High key food photography kicks ass. Soft window light may be in vogue, but frankly, IT’S BORING. Everyone is doing it and seriously, why not zig while others zag. If you’re wondering what exactly “high key” is, walk into an Apple store. It’s branding and imagery that is bright, typically white, highly specular, and devoid of deep shadows. If you would like to change up your portfolio or impress your fellow foodies, high key food photography is the way to do it.
Step 1: The Surface
This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If you don’t have a roll of seemless paper handy, use a large piece of white construction paper or a sheet of white acrylic. If you use acrylic, it helps to place a piece of white construction paper under the glass to block the color cast of the table. Both work, but the acrylic will create a nice reflection without using Photoshop.
Step 2: The Background
The background should be a clean pure white that is overexposed but not blown out. The technically correct way to do this is with an evenly lit shooting table, but simple and cheap alternatives exist. As seen below, for the Waffles of Insane Greatness, I just used a softbox positioned behind the table. A roll of white ripstop nylon would also be a good choice. The trick is to turn-up the light until the highlights barely clip. If you get crazy with the backlight, the overall image will degrade.
Quick Tip: Anytime you shoot into a bright light, the light bouncing off the front lens element will kill contrast. To prevent this, flag the front of the lens with black cards, use a lens hood, pull the camera back as far as possible, and tilt the back light upward so it doesn’t point directly into the lens.
Step 3: The Main Light
The main light should be hard and directional. This creates shape and contrast on the food. As seen above, I used a 30 degree grid on a strobe to scrape light across the face of the waffle. This created highlights and shadows and made the food 3D. Unlike window light, there is minimal wrap.
If you don’t own a strobe, you can still create high key food photography with an off-camera flash . To add a grid, this super cheap DIY snoot will do the trick.
Quick Tip: Hard light and white shiny surfaces don’t always play well together. It’s important to keep a few black cards around and subtract light from the scene. In the set shot above I used the black board and white bag to take light off the bowl.
If everything is done correctly, you can call it a day and eat some waffles. A lot of photographers will rely on Photoshop to clean everything up, but if you flag the lens and add black cards to the scene, you can kill it straight out of the camera.