Food Photography - When to Use Natural Light (and When Not To)

Food Photography – When to Use Natural Light (and When Not To)

Food photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, know that natural lighting is among the best tools to take drool-worthy photos. However, there’s a time and a place to use natural lighting, and times when you won’t want to. In this article, we’ll discuss what natural lighting is and how it affects your photos – for better or for worse.

What is natural lighting?

Simply put, natural lighting is light produced by the sun. Another related term is ambient light, which refers to the available light in an environment. Ambient light could also be considered natural light if the photographer’s equipment is not producing it. In most parts of the world, natural light is abundant and can be used at no charge. This is one of many reasons why it is preferred by many photographers.

Two types of natural lighting

Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of natural lighting that you might want to utilize for photography. If you plan to utilize natural light for photography, it’s wise to learn about the different patterns of sunlight. Depending on where you live, you might have more of one than the other. You may have to adjust your style accordingly.

Direct light

Natural light - direct light

Direct sunlight that results in a look with harsher shadows.

A cloudless environment with full sunlight in the middle of the day produces direct light. This light is very intense, resulting in high contrast and very sharp shadows. The color of the light will vary depending on the time of day. In midday, it will be a neutral white color and a warmer tone of gold in the late afternoon. Depending on your photography style, you may prefer direct light if you wish to emphasize dramatic shadows and high contrast.

Diffused light

In a cloudy or overcast environment, natural light will appear diffused. This results in a soft, low contrast look with little to no shadows. Most photographers tend to prefer this lighting as you can make just about anything look good with it. If you have lots of direct light, you can also turn it into diffused light by using something like a shoot-through reflector.

Natural light_Food Photography 01

Natural sunlight that has been softened with a diffuser.

What about artificial lighting?

The opposite of natural lighting, artificial lighting is produced by gear such as speed lights or strobes. If the idea of flash photography intimidates you, consider this. Most forms of artificial lighting strive to recreate natural lighting. For example, a bare flash with no diffuser is akin to direct light, while a flash with a softbox results in diffused light. Even if you plan to use artificial light, it helps to understand natural light and how it affects your creative style.

Natural light_Food Photography 01

Natural light or artificial light? This is natural…

Natural light_Food Photography 01

…this is artificial light. It adds some dimension to the background but isn’t drastically different than the naturally lit image.

When to use natural light for food photography

Before determining what kind of lighting to use, consider your intended creative output. Do you want food photos with punchy colors and clearly defined shadows? If so, you want direct light and a cloudless, full-sun day is what you want. But if you want soft, diffused light for an evenly lit photo, a cloudy day will suit you best (or a sunny day with a reflector).

After you figure out your preferred creative style, take a look a the weather. You may have to plan your photo shoot around weather patterns if you want a particular quality of natural light. Alternatively, you’ll have to bring extra gear with you to compensate for it.

Natural light_Food Photography 01

Food photographed in natural light during the daytime, when the light is neutral in color.

When you may not want to use natural light

There are two times of the day when natural lighting may not be your best friend. Those are the blue hour and golden hours of the day. These times of day are cherished by landscape photographers as they provide the most dramatic lighting in the sky. However, this may not be ideal for food photography. That’s because both blue and golden hours emit different colored light. A dish shot at blue hour may have more blue tinges to it, while the golden hour will cast it in a warmer tone. Some of this can be fixed in post-production, but most food photographers prefer shooting with neutral daylight so that the food retains its natural color.

Natural light_Food Photography 01

Food photographed in natural light during blue hour, just after sunset. Natural light at this time of day distorts colors all around. Great for landscapes, not for food.

In Conclusion

Generally speaking, using natural light is the simplest solution for photographers. It’s rather straightforward to use natural lighting, although adding tools to your kit such as reflectors and diffusers will help you take it to the next level. Also helpful is a general knowledge of lighting patterns throughout the day so that you don’t end up planning a natural light shoot during golden or blue hours (unless you want that colored light!).

What do you think? Are you a natural light photographer, or do you prefer artificial light? Let me know in the comments below!

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Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she's not taking photos, she's making travel photography and camera gear videos for her YouTube channel.