My Food Photography Woes

April 12, 2012

Food photography is hard.  Really hard.  It may just be my blogging nemesis.  My blogging archenemy, so to speak. 

I've debated and debated with myself about whether or not to actually write those words in a post.  But I've really found comfort in reading other bloggers' posts about their challenges ... knowing others experience similar difficulties and frustrations makes one, well ... feel a bit better.  So I decided to share my photography challenges with you.  Just in case it makes someone else feel even just a tiny bit better.  Or, to at least give you all a little laugh.  My behind-the-scenes secrets are about to be revealed!

I've discovered through my blog photography adventures that the natural light in my house stinks.  Not just my kitchen, but pretty much my entire house!  I didn't know I had this problem until I started The Kitchen is My Playground.  There is absolutely nowhere in my kitchen I can take a photo without using a flash.  So, all my in-process cooking shots have flash.  I know ... cardinal sin of food photography.  But sometimes, we just don't have a choice.  Well, at least I don't have a choice.  Not if I want to share photos of preparation steps.  Which I do.

So I've gotten creative and tried some different spots for staging my photos.

Many of my photos are taken outside on my back deck.  The light is decent ... not great ... but decent.  Depending on the time of day.  This, however, does present some other challenges of it's own.  Like wind.  And carting my dishes and other props outside.  And, even outside, light is a huge challenge!  Just check out the shade vs. bright sunlight areas of my deck.

Take a photo in direct sunlight?  Too bright.  Harsh lighting.  Shadows.  Reflection spots.  Like this ...

Post:  The BEST Vanilla Cupcake + the BEST Coffee Buttercream

Move to the shade?  Not bright enough.  Washed out.  Like this ...

Post:  1st Bloggiversary! ... & Barefoot Contessa's Coconut Cupcakes to Celebrate

Super hot summer day?  Frosting droops, salads wilt, ice melts, beverage glasses sweat.  Like this ...
Post:  Refreshing Blueberry-Lime Iced Tea

And what to do once cold weather comes and, oh the horror --- daylight savings time when you have a full-time job and can't make it home before dusk??  Well, then the outside photo options are completely gone.

So, I got creative inside.  I scoured my house for places, any places, that had decent natural light.  I found two.  Are you ready for them?  You're going to laugh.  Or at least smile a teeny bit.

1.  Our stairs in the foyer.  With a make-shift table set up on a 5 gallon bucket.

Post:  Slow-Cooker Pumpkin Butter - 1st grade's been cookin' again!

Do you know how difficult it is to make sure the banister, or carpet, or foyer wall isn't in the photo?  On the plus side, the stairs made it easy to get different angles and vantage points from which to take the photos!

2.  Our bathtub.  Yup, the garden-style bathtub in our master bath.  Again, with my make-shift table set up on a 5 gallon bucket.  Classy, huh?

Post:  Caramel Apple Cheesecake Squares

(Now you're wondering ... wondering which photos on my site were taken in the bathroom, aren't you?  hee, hee)

On days the sun streaming through the big window over the tub wasn't enough, I resorted to augmenting the light with an old lamp.

Post:  Chocolate-Almond Flourless Cake

Probably needless to say, neither of these spots were ideal, to say the least.  Pain-in-the-you-know-what to cart all my food, dishes, props, etc. upstairs to the bathroom.  Frustrated husband when I blocked the stairs for staging.  At the mercy of the literally one-hour-per-day that each of these spots had the natural light I needed streaming in through the nearby windows.  Which pretty much relegated my photo-taking to Saturday or Sunday afternoons, which is prime spend-time-with-my-husband time.  And I really don't like giving that up.

So, I decided to explore purchasing special lighting.  Now, I love blogging - don't get me wrong.  But it is a hobby, not a profession for me.  So, I do need to keep that in perspective.  The cost of special photography lighting?  Quite a bit.  More than I wanted to spend, anyway.  But I didn't give up hope ...

I found this tutorial to build your own photography lighting.  The perfect challenge for my very-handy hubby!!  He didn't want to follow the tutorial, but rather wanted to come up with his own design based on the tutorial concept. 

So, after several trips to the home improvement store, my DIY-photo lights were born!  Made out of ductwork pieces!!!  They look like something out of Star Trek, but, hey, they work... Kudos to my hubby!!

We haven't built bases for the lights yet.  So ... the 'base' that light is sitting in is ... a fondue pot!  Hey, whatever works.

Now I'm able to do my photo shoots in the dining room, right next to the kitchen.   No more lugging my stuff to the nether-regions of my house.  Here's a typical set up with my new lights.  Still looks crazy, but it gives me much more flexibility with when I can take photos.

Post:  Baby Shower White Chocolate Popcorn

I can shoot *pretty much* any time I want.  I'm still dependent on having at least a little bit of daylight coming in through the dining room window.  I think I would need about three more of these light contraptions to be truly independent from natural lighting.  So, at times, it looks about like a house of cards with white poster boards bouncing the light, or creating a sort of make-shift lightbox.

Even with this 'studio' dining room set-up, I'm still cramped in terms of space.  My HUGE, most-frustrating challenge!!  Since my light is limited in it's reach, I'm really limited in the span of the shots I can take.  Which is why most of my photos are close-ups.  I don't have the opportunity to take shots with wide spans, gorgeous back-drops and backgrounds, or fully-set tables and place settings.

Oh well.

I'll keep working on my photography.  While I am showing improvement (I think), I still have a long way to go.  Hopefully ... maybe someday ... I can prove a worthy adversary for this thing called food photography.

Header Photo Collage Posts:
Gingerbread Cookies  (taken on the stairs)
Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies  (taken in the bath tub)
Pizza Spaghetti Bake  (taken in the dining room 'studio' with my hubby's DIY lighting)
Granola {Oven & Microwave Methods}  (taken outside on the back deck)


  1. Your pictures are super gorgeous! I have the same types of problems {no lighting AT ALL, no room}, but my pictures are no where near as good. I also have a stunted food styling bone or something. Idk. I just stink at it. :)

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Styling is another thing I'm trying {'trying' being the key word!} to learn about. Who knew it would be so hard?? But yet we press on ... :-)

  2. I love all your photos! I need to get a set-up like that, with the lights. I have one good window for a few hours a day. After that? I'm hosed!

    1. Thank you, Dorothy! The lights DEFINITELY make photo-taking less stressful. I felt so confined by the sun's 'mood.' :-) Your pictures always look great!

  3. This is a wonderful solution! It's so great that your hubby jumped in and helped! I have one good window, otherwise I would have been carting everything around and setting up on buckets like you had to! You did a great job in the tub and on the stairs, by the way!

  4. Photographing is definitely the hardest part about blogging for me. Your photos are beautiful, though!

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! Photography is ABSOLUTELY the hardest part for me. Harder than I ever thought it would be. We just keep learning, right?

  5. Thanks for posting those details about your food photography trials and challenges. Very informative and entertaining. :)

    1. Glad the post was entertaining! I have to admit that I was laughing at myself the entire time I was writing it. Seems pretty crazy the lengths I've gone to chasing light around my house!

  6. Holy smokes, that is quite the setup! I'm not nearly that advanced, though I may need to get there. The natural light in my house is the pits, too - and I had thought it was pretty good when we got it! Alas, not for photography. I have found that photographing in natural light, even if it's dim, then editing it by upping the exposure or highlights is still better than flash. Or I use tons of indoor lighting and adjust my white balance on my camera and sometimes that isn't too bad, though nowhere as good as the real thing. I think I need to give in and get some good lighting setups though - and make backgrounds like you do. All my backgrounds are terrible and I always shoot so close up because of that since I don't have a good location to stage the picture. I love the challenge though, and I've learned so much by experimenting! Good luck with working on your photography - and sorry for the essay, but your post really piqued my interest. :)

    1. Hi, Gleeful! I appreciate your essay!! Even with the lights, I have to post-edit all my photos and bump up the brightness ... so, yup, I'm with you on that. I've found that thick foam poster boards work really well as backgrounds ... they block out all the "stuff" behind where I'm staging my shots. I have several different colors, but ultimately end up using the white ones the most. They serve a dual purpose hiding stuff and helping to bounce the light. I'm enjoying the challenge,too ... well, at least MOST of the time!

  7. Wow - You have gone the extra mile...... to me the cooking is the priority but it's disappointing when the photos do not look as good as the food did!! I suppose I should start to get more made me feel a little guilty!! (*wink*)

    Regards, Poots

    1. Didn't mean to make you feel guilty, Poots!! :-) I'm with you ... the cooking & taste of the food is absolutely the top prioritiy. But it is such a let-down to make this amazing food and then be unable to take a decent photo of it. And white/light-colored foods are the WORST subjects!!

  8. Ha! I love this! I never would have thought about taking pictures in the bathroom. So creative. Whatever you're doing it's working because the pictures look great. Thanks for visiting my blog at bulldogs and brown sugar.

  9. Amen, sister. Taking food pictures is hard work. Your pictures are so pretty, though, that I can tell that your hard work is paying off. I loved seeing all your different setups throughout the house. I've done similar things following the light during different times of the day and time of the year. I'm glad your got an artificial light setup to work for you. That is so nice to be able to take pictures whenever you want!

  10. This is a GREAT post. I use two daylight balanced bulbs on C Clamps attached to my cabinets. A little washed out, but "good enough" for now.

    Thanks for sharing this

  11. Love this, thanks for sharing the behind the scenes with the rest of us. Makes me feel so much better about the tv table I set up in the bathtub for a few photo sessions. Those glass blocks in bathrooms are a perfect filter for direct sunlight, hehe

  12. Fantastic. I can't wait to put my hubby to work. My favorite absolutely has to be the bathtub. Brilliant!

  13. Photography is my nemesis too. Every once in a while I take a shot I'm happy with, but struggle with finding that 'just right' spot in my house too. I've played around with a light box and rigging some artificial lights but nothing has worked as well as I would like. I may steal your hubby's ingenious idea with the duct work!

    1. It certainly can be frustrating, can't it?? The lights have worked really well ... definitely have your husband work something up for you!


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