#PENInPractice No. 2 | How To Shoot Food In Low Light

My second #PENInPractice column for Olympus Magazine (November issue) is all about shooting food in low light, something that can be a struggle to get right! Here’s my tips…

I don’t like to use flash in low light, but I do like to photograph food, especially if I’m out at a restaurant for a meal. But lack of natural daylight is not the easiest for getting light, bright, pin-sharp shots. The biggest challenge is the white balance. Leave your camera on Auto and you’ll end up with a yellower looking photo than you’d like. Yes, you can try and fix this in the edit (on my laptop, I use Lightroom, on my phone, VSCOcam) but you’re better off trying to get the best result possible and then work on it.

So I always go into my Settings and switch the WB to incandescent (the light bulb icon), it throws a bluer filter over proceedings which will make your photo look more normal (this setting is good for shooting in most yellowish artificial light). Next you want to check out your ISO. You can leave this to the camera to decide even if you’re in Aperture on Shutter only, or you can go in and play around with the levels yourself. Worth doing, as the lower you can keep your ISO, the less grain you’ll have.

Another thing you can do is open up your Aperture, so stop it down to its lowest level – this is where a prime with a 1.8 f-stop (like the 45mm and 75mm 1.8 lenses) will really excel for the best chance to get your shot. The final part is to minimise your shake. Without flash, your camera will struggle with the low light conditions, so you need to hold it as steady as possible – try a two-handed grip resting on your elbows or using a viewfinder and steadying the camera against your face.

When shooting food, I tend to focus on two types of shot. The Instagram favourite from above and a more traditional shallow depth of field shot from the side. From above doesn’t always have to be about standing on chairs! In fact, this is where the Pen E-PL7’s extendable, flip out screen comes into its own.

Tip: Push the screen down a little from a top corner before pulling it out! And make sure when shooting to hold the camera as flat as possible to get the most in-proportion look; even being slightly off can ruin the picture – for me, anyway!

A few more tips:

  1. Don’t be afraid to set your shot up – e.g. straighten cutlery, reposition glasses or fold a napkin.
  2. If you’re focussing on an individual plate, look at the details around it too – knife & fork, salt & pepper etc, and make sure they work in the shot.
  3. Get a little higher to take in more of the table and your companions’ dishes and drinks.
  4. Try to do this all as quickly as possible so your fellow diners don’t hate you as their food goes cold! (Knowing when to abandon a shot is a skill in itself and will pay dividends for your social life!)
  5. Depending on the lighting from above, keep an eye out for your shadow ruining your shot – you might need to reposition yourself.

Shooting your dish from side on can be particularly eye-catching. I usually save this for a well put-together starter or mouth-watering desert. I don’t hold back on the aperture, stopping all the way down, focussing carefully on the tastiest looking part and snapping away. This is where candles or unusual lighting can really work in your favour producing some gorgeous bokeh effects.

Afterwards, in post-processing, I’ll always play around with the temperature as this can radically alter, for the better, a low and artificially lit photo. (Black and white is always a solution too, but then it never really works that well for food – food photography is very much about the colours.) Bring in blue to whiten your shot; worth experimenting with how far you can go before it looks, well, just too blue. Shooting in low light is not the easiest, as it can be frustrating at times, but I’m so averse to using flash, I’d rather not take the shot, although it might just be there are times when it’s the right solution!

Remember to tag your Pen photos with #PENInPractice for a chance to be featured on the @olympusuk Instagram account (check our first photo of the week by @catesthill here). I’ll be picking my favourite pictures each week and an overall winner will be chosen to feature in the February edition of the Olympus mag and receive one of my Sail Handmade x Olympus handmade straps. (If you fancy one anyway, use STYLONYLON at checkout to get 10% off!). Happy shooting!


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  1. Hi
    What flash do you recommend with the PL7, I did have the kit one but have now lost it! Thanks in advance.

  2. I’m going through all your old photography posts and I’ve decided I will treat myself to the Olympus Pen F once I’ve mastered my MKIII, which hopefully will be soon.

    Since I started using my camera again last February instead of my iphone, I have made some progress especially with portraits of Mila but I’m still struggling with indoors shots and on top of that I don’t know how to use Lightroom.
    Do you have any tips on indoors shots? I always found mine lack of clarity and they are never white enough. I could cheat and go for the moody look but I really would like to master this clean-looking look for interiors

    1. For indoors you really need to be getting some nice light in from a nearby window and maybe set a custom white balance to get a really nice white!

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