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"Photography is not only drawing with light, though light is the indispensable agent of its being. It is modeling or sculpturing with light, to reproduce the plastic form of natural objects. It is painting with light."

—Berenice Abbott

I promised a while ago a post on natural light, so here it is! Because you've guessed it, one key ingredient that can make or break your food photos is definitely light. As you can see in the quote above, light is to a photographer what paint is to a painter. It's ESSENTIAL. Very often, when something doesn't work with your picture but you struggle to understand what it is, it has something to do with light.

So in this blog post, we're going to dive into the magic of natural light for food photography, and don't worry, we'll keep it simple!

muffins taken in natural light

Understanding Light Throughout the Day

Light is dynamic, and its character transforms as the sun makes its journey across the sky. In the morning and evening, during what photographers like to call the "golden hours," the sunlight is softer, warmer, and comes in at a more oblique angle. This gentle touch creates long shadows, adding depth and dimension to your shots. As the day progresses, especially around midday, the light is more blue (yep!) and the sun shines directly overhead, producing harsh shadows. Understanding this is essential to be able to achieve the look you want.

When I first started food photography, when shooting for a few hours on the same day, I would look at my pictures afterward and notice how some of them had this warm feeling, while others were getting a blue cast. It was particularly frustrating as I often photographed the same dish, yet the overall look of my pictures remained inconsistent. The 'aha' moment came when I delved deeper into the nuances of light and discovered its varying colors depending on the time of day. It all boils down to white balance, but we'll save that discussion for another day.

Soft Light vs. Hard Light

Now there are two types of light, soft and hard. They both give a very unique result and it's important to understand the difference.

Soft Light:

Soft light produces gentle, gradual transitions between light and shadow, minimizing harsh contrasts. Achieving soft light often involves diffusing the sunlight, either by shooting on overcast days (those cloudy days are the best!) or using some sort of diffuser. (We'll dive into this in a second). The result? Smooth textures, flattering tones, and a dreamy, inviting atmosphere. Soft light is widely used by food photographers because it gives amazing results and makes the food look appetizing.


Conversely, hard light creates well-defined, sharp shadows and strong contrasts between light and dark. This is often seen during the midday sun or when shooting in direct sunlight. While hard light can add drama and boldness to your images, it requires careful management to avoid overly harsh shadows that might distract from your dish. That being said, it can be beautiful, especially to light some transparent drinks/food from the back.

Use reflectors (it can be as simple as white cardboard) to bounce sunlight onto your subject, reducing shadows and adding a touch of fill light. Experiment with the angle and distance to achieve the desired effect.

You can see below an example of soft light and an example of harder light. Pay attention to the shadows.

kombucha bottle in soft light

Soft Light

Harder Light

Simple Gear You Need

Now, you may be wondering what gear you need to work with natural light. The good news is, you don't need a spaceship-load of gear to get started. Keep it sweet and simple. Apart from a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera and a good lens, (Check out my post about the basic gear you need to start food photography!) you will need a window and a way to diffuse the light. You can invest in a diffuser like this one, but you can also simply use a white curtain! It works perfectly.

Reflectors and blockers are also your sidekicks. They bounce, diffuse, or block light, depending on what you want. As I mentioned before, it can be as simple as white and black cardboard or foam core. You can cut them into different sizes. Using black cardboard will also enable you to intensify your shadows when necessary. Below is a simple example of how you can use a white cardboard to bounce back the light on your subject or a black one to intensify the shadows.

The photos below are the different results you get depending on the foam you choose to use. You can see that you can really play with light here to achieve the look you prefer wether it's bright and airy or more dramatic and moody.

No foam or cardboard

With a white foam or cardboard

With a black foam or cardboard

Pros and Cons of Using Natural Light

Natural is amazing for many, many reasons, but it also has downsides. Let's weigh the pros and cons of using natural light.


  1. Soft and Flattering: Natural light is like a soft filter, smoothing out imperfections and giving your food a delectable appeal.
  2. Free and Readily Available: Unlike studio lights that can burn a hole in your wallet, natural light is free and abundant. All you need is a window!
  3. Warm and Inviting Atmosphere: Ever wondered why those brunch pics look so inviting? Natural light, my friend. It creates a warm and cozy vibe that's hard to replicate with artificial lights.


  1. Inconsistent: You are dependent on the sun. Natural light is constantly changing and moving. Clouds might decide to play hide and seek, affecting the intensity and color of your light. Also, the color of the light changes throughout the day, so it makes it harder to keep a consistent look on your photos.
  2. Limited Time Frame: For example, the golden hours don't last forever. You've got a small window of opportunity to capture that perfect shot, so timing is everything. And during the winter months, you will have fewer hours in a day where you can shoot. This is why artificial light can be so helpful, and we'll talk about it more in another post.

And there you have it! Natural light can really be your best friend in this photography journey. With a camera, a reflector, and a piece of cardboard, you can create stunning images without breaking the bank.

Experiment, play with shadows and highlights, and most importantly, have fun with it. The beauty of natural light lies in its simplicity and the genuine, appetizing vibe it brings to your food photography. So, grab your gear, step into the natural light, and let your dishes shine! Happy shooting!