Natural vs Artificial Light for Food Photography

To me it seems that most cameras nowadays can handle a wide variation of both natural and artificial lighting.

However I often run into trouble when photographing food, and that can be a real problem when I’m travelling as I usually don’t have any control over restaurant lighting.

There is a lot of unappetizing light out there – you know the one; your photos all end up looking slightly sulphuric like these tasty chicken wing tapas in a bar in Spain. This was taken with my Nikon Coolpix point ‘n shoot which is horrible at handling this kind of lighting.

A Tapa of Chicken Wing in a Mug

This fabulous artichoke, almond and fennel salad in a very cool restaurant in Amsterdam, doesn’t look that tasty even after I tried to make it more interesting with a photo app.

Artichoke, almond and fennel salad at the Pilek Restaurant in the NDSM of Amsterdam

Even adjusting the white balance doesn’t work that well when the lighting is truly horrible. Here are three different white balance settings on this pasta dish at Il Vicolo in Galway, Ireland.

Three different white balance settings on this pasta dish at Il Vicolo in Galway, Ireland

Some cameras are better than others when handling indoor light. My Nikon Coolpix is horrible.

vegetables with Nikon Coolpix untouchedvegetables with Nikon Coolpix auto adjust in Photoshop
Fabulous vegetable dish. Left: as is from my Coolpix; Right: edited in Photoshop to fix lighting, but still not as good as the next shot taken with my iPad mini.

I’m not at all pleased with the Nikon Coolpix shots, even after they’ve been edited. On the other hand the one shot I took with my iPad mini is fine, just the way it is, no retouching or adjusting, colours perfect.

So for me, the camera itself, and how it handles white balance makes a bigger difference than whether the lighting is natural or artificial.

That said, food looks at its most appetizing under natural light. If it’s still light outside I often try to get seated outside on a patio or inside near a window.

Flores Rellenos at the restaurant 'Sabor de Puebla' in Puebla, Mexico
Flores Rellenas aka Stuffed Squash Flowers, taken on an outside patio in Puebla.

Sometimes the quality of natural light changes. ‘Golden hour’ with it warm colour temperature and long shadows is beloved by landscape photographers. For food it can be more problematic. This salmon salad was consumed while sitting by the window during ‘golden hour’ at the Wicklow Pub on Vancouver’s Sea Wall.

Salmon salad at the Wicklow Pub on Vancouver's Sea Wall, Canada
The food doesn’t look great but the atmosphere does.

On the other hand, any kind of drink tends to look fabulous during the golden hour.

beer & cheese (& sunlight)
Again, atmosphere of course, but drinks with light shining through them always look great.

Just lately I’ve been trying to duplicate some dishes I had in Europe that contain asparagus.

White Asparagus & Salmon Salad in the Cambrinus
Al’s ‘White Asparagus and Smoked Salmon Salad’ which also contained arugula, tomato, parsley and slivers of cheese, taken inside the Cambrinus in Bruges, Belgium which was fairly dark at the time.

My apartment has a galley kitchen and the only lighting is the awful kind. Taking photos of food prepared there and making them look good is challenging.

Left: iPad. Right: Nikon Coolpix. To me, neither looks appetizing, and I see that I will have to work out some form of extra lighting before I start taking shots of food prep.

Inside, in the dining room under a chandelier.

Left: iPad mini completely untouched. Right: Nikon Coolpix after a fair bit of retouching – it was way too dark.

Incidentally, the salad was delicious – fresh asparagus, hot smoked salmon, arugula, grape tomatoes dressed with a mix of mayonnaise & lemon juice. While I like the way the dressing tasted I wasn’t overly pleased with its slightly lumpy appearance. A chef friend of mine suggested that I whisk the dressing to smooth it out, and if I still didn’t like the look then to add chopped chives, or a touch of Tumeric to turn it yellow.

Another day, another salmon and asparagus salad. This was more or less the same, but with just lemon juice as a dressing and some dill that was growing quasi-wild out on a nearby boulevard. These two shots were both taken with the Nikon Coolpix, one inside under artificial lighting and the other outside on the deck. The Coolpix obviously deals with natural light waaaay better than it does with artificial light.

Left: Coolpix inside under artificial light. Right: Coolpix outside on a cloudy bright day.

Obviously there’s a lot more for me to learn here and this includes both the plating of the food as well as staging the dining area with placemats and other extras. But enough for now.

More on Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Natural Light vs Man-Made Light.

7 responses to “Natural vs Artificial Light for Food Photography

  1. Interestingly, I have a Nikon Coolpix too (L830) and don’t take photos with anything else (I hate the ones taken with my phone!). Additionally, I don’t use apps, filters, post-processing and the like, other than cropping and some light editing. I have been disappointed often with my indoors photos too, especially of food. But since I only take photos for memory, hobby, and my blog, it’s alright. I always prefer atmosphere to end photo results. When the harsh Italian light bleaches my photos, I say: Bad for photos, good for me. 😀

    I really love both photos when you mention atmosphere. I think food looks great there as well, no matter that it’s not quite visible what you were having. It’s been ages since I ate in a restaurant and am a bit depressed. :p

    • My Coolpix is the waterproof and shockproof and sandproof one – things that have destroyed my cameras in the past. As such is doesn’t have as many extras on it, and only 5x zoom – however it is my go-to camera, small enough that I always have it with me.

      I too only take photos for memory, hobby and blog – however I do prefer that my food photos look as good as they taste. All the restaurants here were closed from March 16 to May 19th last year – then they were allowed to open at 50% capacity inside and 75% outside. The city stepped up to the plate and by June 1st they had a plan in place for pop-up patios everywhere, parking spots and side streets were converted to patios, probably making 5 or 6x as many patios as before. The Muralfest started this thing called ‘Create art apart’ and many of the nearby walls were covered with murals. Now restaurants are closed again, from the week before Easter until May 25th (they say) in an attempt to get the variants under control and more people vaccinated. However, the patios are still allowed and they’re packed so we have been eating out at a few – it’s a tad chilly, and sometimes it rains so you have to dress accordingly – but it is lovely to eat out. And the natural light makes for way better photos so that’s a bonus too.

      • The patios are open for food, just not the restaurants for dine-in. The menus are smaller because of less customers, and sometimes there’s a wait for the most popular patios. A lot of restaurants are providing packed picnics including wine or beer (that’s new since COVID). There are some really elaborate bento boxes for Asian (and non-Asian too) – I saw some for $180 picnics for two to eat under the cherry blossoms… COVID has forced gov’ts and restaurants into finding a lot of creative ways to feed people. We still have to wait until May 25th but the case numbers are finally dropping and I expect in three weeks they will at the very least open up restaurants at 50% capacity – although by then we will all probably be addicted to picnics and patios…

  2. So I’m not the only one learning by error & horrible pictures! How do those instagrammers do it? I’ve been trying at home and have come the conclusion that it’s not for me. Along with lighting issues, I don’t have the nice dishes, props and patience for it. Food’s meant to be eaten not posed 🙂

    • I’m all for eating – during COVID it’s the one thing I live for – but sometimes I really wish that the photos of the food looked as delicious as they tasted. Right now Al has been complaining constantly about the lighting in the kitchen, mostly that it’s too dark and he can’t see what he’s doing – however hopefully better lighting will also be good for food photography. And buying props can be fun, especially linens and whatnot while travelling, when we get to travel, maybe…

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