Food Photography 101: Lighting: Part One

Photography lighting part 1

And we’re back to Food Photography 101! I apologize for not getting this post up on Thursday. Work was kind of crazy this week and I just didn’t have it in me to get a post up. Today we are going to start to get into lighting, but since it is Saturday, we are going to keep it short today.

At first, my crazy self thought I could squeeze everything about lighting into one post and then I quickly realized that I was very wrong so I am going to split our discussion about lighting into three parts. Today we will discuss some general points in regards to natural lighting, next week we will talk about controlling lighting using your DSLR, and then in the third post, we will talk about artificial lighting and other tools you can use to help with lighting. Sound good?

Natural light vs. artificial lighting

A big topic of discussion amongst food bloggers is natural light vs. artificial light. Me personally? I’m in the natural light camp. For me, natural light is key for my photos. Despite all of the photo lights I do have, I am never happy with my photos when I only use artificial lighting. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people that use only artificial lighting and in fact I know there are some bloggers out there who can take some pretty great photos using artificial lighting, but it just doesn’t work for me.

Truthfully, I used artificial lighting more often when I was just using my point and shoot camera. Since I’ve started using a DSLR, I rarely have to break out my artificial lights because I can manipulate lighting with my camera. However, I do use them occasionally when the natural light that I do have is not so great. In other words, I use artificial lighting as a supplement to natural light. We will be talking more about artificial lighting later, but I’d like to take a step back and talk about the first steps you can take to start off with for learning to use natural light.

1. Find a place in your house that will give you the best natural light.

Let me show you where I take my photos:

Dining Table mark

Yup, my dining room table. I’m keeping it real here, people. There is nothing glamorous about this set up. On one end of the table, you’ll see my pile of crap: cell phone, keys, glass of water, mail, remote control, etc.. Our townhouse is not very big so I don’t have the luxury of having a special room dedicated for blogging and taking photos. And I bet if you went and asked some of your favorite bloggers whose photos you admire to show you their set up, you are probably going to see something similar to mine. We take what we can get!

Aside from not having a lot of other options, my dining table is really the best spot in my house to take photos because of the two windows. I get both back lighting and side lighting (which, btw, is the best type of lighting, front lighting can often result in harsh shadows). I also like using this table because it is right next to my kitchen so it makes it easy for me to go back and forth when I need things. My set up is very portable. Every day after I am done taking photos, I can easily put everything away. My kitchen is really small, but it has a really large walk-in pantry and closet so I keep all of my equipment and props near by.

2. Find a time period where the natural light is best for taking photos.

One of the biggest challenges for me with blogging is finding the time to take my photos. The best times for me to take photos is between 11am and 3pm. In the summer, I could sometimes get away with taking photos as late as 5pm. Depending on where you live, the direction your house faces, and where in your house you have your set up, you’ll have to experiment to find the time frame that is best for you. You’ll want to find a time when the lighting is just right. For example, in my old apartment, I had a hard time taking photos before noon because I got a lot of direct sunlight so it was way too bright. In my current townhouse, the buildings are closer together so I actually never really get direct sunlight which can sometimes be good, but it also can mean that it is too dark.

I work full-time so during the week I do not have the time to sneak in a photo shoot during this time period. I leave early and by the time I get home, the natural light is not optimal. This means that my weekends are taken up with blogging. Sundays are my blog days. My husband and I run our errands and do our shopping on Saturday so that I can have Sunday to stay home (I can’t imagine how this will work out when we finally have kids!). So because of this, I often feel like my weekends are really crazy. I am usually trying to prepare and photograph 2-3 recipes in one day and that’s a lot of work! On the other hand, it can be relaxing because for those few hours, I’m not thinking about work and I’m getting to do what I love which is cooking! If I fall behind on a weekend, I will sometimes wake up 30 minutes earlier than normal so I can take some photos before heading off to work.

The first steps in learning to use natural light are to:

1. Find the best location in your home that is both practical and will give you the best natural light .

2. Find a time where natural light is optimal and try to take your photos during that time frame.

I realize that the first three posts of this series have been very wordy, but I promise that you that next week, we are going to start getting technical and will get into controlling lighting with basic settings on your DSLR! Stay tuned!

So, tell me, do you use natural light or artificial lighting? Both? And what are your biggest challenges with lighting?



  1. I always wonder how full time workers find good natural light time, thanks for the open look at your life! Love the picture of your table – my #1 spot for photos is our toy box, which is usually surrounded by toys and I eek out a 1.5 square foot area on top :) Otherwise it’s my living room coffee table – with 3 kids you can guess how tidy that space usually is too :) Definitely makes you get creative! I don’t think I’d want a dedicated “blogging room”, I’d probably wander around my house looking for different lighting/backdrops anyway.

  2. Love this topic…

    After my first few months of taking photos on my counter with a flash (gasp… the horror)… I moved outside for a very long time. I still could not get one photo into foodgawker due to white balance etc.. I finally started taking my photos in my kitchen next to my patio doors and that only gave room for a small little table so all my first photos were up close (deer in headlight) looking dishes.

    I finally moved into the living room bay window area and that’s where I get the best light. I set up a card table, bought boards from Lowes… and some reflectors. I actually get the best light on overcast days… weird.. huh? When it’s really bright and sunny… it causes too many shadows (even with a diffuser).

    I have to usually cook between 11am -1pm for best lighting… since I’m facing East.

    I love that your dining room has light from two directions. Thanks for this post. :)

    PS… looking forward to Crockpot week. :)


    • Sometimes it takes awhile to figure it all out! I agree, really sunny days are not so good, but since I live in a townhouse where the buildings are close together, it actually works to my advantage in that regard. Late morning and early afternoon are best for me as well!

  3. I so agree with natural light (and slightly ghetto workspaces :-) ) Our new house has a little guest room that I’m using as my sewing/photography room since it has a nice big window that we stuck a $20 ikea table in front of for shoots. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get decent shots with artificial light, though. I bought a nice light kit, have messed with my ISO, white balance, etc and just get consistently crappy shots. So, for now, I blog only on sunny days.

    • It doesn’t work for me either. The white balance is off and I can just tell it’s artificial and that bugs me. Some people know how to make it work though! I can photograph on some overcast days unless it is really cloudy, but we don’t have a lot of cloudy days in the desert!

  4. First of all, I’m agree with everything you said in this blogpost about natural light, Since I use Point and shoot camera natural light is the “key” to get a better pictures to me, Between my full time job I just try to find the time that you mention above, I would say, in the summer time, I take pictures in the diining room early evening, and I take picture late morning in my day off but not often though, I don’t like to cook in the morning :)
    I have little table so I can move around anywhere to get the best natural light sources but not direct to the sun light. Again Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Yeah, I agree 100%. I sometimes have to resort to artificial light and the color is often off (even adjusting the white balance) plus the shadows look unnatural. Great post!

  6. I am still working on this in my new house. So far my photos haven’t been that great because the lighting has been off.

  7. The pictures I take are probably pretty embarrassing, but as I was reading your post I was thinking of the perfect spot in my house where I can take pictures using natural light. I live in a townhouse as well, but I think tomorrow I’m going to try taking a few better photos.

  8. Stephanie!! Today for the first time the light was in the right place at the right time for me to play with natural lighting (well maybe not the first time ever, but the first time in months!) and I totally thought of you–your photos are such an inspiration for me to make it happen! Loving this whole series!

    • Awww, that’s great, Ari! It’s not always easy to time my photo shoots. And I feel like we have a lot of cloudier days on Sunday when I am needed to take photos, lol!

  9. Pingback: Food Photography 101: Lighting: Part Two - Eat. Drink. Love.

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