Food can be photographed anywhere and anytime, given that a photographer has the right tools for the project. Photographing in a controlled environment indoors like in a full professional studio or a mini self-made studio can take a lot of effort to set up and can be very costly. But what if you do not have the required tools for the job or cannot afford a good lighting setup initially? You resort to using natural daylight, which is free for all, thankfully. And while daylight is available for us every day to use, it can be challenging to work with. In this short article, I will provide some tips on photographing food outdoors and talk about using very inexpensive tools that will make a huge difference when dealing with harsh lighting.
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If you are planning to photograph outdoors for a paid gig or as a personal project, your first step is to time the photo shoot correctly. While there are some great tools available that will come to your rescue if need be, selecting a desirable time of the day to photograph the process will always give you more flexibility and quicker results. Generally, food photography calls for soft, less contrasted and very appetizing frames. To achieve such look in a natural environment, pick a time during early mornings or late afternoons, when the light is very soft and the sun is not too direct and harsh. If it is a cloudy day, that’s even better, since clouds do an excellent job of diffusing light (with clouds, you can shoot any time of the day, no matter where you are). Simple and basic, but it works!
For commercial shoots, your client may not think about consulting you about the location of the shoot. But I would highly recommend scouting the place prior to the project day. If your clients want amazing photos, they should consider what you have to say, and most (if not all) clients will welcome your input. Much like you enjoy eating in a shaded area, rather than under a bright, burning sun, photographing under a large shade is ideal. If the timing of the shoot is not ideal, make an effort to choose a location under a large tree or a patio awning. This will give you beautifully wrapped light, as if you are photographing in a room with big windows (more on this later).
Here are some sample shots taken outside in a shaded area as illustrated in the above diagram:
While you may like using flash as fill light sometimes, I do not see much use in it when there is an abundance of natural light. What might be helpful during an outdoor shoot are silver reflectors, light diffusers and panels. In fact, if you are planning to shoot food outdoors, I wouldn’t leave the house without these nifty tools (you can get some “all in one” reflectors or reflector panels for cheap). A silver reflector is a great tool to give a beautiful fill and bring out the details from the shadows of the overall presentation. If you are bouncing direct light, a simple white reflector would serve the job better, since silver might be too powerful. Much like panels, simple white reflectors / diffusers will play a huge role if you have an issue of overabundance of direct sunlight. Both translucent panels and diffusers will shield the harsh light and give you an opportunity to photograph in a more controlled environment. Using these tools will ultimately make your job much easier and result in great looking and appetizing food.
Please note that the above diagram represents a reflector and a diffuser panel over the top of the subject, effectively softening sunlight. So you are looking at this diagram from the side, not the top. I could not find a way to illustrate this in 3D, but hopefully you get the idea.
4. Post Production
Ideally, you do not want to edit food photos too much. It is OK to remove unwanted objects in post, but try not to add too much texture, saturation, vibrance and sharpening – those could end up damaging your image. The closer to the natural, the better in my opinion. What I would pay a great deal of attention is the white balance of your photos. White Balance is not an issue if you shoot RAW, but if you choose to shoot in JPEG format, then make sure to set up your white balance in your camera before you start shooting. Play a tad bit with curves to add an instant punch and a little saturation of colors, if needed (again, make the food look natural). I wouldn’t recommend adding too much contrast to your photos as it may make the food look a little unappetizing.
I hope you find these short and simple tips useful. More to come!