The great thing about table top food photography is that professional results can be achieved with little more than a window and a camera. And often, we’re adding a “bounced” light to the setup to take some contrast away from the shadowy areas of an image. But all too often, I see even very experienced photographers placing their reflectors the wrong way, and I hope to shed some light on that subject…
NATURAL LIGHT SHOULD LOOK… NATURAL
Question: How many times have you found yourself in a location where the sun is lighting you (or your subject) from below?
Answer: Unless you’re hanging upside-down… probably never.
Sure, there are scenarios where light is bouncing up off water, or a concrete sidewalk, or you’re standing atop Mount Everest at sundown. But as a general rule, sunlight comes from the horizon or higher angles. A main light source coming from below produces a look that human brains and eyes are instinctively programmed to perceive as unnatural. Horror films utilize low-placed lights all the time to create eerie effects that tell us something is very wrong.
Shouldn’t the same rules apply towards your fill light in tabletop food photography? Yes, they should. In theory, the most efficient placement for a reflector or fill card is always directly opposite the light source. But with a sun high in the sky, or a window producing top-lighting, a strong fill light from below will also produce an eerie, unnatural effect.
PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE
In the image below, we’ve photographed bread products using only a large window. The light is coming from the side and above, producing a sort of “old masters” type still life. This photo could be used as-is, but perhaps our client doesn’t want such a high-contrast look? Time to fill in those shadows by adding a small white bounce card. (pictured)
The next two images show the effect of filling in shadows. Placed very close to the bread, the card is highly efficient at bouncing plenty of light back into the scene. Yet it’s small enough that it doesn’t get in the way and ruin our shot.
The image on the left is the result of placing the white bounce card at table-top height. The result is a fill light that is perhaps too strong, and coming from too low an angle. This created a “rim light” on the lower right side that is unnatural looking, and emphasizes the shape of the bread in an unflattering way.
In the image to right, now we’ve handheld the white card about 18 inches above the table, and pointing downward at an angle towards the bread. Notice the difference? The shadows are still greatly filled, but in a more realistic manner.
Fill light placement is key to creating believable, natural light images. These techniques we’ve discussed don’t only apply to table top food photography. I learned this through trial and error, working with models and actors and noticing how a low-placed reflector negatively effected my outdoor location portraits. I highly recommend you take the time to experiment with reflector placement on your own, and see how this impacts your photography in the studio and on location.