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Food Photography With Natural Light – Quick Guide

What Is Natural Lighting ?

As opposed to artificial light which you produce from the use of equipment, natural light is any light which comes from the sun. While natural light will never cost you a penny there are some things you need to know about using natural light for food photography. 

Photo by Robin Stickel on Unsplash

How Is Natural Light Different To Artificial Light?

The main difference between natural light and artificial light is your level of control. With natural light you can’t control it, but you can modify it.

While you can pull curtains to reduce the amount of light entering a room and use diffusers and reflectors to modify the light, you have no power over the sun. 

One day the sky could be sunny while the next day it could be cloudy. If it’s partly cloudy the sun could be constantly moving in and out of clouds during a shoot so your lighting just won’t be constant. One minute your cupcakes could be gleaming in sunlight while the next minute they could be in the dark.

With artificial light as your main source of light, you will be in complete control because the artificial light is always constant and you can arrange your settings and your set so that the conditions stay the same. 

While we are mainly talking about intensity of light here you also need to know about the colour temperature and how that changes.

Colour Temperature Of Natural Light? You DON’T Want Your Food To Go Blue

Light has different colour temperatures depending on the time of day which is measured on a kelvin scale which ranges from warm red tones to cool blue tones. 

For example during golden hour at sunset/sunrise the sunlight will have warmer orange and red tones.

On the other hand at blue hour the sun will have cooler blue tones.

At midday the sunlight is more white and doesn’t have much of a colour cast to it. This is around 5600k (kelvin is used for the colour temperature scale) and you will sometimes see artificial light bulbs labelled with their colour temperature with a kelvin value.

As a food photographer you will want to keep the natural look of the food for it to look most appealing. To accomplish this you will probably want to avoid photographing during blue hour and golden hour to avoid the food being colour casted too much with warmer or cooler tones.

When considering colour temperature the best time to use natural light will be throughout the middle of the day.

If you want to be consistent you can shoot at the same time of day every day to keep.your lighting more constant. But keep in mind that parts of the world which are far from the equator have sunrise and sunset timings that vary greatly depending on the time of year. On the other hand countries near the equator have sunrise and sunset timings that stay more constant. 

Direct And Diffused Light

Direct Light 

Direct light is harsh and causes more contrasting shadows and highlights. If you were shining a light bulb straight onto a subject this would be direct light. Direct sunlight can cause glaring and can be especially problematic if you are using lots of shiny materials like metal or glass. An example of direct light would be sunlight on a day with little or no cloud cover.

Use direct sunlight only if you want to cause a lot of contrast between shadows and highlights. But keep in mind that your camera may struggle to capture all the data accurately due to limits on dynamic range.

Diffused Light

Diffused light is light which has passed through something which lowers the intensity and diffuses it by altering its angles. Diffused light will cause softer shadows and gives you a more evenly lit scene compared to direct light.

With artificial light this is normally done by a large diffuser /softbox. When it comes to natural light clouds can act as a natural diffuser. On a very sunny day with no clouds, the natural light is not diffused so you would definitely want to use your own diffuser to modify the natural light. 

Most of the time you will be using diffused light since it tends to have the most visually appealing and elegant look. 

Photo by Jacob Schwartz on Unsplash

How To Plan A Shoot Around Natural Light?

Since natural light is dependent on the weather you will want to have a look at the weather when planning your shoot. This is especially important with food photography because sometimes your food item may only be perfect to photograph for a small window of time.

Keep in mind what kind of look you want to go for. If you want deep shadows and strong specular highlights you will want to shoot on a very sunny day near a window that gets plenty of sun. 

On the other hand if you want a softer look to your photo you will want to shoot on a more cloudy day or have access to your own form of diffusion.

In any case you will want plenty of modifiers to help you achieve the exact look that you want.

How To Position Your Lighting For Food And Drink

When shooting food with natural light you should be setting up near a window and using the window as your main light source. 

Since your only light source is a window you can’t move your light source. So you have to move your set around accordingly to achieve the best look. 

In food photography popular ways to light are the use of backlighting , side lighting or somewhere in between (side-backlighting).

Any of the above can work for most food and drinks photographs so play around and find your favourite. Just place your set infront of your light source and orientate it the right way based off your lighting requirement. 

If you are backlighting, place the back of the subject facing the light source. 

If you are side lighting place the subject at a 90 degree angle to the light source – choose its best side! 

Front lighting is generally avoided because it an make pictures look flat so they aren’t as visually appealing. 

Backlighting tends to work best with liquids because the light can shine through drinks and give it a glow but for solid foods you might struggle to have the front of the scene to be well lit enough. We will cover how to remedy this in our section on modifying light with reflectors. 

But first let’s look at how you will diffuse your light…

How To Diffuse Natural Light? 

Now that you have your light source you need to choose how you will diffuse the light. If you are using a window you will probably want a large diffusion material and you can use a foldable diffuser or sheets /rolls of diffusion fabric which you can hang over a stand. 5 in 1 foldable reflectors can also be used for diffusion.

Diffusion material will be white and translucent to allow light through without altering the colour. You can use coloured diffusion for creative effect, but for food photography we will stay away from it for now.

Check out the following links for price and availability on Amazon: 

You could even just use a white piece of fabric or cloth or baking paper to diffuse light. 

How To Position Your Diffusion

Your diffusion material should be between your subject and the light source. 

One thing you need to also consider is the distance between the light source and the diffusion material. If you play around with the positioning you should notice that the amount that the light is diffused changes. 

If it is quite a cloudy day where light is already quite diffused you might not notice the effect of the varying the positioning of the diffusion material as much. But on a day of very harsh sunlight you should. 

Sometimes you may need more than one layer of diffusion if the lighting is still too harsh so just double up on the layers. It is important to keep this in mind because you may want to have more than 1 diffuser in your kit.

In general, the harsher the light the more diffusion material you will need.

Remember to consider where you will be shooting since everybody will have a slightly different set up. Depending on how big your window is and the space available you may have to choose different sized diffusers. 

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

How To Use Reflectors With Natural Light For Food Photography

So you’ve picked light source (window) and diffusion so what else can you do? 

Reflectors are used in addition to diffusers to modify light further and give you even more control over your scene. 

The main reflectors will be white and black: 

White reflector 

White is used to fill light in. For example if you are backlighting a scene you can place a white reflector in the front of the scene to bounce light back into the scene to ‘fill’ the darker areas with more light. 

This works because white reflects light well.

Black reflector

On the opposite end of the spectrum you can use a black surface as a negative fill and as the name suggests it works in the opposite way as a white reflector.

A black reflector will take light away from a scene and cause harsher shadows. This is because black absorbs light.

Let’s use an example to see how negative fill can work:

In this example we have a side lighted subject so the window is to the side of the subject. Lets assume the window is to the left of the subject in the composition. 

You realised that it is a fairly cloudy day and the scene is quite evenly lit, but you want just a bit more contrast and some darker shadows on the right hand side of the composition. 

To do this you would place a black reflector as a negative fill on the right hand side of the composition and the shadows on the right hand side of the composition should be darker. 

For both white and black reflectors your can use pretty much anything including the following:

  • Bedsheets
  • Pieces of card
  • Foam core
  • 5 in 1 reflectors 

Should You Use Natural Light For Food Photography

Using natural light vs artificial light is normally a matter of preference, but if you are going to be shooting food photography for clients then artificial lighting will allow you to have the level of efficiency and control that natural lighting cannot provide. 

Since food can change appearance fast you want to be able to shoot fast and efficiently. Also artificial lighting will let you shoot at any time of day regardless of the level of light outside. 

While artificial lighting is probably superior for food photographers it is worth knowing how to use natural light as it will help you improve your understanding of how light works.

Who knows, one day you might be in a pinch where you will have to make do with only what nature gives you!


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