The Importance of Natural Light in Food Photography / by Nic Crilly-Hargrave

One of the key phrases you’ll always hear when learning about photography is that “photography is the art of painting with light”. Yes it is that important because if you’re a restaurant food photographer, you especially never want to shoot beautiful food in bad light. Try as they might, restaurants like to throw a whole bunch of variables into your shot when trying to do your job. Tungsten bulbs, direct light from a light fixture above the tables, different coloured lights coming from multiple sources around the space - If you’ve been shooting long enough then you know there have been times when your brain tells you the light is ‘white’ only to import your photos in and your editing software to show you otherwise.

When I walk into a restaurant or cafe for a shoot the most important thing I do is scope out the space in order to find out where I will get the most natural light to play with. The best table is always the window seat with bright daylight outside and filtered light coming through to the table. This turns it into a large softbox with a creative range of shooting options.

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But even when you get the best table in the place, natural light will throw up challenges - whether it be morning, midday, afternoon, during golden hour or when there’s cloud cover - and alter the types of photographs you capture. Direct sunlight will blow out your whites which is why I prefer a nice layer of cloud cover to diffuse the harshness of the sunlight as the best light is soft, abundant and angled.

If you find yourself stuck inside a restaurant dining and wanting to get a killer shot of your food, it’s totally find to pick up your dish and take it to a window to shoot it. Just ensure you don’t take too long as chefs intend the food to be eaten fresh and hot, as close to what they send out from the pass.

Also stay away from LED light panels that are currently in fashion for the blogger and influencer sets. There is absolutely nothing natural about that type of lighting and it will only damage the shot you take. Photos you get will look like they have had a harsh light pointed at them. And then if you add a level of saturation that makes the food look like it’s been cooked in the reactor of Chernobyl then there’s nothing left to do to help you.

Just remember: good food in bad light is a failed photo.