Dramatic lighting is one of my very favorite lighting techniques to use with food photography. Very often you’ll be told to use lots of reflectors & find spaces with big open, bright windows. While that’s great for some shots, it’s not something I like to do all the time. In fact, I’d say I’m much more drawn to my shots where I’ve made excellent use of the shadows & really pushed the limits of lightness & dark.
Interested in backlighting for food photography? Read more.
4 Dramatic Lighting Tips for Food Photography
No.01Proper White Balance
I’ve found white balance can make or break a dramatic image. If you’re not setting your white balance in camera I definitely recommend starting today! I prefer to use the kelvin method. Once my white balance is set I know I’m that much closer to achieving the look I want in post processing & I’ve made my life a bit easier. If I’ve totally missed my white balance in camera but don’t realize until I’ve uploaded, it usually means a lot more editing to correct. The problem then becomes that you’re relying on your editing system or your eye to correct that white balance (which can be problematic) with dramatic lighting. In my experience, for some reason, white balance correction is much easier with a bright image so if I’m shooting with dramatic, moody lighting, nailing that in camera white balance is essential.
No.02Single Light Source
As natural light, indoor photographers it’s totally natural to look for spaces with huge open windows. The more light the better, right? When trying to achieve a look with dramatic lighting, it’s actually much better to find a single, directional light source. I do this by closing all the curtains in my house & then opening one single shade. I even play around with how open I’ll have the shade depending on how much contrast I’m going for. I also make sure every other light is turned off in my house because I want the rest of my space as dark as possible. The only light reaching your subject should be from the single light source. No reflectors, either! Embrace those beautiful shadows. Don’t hesitate to also move your subject around in relation to your light source. Because we’re shooting food & not wiggly toddlers, you’ve got time to play around with moving your subject closer to the light. Then further away. See which looks the best to you.
When shooting in high contrast lighting, I’ve found that while metering off of the brightest part of my subject, I’m still typically underexposed according to my meter. I’ve learned that I don’t pay much attention to my meter anymore when I’m shooting for dramatic light. Instead, I use my LCD screen as my guide & my eye let’s me know the look I’m going for. All that to say, don’t be chained to that meter. If you’re shooting underexposed according to your meter but you’re happy with the results you might be on the right track.
Once I’ve uploaded my images I like to play around with editing in Lightroom to enhance what I’ve shot. My workflow involves checking or adjusting white balance, exposure & then contrast. If I want to push the contrast further I will play with increasing blacks or even using the Dodge (lighten) adjustment brush to bring more light into my subject. Dramatically lit images is a great place to really play up texture as well so sometimes I’ll use my adjustment brush to sharpen my subject. It’s also fun to play with the colors if you’ve got some bright food in your image.