Food Photography: Backlight vs. Available Light

By | 2016-12-18T17:01:13+00:00 March 11th, 2011|4 Comments

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 70-200 ƒ/4L IS lens
Left image: 1/125 sec at ƒ/5.6, back-lit with Canon 430EX speedlight
Right image: 0.3 sec at ƒ/5.6, overhead available light (tungsten)

For this post I thought I’d show the difference between using back-lighting versus using overhead available (in this case, tungsten) light. I photographed the image on the left and used a back-light setup (here’s a link to the behind-the-scenes). Then, I switched off the PocketWizard so the light didn’t fire, changed the exposure on my camera and used the overhead light in my living room (just normal, boring light-bulbs in a light on the ceiling).

I had to do quite a bit to the color on the image to the right to get the white balance back to normal and get rid of the yucky orangeish/reddish cast, but because I always photograph my food images in RAW then the color ended up not looking too bad (a bit unnaturally green, but otherwise okay). The light, however, is extremely different. Can you see the depth, rim-lighting and soft shadows in the photo on the left compared to the flat, harsh light in the image on the right?

In a nutshell, try to not use overhead room lights when photographing food. The image to the right doesn’t look terrible, but my personal preference is to the image on the left … back-lighting adds depth, soft shadows and rim-light and makes food look gorgeous when photographed.

About the Author:

My name is Nicole and I'm a photographer, author, & educator living in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. When I'm not making photos I'm writing books and tutorials for my online store, Learn more about me and my story here.


  1. Laurie March 11, 2011 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comparison shots. I’m a visual person so this really helps. The backlit photo has less glare and shows more detail.

  2. Kat March 11, 2011 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    I do see the difference! at first glance it’s not such a big difference but I’m sure to the trained eye, it’s huge! thank you!

  3. Chef and Steward March 12, 2011 at 2:46 am - Reply

    Yes there is a huge difference. The setup on the left is nice and diffused to the the umbrella & reflector setup up boucing and diffusing softer light, allowing more details to be seen. Plus the backlight separates the subject from the background. It is so hard when you know what needs to be done but are lacking the additional equip. Moved hemispheres recently, which is akin to starting over and almost from scratch. Need a pocket wizard, some good tripods and another prime but trying to make the best of what I have. Thanks for keeping the vibration high.

  4. Augie De Blieck Jr. March 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    The image on the right almost looks like on-camera flash. It’s that much flatter, like all of the shadows and contrast have been removed. I’m with you — the image on the left is far superior. It goes back to that whole thing about how putting shadows next to highlights helps to define an image. Or, how does the other saying go, light illuminates and shadows define? Something like that. The backlight definitely proves those points here. Thanks for giving us a visual to go along with the lessons…

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