the light.

2. Food Photography Props

In order to get that perfect image, you’re going to need a few props. You’ll need props that can help you get that soft light glow as well as scene props to accent the food you’re photographing. 

With the proper use of these props, you can shape the light you are using (whether natural or artificial), and you can better accentuate the properties of the food you’re photographing.

Lighting Props

For modifying your light sources, whether natural or artificial, you’ll need some basic tools. Most of these aren’t expensive or elaborate. A basic kit to get a soft, glowing light for your images includes the following: 

  • A white foam board for reflecting light
  • A black foam board for creating depth
  • A light diffuser

White Foam Board Reflector

A reflector can be used to bounce light back onto the setup. This will soften the shadows and cause them to appear feathered, and while the highlights will be bright and light, they will still be tamed to just the right degree. A white foam board should only cost you a couple of dollars at the craft store.

An important consideration for food photography setup is the placement of reflectors. Wherever the source of your light is located, you would have the reflector on the opposite side. You might also like to play around with setting up small reflectors, called bounce cards, to help with light distribution.

Black Foam Board for Depth

Sometimes, you want a harder light to create a more dramatic image. A black foam board can be used to take some of the light away from the scene, which has the effect of deepening the shadows and adding more contrast. Whether you desire to do this or not is based on the mood you want to create. Again, a black foam board is available at any craft store for a comfortable price.

Using a dark board in food photography setup can create more contrast and shadows as seen in this image of dessert
A dark board can remove light, creating more shadows and contrast.

Light Diffuser

This can be something as simple as parchment paper (i.e., baking paper) or a muslin cloth secured across the window to diffuse the hard light coming through. It scatters the light and leaves you with a soft glow for your image. Both parchment paper and muslin cloth are readily available and inexpensive. 

Parchment paper and muslin cloth can work, but a softbox will give you more flexibility. It is the most common light diffuser used for food photography. It is not expensive and it’s worth it to get as part of the basic equipment in your food photography lighting setup kit.

Scene Props

Scene props are the items you will display with the food. These would include plates, glasses, napkins, silverware, placemats and tablecloths. They enhance the image, but there are some things you’ll want to consider. 

Watch out for shine coming from some of your scene props. If you’re using artificial light, there is a tendency for it to catch the shine on shooting surfaces. You can try playing with prop placement or you can use a polarizing filter fitted to your lens to prevent this.

A dark background, as seen in this image of dumpling, keeps your images from looking grey

With regard to tablecloths or other background surfaces, dark surfaces are easier for one-light setups.

Until you get the hang of getting the height of your light just right, white surfaces can cause your image to look grey. You will, however, want something white in the image to help with adjusting your white balance–perhaps something as simple as a napkin placed to one side or underneath the plate.

3. Food Photography Angles

Another major consideration for food photography lighting setup is the angle of the light. There are several angles to consider. Among these are side lighting, backlighting and side backlighting, but you also have to consider what doesn’t work well. 

To some degree, the angle of the light depends on the food you are photographing, but it’s also important to consider the mood you want to create. Here are some of the things to think about when considering the different lighting angles.

Side Lighting

Side lighting is by far the most common angle used in food photography setup. But, on which side should you put the light? 

Our eyes tend to gravitate to the brightest part of an image, and in the Western world, we read from left to right. Therefore, most often it makes sense to have the light source coming from the left. Your eyes will start on the left of the image and travel across to the right side as you do when reading. If, on the other hand, you were shooting for someone in a country where they read from right to left, lighting on the right might be preferable. 

This is not, however, a hard and fast rule. In general this works well, but it really depends on your composition. If in doubt, you can always take an image with the light on the right and compare it to the same image with the light on the left. Then, you can choose which works best for your setup.


You also have the option of backlighting. This is particularly good for liquids, such as soups and beverages. It adds sheen and highlights the liquid properties of the food.

Backlighting really enhances the liquid property of foods such as soup and beverages as seen in this image of a glass of wine
Enhance the liquid property of soups and beverages.

While backlighting can work well, it can also result in uneven lighting. The back of the image can have too much light and the front can be too dark. Or, you might try to compensate by adding more light and just wash out the entire image. 

To help prevent the uneven distribution of light, you can try putting your diffuser between the table and your light source. Also, be sure to put reflectors around the sides of your scene. You might even place bounce cards on the table right around your subject.

Side Backlighting

You can have the best of both worlds with side backlighting, which can also be done on either side. You get the surface shine that is appealing with backlighting without overexposing the back of the image. That means you won’t have to reflect as much light onto the front of the food. 

With side backlighting, it will help to play around with the height of your light source. That will allow you to change the way the shadows fall on your scene.

Bad Angles

One important consideration with food photography angles is what doesn’t work. Front lighting–common with portraiture–does not work for food photography. It casts unwanted shadows and makes your images look flat. The same is true for overhead lighting. Unless there is some compelling reason to use these lighting angles, they are best avoided.

The right food photography lighting setup can help you capture mouth-watering images such as these apples
Capture mouth-watering images.

Key Takeaways

1. The key element to creating tantalizing food images is the lighting setup. You want natural lighting, but it often doesn’t cooperate with your schedule or location. Therefore, you need an artificial light source, such as strobe lights, to enhance or recreate natural lighting effects. You’ll also need props, such as diffusers and reflectors to sculpt the perfect light for your image.

2. Scene props are also important for your image, but you have to watch out for shine coming off the props. A polarizing filter can help with this as can simply moving the prop. And, you’ll want a dark background so you don’t end up with a grey image.

3. Getting the angle of the lighting right is also important. Side and backlighting are best, whereas front and overhead lighting angles do not work well for food photography setup.

Finally, post-production processing can help with problems like restoring the vibrancy of colors to washed out images, but if you don’t turn off indoor lights, even post-production processing may not be able to help. If you utilize these essential food photography lighting tips, you should be able to capture mouth-watering food images that will have people clamoring for a bite.

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Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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