How to backlight in food photography | Healthy Seasonal Recipes

Hi food bloggers and photography fans! Are you ready for another post about photography? This one is all about how to backlight in food photography. I’m going to show you some tips and a goofy little video I made about backlighting. Between this post and the video you’ll see how I set up my camera and use natural window light to get a bright background while still getting a good exposure of the subject. In my video I show my set up, exposure and lighting tips and how I adjust my RAW images in Lightroom to make the the food really pop.


What is Backlight

Backlighting in food photography

First things first, even if you don’t know the term backlighting you’ll surely know what it is when you see it.

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If you have heard about it before then you know it is a great way to make food look yummy! Backlighting gives food pop by casting light over the subject and creating spectral highlights. That’s just geeky photo speak for making food look luscious and yummy!

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You may be a fan of of the beautiful backlit images by Ali at Gimme Some Oven. She’s masterful at this technique. As is Chungah from Damn Delicious. I’m not telling you I can necessarily give you the key to taking pictures like those two superstars, but I can maybe help you understand how to get a better exposure when you’re shooting with backlight.


In a nutshell, backlight is when light comes from behind the subject of the photograph. If done well, the background will look white or light and glowing and the food will also be bright and well illuminated. Backlighting is a tricky technique in photography because you have to know how to use your camera and set up to get a great exposure. If you have your camera set to automatic, or even if you are on manual mode and use the automatic setting on the light meter in you camera, you’ll probably get the wrong exposure. The back will be bright but the food will be dark, noisy (ie grainy) or underexposed. Don’t worry! This post will explain how to avoid a dark subject while getting all the snazzarama from lighting from behind.

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How do I set up for backlighting?

Use a Scrim

If you have read my post about household items to improve your food photography, then you’re probably already doing this. But for backlighting you’ll really need it. You’ll want to set up a piece of thin white fabric in your window so that the light is diffused. I do this even on gray days and in the winter. This will help cut out the most harsh light and will soften your shadows. It will help take away the extremes of your lighting so that you get the most detailed information in the middle range of your histogram. {More on that below.}

How to Set up the Window and Table

You only need one window. I have a triple wide window, but I cover up the outer two with dark curtains to make the light source more narrow.

The light should be coming from an angle straight behind or almost. If you are picturing the light like the face of a clock it should come from about 11:00 to 1:00 on the face.

Depending on how much shadow you want, you may want to pull your surface away from the window slightly or push it closer. {This will depend on the amount of light outside the window and the width of your window too. So play around with it and look at the shadows cast by your subject. I’ll show this in my video below so you can see just how I do it.

What is a Histogram

what is a histogram | photography tips on

This should be another post all together, so I won’t go into a ton of detail here. Basically a histogram is a visual diagram of the lighting in your pictures. At the left is the information in the darks and the right is the information in the lights. In Lightroom there is a triangle in the upper right and upper left corner of the histogram. If you click the upper right corner, you can see if you have any “clipped highlights” or areas that the image is so overexposed that you can’t recover the information in the highlights. They will show up in red areas. If you click the upper left you’ll see the areas where the image is underexposed.

clipped highlights | overexposed highlights in food photogrpahy | how to backlight in food photography

You can see this in the back of your camera on certain menu settings, or you can see it on the capture screen if you are shooting tethered. A lot of DSLR will let you set an alarm to warn you with a beep that you’re clipping. Also this will be visible in post processing.



How to Adjust Your Exposure

At this point I should also make sure you’ve already read these basic tips to improve your photography. If you are doing all of the things I have mentioned in that post, this will be a lot easier. If nothing else you’ll definitely want to take your DSLR camera out of automatic mode for backlighting.

If you’re shooting in manual you can adjust your exposure so that you have better light on the subject. Because there is light coming from behind, the internal light meter in the camera will sense that the light is very bright and indicate that the shutter speed should be faster than it actually should be. Meaning that if you want your light meter to line up to the suggested exposure the subject will be underexposed.


Why does this happen? Basically what happens is that when you shoot a subject with backlight the internal light meter will see all the light coming from behind the subject and say hey, that’s all white light (this is what is on the right side of your histogram.) It wants to give you middle of the curve light. Whites will come out gray. {FYI, for similar reasons, this happens at the beach or in snow a lot too.}

Underexposed image in backlighting. You need to over ride your internal light meter.

Also FYI, this wont be the end of the world and you can adjust it in post processing, but you will likely have noise (grain) in the shadow areas.


Anywhoo, to avoid this you can override the meter and overexpose the image slightly. This is where things gets tricky and where the histogram comes in. The two ways I would recommend doing this is to either make an educated guess and over expose by half stop or full stop. If you’re shooting tethered this is really easy and you’ll be able to see right away if you’re in the right ballpark. Or you can use spot metering to take a reading off the area that you want to get the correct exposure. But here is the important thing. When you do this you have to make sure that you are not actually overexposing the image to the point that you are clipping highlights in areas that you’ll want to recover in post.


I intentionally clipped the highlights in this image to get a good exposure on the subject without reflections | Healthy Seasonal RecipesGeeky aside here: I will probably get crap for saying this, but I actually intentionally choose to clip sometimes when it is in an area I don’t plan to recover. As you can see in the above image, the areas that are clipped are supposed to be white anyway, so I don’t care if they’re clipped. I would rather get more information in the shadow areas and loose those whites. I was careful not to clip the glasses, so checking this on screen is really helpful. You can see that I have NOT clipped the highlights in the top edge of the back glass (as opposed to the first image I showed you above that is mostly red in the background of the two glasses) so if I wanted to brush down the highlights in post I could.


Use Bounce

Even with over exposing you’ll get some really bright brights and some really shadowy areas too. So that’s when a bounce card comes in. I covered this a little in this post about household items to improve your food photography. You can play around here to find what looks best to you. I have found that opposed to three quarter backlight or side light, I can be more aggressive with the bounce in backlighting.

Vegan and Gluten-free Broccoli Salad with Sweet Miso Dressing on Healthy Seasonal Recipes with cranberries, sunflower seeds and roasted shiitakes

In this image of this Broccoli Salad with Sweet Miso Dressing. I had a second (further away and also diffused) window shade open to the left of the subject that was functioning as my bounce.

Here’s that video I made to show you just how I do all of this when I shoot. In it, I also included my tips on post processing. Here is a before (the RAW is on the left) and after.

Post processing tips for backlighting | Healthy Seasonal Recipes

I feel like this is a huge topic, and I still have a lot to learn about it myself. So please let me know if you have any questions about what I have covered. I am happy to go into further detail, and if I don’t know the answer, I will find out for you!
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