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How to Perfectly Capture a Plate of Food With Spot Lighting


Since one of the most important aspects of photography is how to control your lighting, today I'll be explaining how to perfectly light a scene for a warm, dramatic effect. We'll be using grids - hard lights that are more controllable - and the subject to be used will be food, because it is usually shot with hard lighting. The emphasis will be on controlling each light to create a subtle and warm effect.

food photography lighting

Step 1: Items Needed

Find yourself a place setting, that looks good with whatever food you are going to shoot. My girlfriend likes sushi, so that's what I decided to shoot here. I went to a local market and picked up the place setting in this shot which seemed to work well. I like to keep the dishes simple so they don't make the shot too busy.

Anything will work. You can use two sawhorses and a damaged door, or your kitchen table. Again, it doesn't matter what is in the surrounding area.

I'm going to use the art off my wall, it's 3'4" x 3'4" for my background. You can make anything work but I like items with texture so the light can bounce around more naturally.

I am going to use 3 Century stands. Two of the 3 Century stands have an extension arm on them.

Any flash system with three heads will do. I am using Alien Bees (800 and 1600 heads) with reflectors.

Spot grids:
I'm going to use spot grids, one 10 and two 20's.

food photography lighting

Make sure your tripod is sturdy enough to hold the camera at any level or angle. Don't skimp here. I don't use a level for most product shots so don't worry if your tripod doesn't have one.

The lens you use really depends on how big your product is and how close/far away you are from it. For this, I am using a 70-300/Macro and will be shooting at f11 and 5/10s. I'm approximately 6 feet from the product.


I shoot with a Nikon D-300. I take it off of the ‘auto' setting and use ‘manual' only. My focus is set to AF/AE button (not the shutter release button). This keeps the camera from re-focusing each time it takes a photo. Since each camera is different, I encourage you to read the section in your manual titled "Auto-Focus". I have my camera set to a custom white balance but, since that is a matter of preference, you can set it to "auto white balance" or a "flash white balance"...

Patience and the willingness to teach yourself:

Obviously, each person will have a different outcome due to the food itself, the dishes, the background, etc. This is an overview of how to generally shoot with grid spot lighting. If you don't like the end result, move things around or change the coior of your background. The other important thing is keep it simply! Many clients will want an entire plate of food in the shot and it just won't look good.

You will be asked to set up a shot and then set it up again. Just get used to it! It's how to fine tune a shot. Playing with light until you get the result that pleases you.

Always considering line of sight will mean you run into few problems. You should be so closely focused on the subject so your background falls out of focus in a very short distance.

The result of this close focus on your lighting is that the lights will have to be in a line. If your lights are not showing up, they are out of the frame. When learning to set lighting up in this way, you may need to use some sort of straight edge like a yardstick to help line your lights so they are in the frame.

food photography lighting

The more stable you build your set and all that goes with it, the fewer problems you will have when shooting.

Step 2: Setting the Camera

Take your camera, set your preferred white balance, set the aperture to f/11 and the shutter speed to 1/125, mount it on the tripod and place it approximately 5-8 feet from the table (this will depend on your lens). I adjusted the tripod so the camera sits above the plate edge height.

Step 3: Positioning the Dishes

Set the table looking at it from the camera angle. Your stack should be from the camera, to the plate, to the bowl on the napkin, then the background. I put a cutting board under the plate to raise it off the table.

Get one Century stand with an extension arm. Place the stand left of the table, put on a light with a 10 grid. Position the extension into a 90-degree angle and tighten so the extension arm is over the table and the light is hitting behind the plate on the napkin. Keep a eye on where and what the light is spilling onto, as this light is what is giving your dishes the shape/color and will define the body of the shot.

food photography lighting

Take a light reading so you know where you're going to start at. I like to start at around f11, but remember this is just a starting point, depending on the effect you want, you will need to adjust it later.

food photography lighting

Step 4: Setting Up the Background

I've taken a painting off of my wall and set it on a chair behind the table. Get a stand and position it on the backside of your table. Put a light with a 20 grid on the stand and point it down at a around 45-degree angle. Adjust the light so it is streaking down your background (remember your line of sight).

The closer the stand is to the background, the thinner the light beam will be and - if you have a textured background - the more you will cast shadows from the texture. This light is not to light the whole background but just part of it. With only this background light on you can adjust it to create a silhouette with a portion of the background lit as the edges fade to black.

The set so far:

food photography lighting

Set your background light about one stop under your start exposure.

food photography lighting

Turn the background light off now.

Step 5: Lighting for the Food

Take one head with a 20 grid spot and mount it on a boom arm down the side of a Century stand so it is a little above the rim of the plate. Position the light so it will hit the plate were you think the food will be placed. Put a white card on the opposite side of this light to reflect some light back into the set.

food photography lighting

Set this light one half stop above your start exposure.

food photography lighting

Step 6: Adjusting the Lighting

Turn all the light on and take a shot to see were you're at.

food photography lighting

Now you need to work on your lighting so it looks like something you have done on purpose. If you have no idea how to adjust the lights, you need to play around with this set until you can understand what is going on.

Stage the shot with something - If you put your food in on the plate too soon and have to play around too long, it really won't look appetising!

Have fun with this now that it is set up. Turn on/off and move around the different lights to see what exactly each light is doing and this will give you a basic idea of what you can do to adjust the outcome.

Step 7: The Final Product

Mark where everything is, then take your plate away to position the food on it. Here's my final setup with the food on the dishes:

food photography lighting

This is a shot of the final set up with the 3 lights hitting in a line, background, white card to reflect the light back onto the product, and the food now placed on the plate.

food photography lighting

Until next time, have fun and play around with this! If you're in need of a little encouragement, check out the fortune cookie that came with the sushi:

food photography lighting
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