Sometimes it can be really tough to take perfectly lit pictures in natural light especially when we are in the middle of the winter months where the days are short and dark.
I see it myself. I sometimes shoot up to 4 or 5 different recipes a day and when it’s winter I have to be very creative that I can shoot all of them in natural light because the time window where the daylight is good is very short about 5 hours maximum (on good days!). In summer, I don’t have any problems to get all my shots done, because I have very large windows and good light for about 8 hours.
But I know that not everyone is that lucky to have super large windows or has good light, that’s the reason why I share a few tricks with you how to deal with poor lighting in your home.
1. Find the best natural light at home
Well, that’s obvious, right? Probably you have heard that a couple of times before and you are sure that you already found the best light for your food photos. But I want you to think about it. Do you really shoot in the best natural light in your home?
If you are not sure whether you have found the best natural light or not, do the following. Consciously watch and explore the light in your home how it changes throughout the day. Is it harsh, diffused, direct, indirect? Where is it ever changing or more constant? Then take a backdrop and any food (an apple for example) and shoot everywhere where you have light.
Compare the photos in your editing software, and you will immediately know what the best place is. Or maybe you have two or more places for different moods and styles. Your decision should always depend on your photography style. Is your style moody, or bright and airy, or do you love to capture direct sunlight shining on your set? You need to know which results you achieve in which light.
TIP: Please don’t make your decisions depending on the preview screen of your camera. You can’t trust it. It doesn’t show us the reality. It’s not a good reference for how well your photo is lit because it shows us colors and exposure differently as it is for real.
2. Use bounce boards and reflectors
When shooting in low light situations, you may find it helpful to use bounce boards or reflectors to bounce the available light back onto your food. The light which is coming from the window hits the bounce board or reflector and bounces back onto your food and brightens up the photo. You can use reflectors as well as a piece of white foam core board.
My preference is to use foam core board. They are handy to use, and you are very flexible to place them around the food.
Also, white walls next to your shooting place work well to reflect the light back onto your food.
3. Shoot in RAW instead of JPEG
When shooting in low light, it’s sometimes really hard to get the white balance correct. But you don’t need to worry about that when shooting in RAW.
A raw file is a digital negative and contains all information about your photo. A jpg, on the other hand, is a compressed image where some enhancements were already done by your camera like sharpening or making the colors more vibrant for example. So a jpeg is not the exact picture you have taken.
For better understanding, I compared the same photo in RAW and JPEG next to each other in Lightroom. Left is the RAW picture and right the JPEG.
You can see that the RAW picture on the left looks more grey and flat. The JPEG looks better straight out of the camera because the camera edited the photo already.
When shooting in RAW, you are much more flexible with editing and can adjust color temperature and white balance in your editing software. When you shoot JPGs, you really need to get the white balance correct while you shoot because it is very hard or even impossible to correct that in post-processing.
Because I always shoot in RAW, I was able to correct the color temperature in the following picture:
That’s the same picture after editing in Lightroom:
4. Shoot in manual mode
You can adjust three settings to get more light in your photo: Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These are also called the exposure triangle because all three settings have an impact on the exposure of your photo.
Aperture: The wider the aperture (=the lower the number), the more light reaches the camera sensor which means that you have more light in your photo. For food photography, I recommend staying between 2.2 and 3.5 for most of the time.
Shutter speed: The longer the shutter (=the lower the number) remains open, the more light is captured. If shooting without a tripod set your shutter speed one above your focal length as a minimum, for example, if you are shooting at a 50mm as I do, don’t set your shutter speed below 1/60th of a second. As a general rule: never go below 1/60 when shooting handheld, no matter what your focal length is. I always stay between 1/80 and 1/160 when shooting handheld.
ISO: The higher the ISO, the more light reaches your camera sensor. But please don’t go with your ISO to the maximum. A high ISO produces lots of image noise, and your pictures will be grainy. Stay with your ISO as low as possible. I don’t recommend to shoot higher than 320.
5. Invest in a prime lens
If you are permanently struggling with bad light conditions in your home, it’s time to upgrade to a prime lens with a wide aperture.
I use a Canon 50 mm / 1.4 lens for food photography. That 1.4 means that I can go down to 1.4 aperture in my camera settings. A 3.5 or 5.6 kit lens doesn’t allow you to go below 3.5 or 5.6 aperture on your camera. The higher the number, the less light comes in your photo.
6. Use a tripod and a remote
If you need to lower your shutter speed below 1/60 to have enough light, then use a tripod. A tripod enables you to shoot with longer shutter speed below 1/60. You also may want to use a remote that you don’t capture any unwanted movement while you press the shutter-release button on your camera.
7. Mix artificial light with natural light
When I started as a food blogger, it was not always possible for me to take photos at good light; that’s why I often added an artificial light source to my setup.
So I was looking for a small artificial light like the Lowel Ego Digital Light rather than a large softbox, stand, etc. that takes lots of space. At the time I started out, this light was not available. So I googled how to do that a light box on my own.
My dear husband, Mario, made it for me. It’s made of white foam board, a light cord, 2 daylight bulbs, a dual socket adapter, reflector foil, and diffuser fabric. That box cost me less than $30. I found a great DIY Lowel Ego Digital Light tutorial here.
Place it on the same side where the natural light is coming from next to your setup that both lights (natural and artificial) are coming from the same direction.
TIP: If you have no natural light at all, place two of those boxes next to each other or one over another to imitate a large window.
8. Fix your underexposed food photos in Lightroom
To fix underexposed food photos, I found that the following two adjustments bring the best results: raise exposure and shadows. With the exposure slider, you can adjust the overall exposure of your image. Pulling it to the right will brighten your image. With the shadow slider, you can adjust the darker areas of your image. Pulling it to the right will bring out the details in your photos.
9. Learn to love it and make it your style
Well, that’s a branding and personal style decision of course. But think about it. Maybe you love low light food photos. You could give it a try.
Let me know what you think! Leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts on this. How do you deal with low light situations?