One of the simplest ways to improve your food photography is by controlling the lighting with a reflective surface called a bounce. A bounce can be any white, silver or gold material that reflects light. While the effects may be tricky to see on first glance, they will make a big difference in the overall look of your photos especially when you are using limited natural light that is coming in through a kitchen or dining room window. You can use a bounce in a number of ways.. to subtly lighten shadows, to bring out detail in a dark part of your subject, or even to control reflections. The key is understanding which type of bounce to use and where to put it.
Bounces come in a variety of shades of white, silver and gold. White or silver bounces will reflect the light back onto the subject without changing the light's color, and I find that's generally what I want for food photography. Silver bounces are subtly different than white in the quality of the light, slightly increasing the lighting contrast. A white bounce will help maintain a smooth, soft light.
Gold reflectors, on the other hand, change the color slightly, imparting more warm tones (yellows and reds). If you are already shooting in natural light or with Tungsten studio lights, it's likely your image will be fairly warm already.
While most of the time, you'll be looking at ways to add light, there are times when there is actually too much light getting reflected back onto your subject. This is when you need a negative fill which absorbs light coming toward it rather than reflecting it back on the subject. A simple piece of matte black poster board works well, and is very inexpensive at your local art supply store.
One of my favorite bounces to use is styrofoam... it's free and if you spill something on it, you really don't care. I rescued 3 1' x 4' pieces of white 1 inch thick foam board from some speaker boxes we were throwing out. They are big and thick enough that I can prop them between my camera tripod and the table that I'm shooting and get some really nice, diffuse light to open up parts of the image. I also have a couple of small styrofoam blocks that came out of some other shipping container. These are only 4" x 6", but almost 2" thick, so they stand up really well and are easily positioned around any subject. For example, I was shooting some Italian plums this week with a lot of diffused backlighting. The plums were a gorgeous blue color, but fairly dark overall. I positioned the bounce between the camera and the subject, just out of view but as close to the plums as I could get.
The light from the window behind them was very lightly reflected onto the front of the plums bringing out their color and texture. The only difference between these two photos is the bounce.
Another important function of the a bounce is reflection control. If you are shooting a reflective surface, you are likely to end up with a lot of noise in the reflections. I was shooting some photos of my Kitchen Aid mixer the other day, and noticed that if I looked carefully, I could see the picture that was hanging on the wall in back of me in the surface of the mixer. Worse, there was a big dark "spot" on the mixing bowl that I found distracting to the overall image. By holding a bounce to the left of the mixer, those reflections became solid white, and looked more like reflected light than something that shouldn't be there.
I also have a couple of collapsible disc reflectors in a sheer white fabric. They can function as bounces or as diffusers if placed between the subject and a light source, and because they are collapsible, they are easier to carry around with you than a big 1' x 4' piece of foam board.
These bounces also have more cool gear associated with them... grips and stands to let you position them without having to grow a yet another arm. Of course, you'll have to have room for all those bounces and stands to fit around your camera and table and other props. But don't think you have to go down this path to be professional... you can get amazing results with the cheaper (or free) materials once you get the hang of it.
PS: If you are wondering why I was shooting plums in a cup, I'm in the process of making my own sourdough starter from wild yeast... the white stuff on the plums contains a lot of it, so I soaked them in the water I used to make the starter. I should have a Cookbook 411 post on it in the next few weeks if it turns out!
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Lara Ferroni is a former tech geek turned food geek who spends her days exploring the food culture of the Pacific Northwest. As a food writer and photographer, you might spy her learning to make kim chee in the back rooms of a local church, foraging for wild berries, or snapping away in the some of the Seattle and Portland's finest kitchens. You can find her work in publications such as Epicurious.com, Gourmet.com, Edible Communities (Seattle, San Francisco), Seattle Magazine, Seattle Metropolitan as well as numerous cookbooks, including Doughnuts: Simple and Delicious Recipes to Make at Home.