The Importance of Shadows In Food Photography
There’s no shortage of food photography online, and a quick scroll through Pinterest reveals an endless stream of food photos. Newbie, budding, and aspiring food photographers and bloggers are often told to “buy a piece of white foam core and place it next to your food to fill in the shadows“.
I’m here to tell you that advice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
There are three main components to a food photograph.
- The actual true tone of your subject
Once you get your hero (main food subject) into position, there are really only two things you need to think about in regard to the light – your highlights and your shadows. Wherever your light hits your subject creates a highlight. Wherever your subject blocks the light creates a shadow. Many people pay so much attention to the light, they forget about the dark, but you see, darkness creates depth and dimension in your photograph.
The Darkness Is Where Your Story Lives
Don’t get me wrong. White foam core is ESSENTIAL in food photography – even the super duper pro photographers use it – I’m just telling you not to place a piece of white card next to your dish without any thought to your shadows. Your food, your props, and the colours you choose, all help create a story, or feeling for your viewer and shadows are a huge part of that. Since the day you were born your eyes have seen shadows cast by objects bathed in light. Shadows add reality to photos.
Tip : Try placing your white card in close to fill in the shadows of your dish, then move the card around. Back it up, move it to the front, the side and watch your shadows the entire time. Stop when they look and feel right for your story.
There’s a concept in fine art called “chiaroscuro” which translates from Italian as “light-dark”. Caravaggio, my absolute favourite painter of all time, was a chiaroscuro master. He blocked almost all available light for his paintings only allowing tiny slivers of light to shine through, highlighting the main focal point of his work. Chiaroscuro is an intense dramatic technique, one that is worthy of an entire post of it’s own. I used the chiaroscuro technique for the Chocolate Rye Cake pictured above.
Tip: Use white foam core to brighten shadows and use black foam core to deepen shadows or block light. Foam core is available at most craft stores, Walmart, and office supply stores.
Shadows Are Important Regardless of Your Subject
Take the photo of the French meringues above for example. Meringues are a light, bright, airy subject and these ones were placed on a white flowery tablecloth but they still beg for shadows. If you look at any food photograph, the shadows will tell you the time of day (direction of shadow), the weather (the shape of the shadow – sunny day = strong sharp shadows / cloudy day = softer spread out shadows), and how many lights were used in the shot (in many food photos you can see multiple shadows cast by multiple light sources). Shadows reveal height, texture, and shape. Shadows reveal much more than they hide.
Shadows Shape Light to Create Mood
With one light placed at the top right corner of my set, and two pieces of black foam core blocking the light on either side, I created a very directional light source for the rhubarb tart pictured above. The point of blocking the light on either side in this shot was to direct and keep the viewer’s eye on the rhubarb. A deep dark shadow under the plate shows you the direction the light is coming from and the texture of the blue background along with the scattered forget-me-nots add to the mood.
Here’s a behind the scenes pic of my set up:
Shadows Tell The Story
I guess all I’m saying is –
Without light there’s no photography, but without shadows there’s no story.
Stay tuned on Thursday as we’re reviewing Skye McAlpine’s new cookbook A Table In Venice, sharing Skye’s recipe for Peach and Saffron Pastries, and giving away a copy of her book to one lucky Canadian reader!