4 reasons to embrace shadows in your food and product photography

I want to talk about my very favorite part of food and product photography right now– SHADOWS.

The trend in food photography used to be minimizing or eliminating shadows in favor of soft, airy and ethereal imagery shot with lots of diffused light and, while there is definitely still a place for that, I think that celebrating shadows is WHERE IT’S AT. Bring on the directional light, baby!

So, why embrace shadows in your photography? 

1. To convey a sense of time.

I don’t know about you but when I think of Summer, hot weather and long days come to mind. And with those, come bright light and strong shadows. If you are photographing cocktails, for example, and want to convey a sunny, poolside vibe, using soft, indirect light isn’t going to cut it. You need strong, hard light with defined shadows and high contrast to successfully communicate that hot weather feeling.

Similarly, when I see long shadows and golden light, I think of late in the day– almost dusk. Knowing this, you can use it to your advantage in your photography. By moving your light source to a lower position relative to your subject, you can elongate your shadows and shift the viewer’s perception of time.

2. To enhance a mood.

Shadows are the quickest and easiest way to create mood and atmosphere. Cozy winter hygge, a romantic night out, an evening walk on a moonlit night--- all of these involve shadows and immediately elicit a specific emotion. So, why not bring that vibe into your photography?

Are you a fan of the dark and moody style of imagery? Then shadows are your best friend. Put away your bounce card and accentuate those shadows instead, by guiding your light to hit only your subject (not the background) and placing a black card on the shadow side of whatever you are shooting.

3. To add visual interest

Shadows can be used like any other compositional element, adding additional texture and pattern that contribute to your overall story. Look at the images below, for example. The image on the left is soft, light and airy. The shadows are minimized, the light is diffused– it’s perfectly lovely, if that’s the look you are wanting. But look at how the photo changes when you alter the light to be a bit less diffused and more directional and add some intentional shadows. Suddenly, the whole story changes and you’re looking at a kitchen scene with sunlight streaming through the window. The addition of the shadows creates an entirely different feeling.

So, how do you add shadows intentionally? First, you need directional light. If you are working in a space where the light is indirect and diffused, it’s going to be very challenging to create shadows. Start with a single, directional light source. This could be the sun, (when it’s not being diffused by heavy cloud cover), a continuous light or a strobe. Place your light at a distance from your subject that creates the intensity of light you are wanting. Then, add your shadows by putting something (branches, a homemade gobo to give the impression of window panes or blinds, etc.) between your light source and your subject and BAM! You have shadows. 

To see some examples of what I am talking about, check out this reel and this one.

You can easily create your own gobo or “cookie”, by cutting out shapes in a piece of black foam core. If you want stronger and more defined shadows, place your gobo close to subject. For softer, less defined shadows, place the gobo closer to your light source.

4. To create a sense of place.

Whether you want to give the impression of someone enjoying a cup of coffee on a sun dappled patio or the feeling of a person prepping dinner in their kitchen with the late day sun shining through the window-- the addition of shadows help to describe PLACE. And when you include the feeling of place in your photography, you are more successful at communicating your story. 

Are you a fan of shadows in your work? How do you use them to enhance your photography? I'd love to hear!!

1 comment


Just wanted to say this is an awesome and really well explained post. Beautiful images! Keep up the good work!

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