An Insider's Look At Food Photography
"If You Can Shoot Food, You Can Shoot Anything!" Page 3

Most of my work is done with at least two and as many as eight lights. If you count the reflectors, there are sometimes as many as 12 light sources in my images. However, there is always one main or "key" light that has more power than any other light source. I always want to see the shadow cast by this light, regardless of how many lights fill those shadows. The correct placement of the key light can be determined by asking yourself the questions, "What is the most important feature of my subject, and what do I want to make sure people see? What is the main selling point I want to emphasize? Is it texture, shape, or color?" Once you have answered that question for yourself, place your key light following the guidelines below.

The different lights I use as a key light are as follows:
· A small softbox 2x3 foot.
· The same softbox with the front diffusion panel removed.
· A large softbox.
· A lamp head with a 7 or 9" reflector with a grid (a grid attaches to the front of a reflector and has holes in it to make the light more directional and focused).
· A lamp head with reflector and barn doors.
· A lamp head with reflector pointed through a panel of tracing paper or diffusion cloth.
· A lamp head with a snoot (a device that fits on the front of the lamp head or reflector and creates a spotlight effect).
· The sun low in the sky--usually diffused through cloth or tracing paper.
· The sun coming through a skylight or window.

If the texture on the top of the item is the most important, or if you want to show steam rising from the subject, put the key light low and behind the item and light from the rear. The light will rake across the textured top of the subject and the shadows cast will emphasize the texture. In the case of steam or smoke, light from the rear shines light through the steam, making it bright white and draws the eye to it. Drinks are also usually lit from the rear, to bring out the translucent character and color of the liquid. I have used rear lighting for shooting pie with a crumb topping, steam rising from grilled chicken or coffee, and for water splashes.
If you are shooting soup or something wet and glossy, top lighting will create nice reflections and highlights. I have used top lighting for grilled meat, fruit salad, soups, cobbler, and salsa. Softboxes usually work the best for top lighting. You will want a second light source with top lighting, usually coming from the front left or right. This could be a reflector or a second softbox.
Sidelighting is useful when you want to show the shape of something, or to emphasize texture. I have used sidelighting for a display of bread or pastry, and for raw fruit or vegetable arrangements.

Pumpkin pie with struddle topping, photographed for client Bonert's Slice of Pie. Backlit with a strobe head using a 7" reflector and grid. Softboxes fill from the top and front right. Food styling was by Janet Miller, known for her many "Bon Appétit" magazine covers.

I use lighting from the front and to one side or the other if I want to create bright highlights on the front of the dish, or to show its wetness or texture. I usually use side/front lighting for extreme close-ups or food macro images. I never put my key light directly in front of the subject at the same angle as the camera, as this creates flat, boring light shadows falling behind the subject. Besides, you want to make the food look like you just sat down to eat it, and light from directly in front of the food would be blocked by your body if you were sitting at a table.

Bottom lighting is used when I want to show light coming through my subject. I did a shot of a bottle of beer sitting in ice with bottom light. I had two wooden apple boxes set about 2 ft apart, with a piece of glass sitting on top of them. There was a clear refrigerator storage box full of ice on top of the sheet of glass. The beer was laid in the plastic box, and the ice placed around it. A lamp head with a snoot attached was on the end of a boom, and was underneath the setup pointed up toward the sheet of glass. The bottom light showed through the ice and the bottle, making the beer look cold, wet, and refreshing. Without bottom light the ice looked dark and dirty, and the beer could not be seen.

Reflectors are vital to food photography. Beginning professional or amateur photographers with a budget for only one or two lights can create photographs with dozens of light sources by using reflectors. In addition to the large round reflectors sold in photography stores and large flat white foamcore sheets from art supply stores, tabletop photographers need many small reflectors. Small shaving mirrors can be used to pick up light and put it exactly where you want it; however, they are very bright and can create odd-looking rectangular pools of light if not used carefully. Small pieces of aluminum foil can be shaped into reflectors and placed around the table, with either its shiny side or dull side out as needed.

The most useful small reflectors I have are those I have made from silver cardstock from my local art store (more on this later). Place the tabletop reflectors where they pick up your key light, and bounce the light into the shadow areas of the food. Angle the reflectors so that they create glossy highlights in the wet areas of food. Use white reflectors for softer fill, silver for bright fill, mirrors for strong fill, and gold for warm fill.

Indispensably useful reflectors can be made from cardstock found at your local art store. The paper that I use is a light 12-point cardstock, shiny silver on one side and white on the other. It is called "mirror silver" in my store. They also have mirror gold, which can be used for warming up an area of your photo.

You want to cut the paper up into strips of about 6, 10, and 14" wide. You will want some tall strips and some short ones. You will then put three folds in the paper so that it forms a tall triangle, with a 1-3" flap at the bottom that can be taped to the inside of the triangle. The reflector has to sit on a table by itself, so the base of the triangle needs to be large enough to support it. Changing where the flap is taped on the inside changes the angle of the front surface of the reflector. You can create white or silver reflectors by changing which side of the cardstock faces out.

An Ice Cream Adventure
Early in my career as a food photographer I decided to make an ice cream shot for my portfolio. I had read about using fake ice cream, but I wanted to find a way to use the real thing. So I bought 20 lbs of dry ice, called a food stylist friend, and we went to work. The food stylist took out a perfect scoop of ice cream and left it in the scoop. I hollowed out an area in the center of the flat side of the ice cream scoop and placed a chunk of dry ice in the hollowed opening. Then I placed the ice cream on a plate and stuck the plate on a slab of dry ice in an ice chest and left it there for an hour. While I got my lights set up, the stylist decorated a plate with yogurt swirls, and we were ready. I took the ice cream scoop out of the chest using gloved hands and slid it onto the hero plate on the table and photographed it. I was using a Hasselblad 500 CM and shot two rolls of 120 film in about 10 minutes. The ice cream didn't drip, melt, or move for the next half hour. It was so hard I think you could have thrown it at somebody's head and knocked them out with it!

Equipment List
Cameras, Lenses, And Digital Backs: Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro digital camera body; Nikon N80 camera body; Nikon 18-35mm ED AF zoom; Nikon 60mm AF macro; Nikon 70-300mm ED AF zoom; Mamiya RZ Pro II medium format system; Mamiya 645 AFD kit with 35mm, 55-110mm zoom, and 120mm macro lenses; Toyo-View 4x5 with Rodenstock lenses; 16-megapixel Phase One P20 digital camera back
Lighting And Accessories: Nikon Speedlight SB-800; 2 Speedotron 2403 power packs; 3 Speedotron 103 Black Line 2400 ws heads with 7" reflectors; 9, 11, and 16" reflectors; grids; barn doors; snoots; 2 Photogenic PowerLight 1250 500 ws monolights; Photoflex small, medium, and large softboxes; Bogen light stands and booms; Bogen tripods
Computers, Printers, And Memory Cards: Apple PowerBook G4; Apple Power Mac G4; Compaq Presario 500; Epson Photo Stylus 785 EPX; Lexar 1GB CompactFlash cards.

Note: All images appearing in this article were taken with the Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro. For jobs requiring larger file sizes I rent a Phase One H20 back and mount it on my Mamiya RZ.

Dennis Davis is a commercial photographer based in Southern California specializing in food. His food clients have included cookbook publishers, grocery store chains, fast food restaurant chains, food magazines, food manufacturers, and advertising agencies. His work can be seen at:,, and

bartleyridgeorg's picture

Great Post. I have not been visiting the site recently. Took a visit again and there were some great comments on the site. Excellent post. Keep up the good work.
Bartley Ridge

prakasharige's picture

I don't know that shooting food is that much difficulty. After reading your Article, I would like to say that "Yes" it is extremely difficult to shoot food. Thanks for the Blog Post. Asia Wok

aglaja's picture

This is a great advice! I actually i take pictures to the food i cook but it didn't cross my mind to take this hobby to another level. I thought that taking photos for my Frozen Yogurt Solutions would be enough for my career but i will try something else too.