I am sometimes asked, how I do light my photos, if there is a general setting for my lighting, which light source I use and so on. This question isn't that easy to answer, because beside the technical side, lighting is a very personal way in composing images. Especially in food photography lighting is essential and you have to find your own light.
For the technical stuff and background information I would suggest the reading of:
Lou Manna: Digital Food Photography. Beside covering the various aspects of food photography in detail (e.g. composition with great examples), the book is also covering the topic of lighting in food photography.
Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, Paul Fuqua: Light - Science & Magic. This introduction to photographic lighting is covering all the aspects of lighting from scientific background to application. It is a great textbook.
My Lighting Equipment:
Natural Light from windows. I use it whenever I can, because I like the differences it is producing, although the pace at it will change can be hard sometimes.
Artificial Light Bulbs (5000 K), stands and equipment. When there isn't enough light or when I want to reproduce a very defined lighting, I am using artifical steady light bulbs. The light bulbs I'm using do not get hot, they still get a little warm though, but nothing you would have to worry about in food photography.
I have various white foam boards of different sizes for fill light. The white styrofoam has the advantage, that the surface is irregular, so that the reflected light is softened a bit.
Silver and golden foil for stronger and harder fill lights. I fix these foils often on the foam boards. The golden foil will produce a more yellow (warmer) fill light. I use it seldom in food photography. The silver foil will produce a stronger fill light than the white foam board. You can bend the foil to produce fill light covering different directions onto the object, so that you can get an almost shadow less object.
Black card boards and papers to shade areas or to "direct" light. By excluding light from certain areas you can create a kind of light beam situation.
Small mirrors. I have several of them for effect light and for a strong fill light in certain areas.
Translucent papers will help you to soften (a too hard) light source. I have them in different sizes and can mount them on litle sticks to just shade certain areas. This is useful for example, when you want to reduce highlights which are too strong.
Sheer Curtain. I'm often using a pieces of sheer curtain to smooth (soften) light. This will soften also hard shadows. Especially useful when using natural light from a window.
There is no standard recipe for that, although I do prefer a back light or side light. I seldom use a front lighting. Beside a main light source (main light direction) I have often a fill light from opposite direction of main light source to control shadows. Angle of light and strength of light are depending on what I want to get in my photo, there is no general way to photograph food.
Find your own Light:
Lighting is essential part of the composition. Try to envisage the photo prior you do it. Think of the lighting before taking the photo. Should it be bright or more mysteriously dark? Should it reflect a direct natural light or a more soft still life light? Should it create certain effects? You can't think of lighting without taking the food into account. How do you want the food to appear in the photo? Are there stronger contrasts in the food you have to take care of (e.g. bright and dark parts)? Dark food is "eating" light and in combination with bright food you may have to use a strong main light and shade the brighter parts or you have to use a strong fill light for the darker parts to balance the lighting in these different areas. And because lighting is central part of the composition it is a very personal thing. You have to find your own way, which is a process. The (technical) basics are described in the books mentioned above.
How to learn lighting:
Take a look at many food photographs and analyze them. Find out how they might have been done in lighting. Where is the main light source? What is about shadows? Lighting angle (high or leveled). Is it a soft lighting without hard shadows or is it more structural light creating defined shadows? What is the mood of lighting? Is it bright and sunny, mysterious, dark, cozy, warm, cold, stylish, fancy? How is the lighting for different types of food?
And if you like a certain kind of lighting, try to re-create it. Try to find out how it was done and try to realize it in one of your own photos. In most cases you will end up with something completely different, but in this process you will learn much about lighting.
Try to "see light". This can be done always. Try to analyze the light surrounding you. What is the difference between light in the morning or afternoon; on a sunny or cloudy day. Do it where you like to take your photos and you will learn how to use the light more effectively in the area where you take your photos. Is there a time of day, when light is "best" for you?
And learn from and with others. Talk and discuss about food photography, composition and lighting. Let other critize your photos. You can learn much more from your mistakes than you might expect. If someone doesn't tells you, that the lighting in your photo doesn't work, how will you ever find out? Everyone likes to get compliments on their photos, but the value of a honestly ment review is much more. It gives you something to work on and to improve your skills. A place for such a discussion on the internet is the "Food Photography Club", where members and also non-members can discuss about foo photography in detail. I and others have created this group on Flickr a while ago just for the purpose to learn from each other and to have an in-depth discussion on food photography.
Interested in further posts? I will post some more about food photography in the future (follow the label photography in my blog). If you are interested in a post about Hard light, Soft light you should read the post about it in Alessandro's blog Food-o-grafia
If ou like this post you may also like "Let there be Light!"