Does it have to be natural light for food and product photography?

Let’s take a guess

Can you tell the difference between the following two images? Take note of the shadows and reflections. Which one is created with natural light, which one is studio light?

We’ll reveal the answer as we go along.

Which of these photos is natural light?

Our photographers Jake Anderson and Anna Jones set out to help advertisers, designers, and fledgling photographers get a basic understanding of lighting.

It’s natural for people to visualize food and products in the context they are experienced. If the goal is to shoot a plate of food on a rustic table, it’s easy to imagine shooting by the window in a nice rustic restaurant. If the goal is to capture a face wash product in a well-lit bathroom scene, it’s natural to imagine shooting in a modern high-rise apartment bathroom. A lot of this comes from our day-to-day experience with the camera on our phones, constantly at an arm’s reach. All of this is possible with photography, and shoots like these can be arranged.

However, relying on a natural setting and its lighting can be an uphill battle. Unless the plan includes taking a journey to a part of the world with sunny consistent weather all year, using the sun is not a dependable choice. Then consider shooting multiple products or food items in over a full day. The sun and clouds move, and when the sun moves, the color of the light shifts. Top that off with shooting in new locations and the difficulty goes way up. All the negatives aside, natural light is beautiful. If it’s possible to make it work in a way that doesn’t impede deadlines or the progress of a shoot, go for it!

Considering a more controlled photography option

Studio light can get final images closer to natural light than one might expect. When shooting with a studio lighting setup that has been skilfully arranged, natural lighting can be almost replicated. When this is achieved, all the issues of natural light disappear. It enables photographers to help a producer schedule full-day or multi-day shoots, and if everything is well documented, the preferred arrangement can be replicated at any time of the day, any time of the year.

Let’s take a look at a natural light set up.

Jake and Anna first needed to select a spot in our studio along with one of the many south-facing windows and modify the quality of light for the shot.

Fun Fact: Before studio lighting was good as it is today, photographers would choose their studio locations based on the number of north or south-facing windows. North or south-facing windows primarily let in the sun’s indirect sunlight, which is softer and easier to control.

From there, they modified the setup and camera settings until they found a composition they enjoyed.

And the answer to the quiz already!?

B – This was shot with natural light!

Yep, this image was created using natural light and a simple matte white reflector.

Did you guess right?

The lovely shadows and reflections look bold, while some of the finer details on the food items are soft. Overall, a pleasing image.

Now let’s recreate it with studio strobe lights.

Moving the table and trying not to move a single ingredient was the first step. From there Anna and Jake focused on blocking the window light while setting up studio lights. An important tool in most studio setups is a scrim (basically a white silkscreen), which is used to disperse artificial light. This simple tool helps photographers mimic the dispersion properties of our light in our atmosphere, but on a significantly smaller and more controllable scale.

Then, like before, they applied modifications to the setup and camera settings to replicate the lighting in the original composition. See the final setup here:

And this means the other answer to the quiz is…

A – Was created with studio lights!

Yep, this image was created only using strobe lighting equipment and a simple matte white reflector.

Notice the pleasingly softer shadows and reflections, while all the fine details are crisp and discernible. This was an excellent result that gave the photographers full control over the outcome.

In closing, here are further examples of studio-lit food and product photography done at the OMS Studio.

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