Brooks Pro Tip: How to Set Up Lighting for Food Photography

January 9, 2013 Bill Robbins General, Photography, Brooks Pro Tips 0 Comments

Image by Bill Robbins

This piece is the first in a series of tips for food photography by Bill Robbins, Professional Photography faculty at Brooks Institute.

Project: Lighting an Apricot Tart

One of the most important elements of creating an outstanding photograph of food is the lighting. Besides having a tasty-looking dish to begin with, what will make or break the image will be how the viewer instantly reacts to the dish. If the light on the food is dull and boring, that will be how the viewer reacts to the food no matter how wonderful the food actually is in real life.

Whether you are lighting food with either natural or artificial light, one of the best practices is to have your light source off camera anywhere from 45 to 180 degrees (this refers to the position of the source relative to the camera position, not necessarily the height of the light).

What this positioning of the main light source does is gives us the ability to control the lighting ratio between the highlight side (created by main light) and the shadow (from the main light source). Using a reflector of some type (a white card or even a mirror), we then can control how much light we want to put into the shadow side. The difference between these two components (highlight and shadow) is what we call a ratio, which we now have control over.

The purpose of this technique is to show the shape/form and texture of the food; it also allows us to create a feel for a time and place, which when we add all of these up, gives us the ability to create an emotional response to the food.

In the example that I have included, you can see the direction of my light source is off camera right at about 120 degrees and at a height that helps create an interesting shadow. I used a small white card to bounce some light back into the subject from slightly camera left.

I used natural light (direct sunlight) modified through the use of several large glass bottles that you can see also make up a bit of the background. This light then creates interesting patterns on the plate while giving the “specular” highlights on the tart.

Not only was this fun to light and stage, but also it was really tasty when we got done shooting!

Bill Robbins is a faculty member and program chair of Professional Photography at Brooks Institute. See more of his work at or contact him at


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