Those terrible Instagram photos of food? Yeah, you know the ones. Some of us may be guilty of posting said terrible photos (looks away shyly). But if you're serious about turning those tasty treats into photographic feats, Kevin Clark is the man to help you do that. The key to a gotta-have-it-now photo of a puff pastry? The lighting. Those dim fluorescents at your local diner aren't doing your flavours any favours.
I started photographing food more than 10 years ago when a good friend suggested we team up. He's a great chef—fantastic at presentation—so he would do the styling and I would make the photographs. But we quickly learned that styling food for a photograph is not the same as preparing it for a meal. And since I first aimed my camera at something delicious-looking only to find that in post-production that it looked gross at best and inedible at worst, I've come to know a few things about what makes a successful image of food.
Here are my top five ways to make photographs that look good enough to eat:
1. Keep It Simple
I like to communicate things cleanly without a fuss; clutter doesn't work well in photographs. Our world is full of distractions so it's necessary to focus on what's important: the food. Everything else should blend into the background.
2. Make the Food the Hero
The food should be front and center, but not literally; the most visual weight needs to fall on the food, not the napkins, the plate, or the flowers in the background. In many publications, I have trouble finding the food through the distracting tablecloth patterns, clashing colours, and over-lit table scenes. Avoid creating a jumble in your photographs.
3. Use Backlighting
It might be an overstatement to say that backlighting is key, but it does help to bring out the shine, texture, and dimension of food. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that lighting should generally come from behind and from the side, but not from the front. I use frontal lighting all the time in portraiture because it’s great for getting rid of lines and texture in the skin. But you want the opposite for food—you want to emphasize the shape, colour, and texture. The lighting I used in this exercise is very simple and looks natural, but can be extremely versatile and modified in many different ways.
4. Bounce Your Light Around
This is a variation of my “bounce-the-light-off-whatever-I-can-find” setup where I used my white studio walls and two white V-flats to create a u-shaped wall of light behind and to each side of the set.
I did a shoot in the back kitchen of a very busy restaurant where my stylist and I were shoved into a 6' x 8' space. Fortunately, the walls were white tile and the pots and steel shelves were all a neutral metallic, so I used this same technique that I'm and produced twelve beautiful shots that looked like they were lit with soft + natural window light. I pointed two Elinchrom D-lite 2s lights with bare bulbs set at full power at the white wall, angled slightly toward the two V-flats, firing them with Pocket Wizards. I also used a 4" square silver reflector and a small strip of silver card (approximately 1" high by 6" deep), bent in a gentle curve so it would sit upright. I placed a 2' x 3' black foam core card over the set, held by a Manfrotto magic arm. I covered the tabletop with a piece of black textured paper that I purchased at an art supply store. The dishes are saucers from a trip to Ethiopia a few years back, and the sushi is straight from a local takeout.
In the image above, I relied heavily on backlighting. The main source of light (the white wall) is directly behind the set. The two V-flats are positioned on either side and mostly behind the set. This backlit “u” shape creates a real wrap-around effect that requires very little or no fill. The black table top piece sticking up six inches behind the set keeps the black paper surface dark. I wanted some light spilling on it for texture, but I didn't want to contaminate it with a lot of backlighting. The next critical element is the black foam core you see above the set (discussed below).
This image is a modification of the previous photo. I moved the set 90 degrees and now the light (the wall) is to camera left. Most of the light is now coming from behind and to the left. This makes the look of the light a bit more contrasty and directional. I've added two reflectors on a 4" silver reflector and the 6" silver strip reflector on camera right to fill areas that have fallen into shadow.
5. Modify Your Light to Bring Out Texture and Shine
The black foam core panel that hangs over the set that I previously mentioned is my secret weapon for controlling the texture and shine that give the pictures that three-dimensional quality.
The photo on the left has nice, even lighting that shows the sushi well, but it lacks drama; it's boring. In the photo on the right, the texture and shine of the fish really pop, and the rice looks more three-dimensional. The difference between the two is the addition of the black card over the set. I used it to force the light to come in at a low angle, which focuses the way the light interacts with the subject. I control it by lowering it up and down until I find the look I'm going for; I often use this technique with natural light as well.
I like lighting that looks natural, or less obviously "lit." My inspiration comes from natural light, where ambient fill bounces from the sky, ground, buildings, and walls. I replicate that fill by using large, soft, bounce sources, which is a starting point for what you can do. Try adding a hard light source into the mix like a speedlight; you’ll be surprised how much it looks like the early morning sun. Use diffusion between the light source and the subject to play with the specular highlights on cutlery and shiny surfaces. Throw in other flags and reflectors, big or small, to modify the result. Find your recipe for the look you're going for; it's all an experiment in taste!
Kevin's eBook, Great Light, Easy Light, is a hands-on guide to help you understand how to make a scene look more natural. With diagrams showing one, two, and three-light setups and several case studies, Kevin provides the formulas so you can learn how he tweaks and alters the subtleties of light.Kevin Clark is a 25-year photography veteran of the commercial and advertising industry. He specializes in headshots for film and television and has photographed hundreds of stars. Kevin is a master of studio shooting and his expertise in advanced lighting technique is renowned. His niche work extends to high-production food, beverage, and lifestyle photography produced in his Vancouver, BC studio. See more of Kevin's work on his website.