A Beginner's guide to Shooting in Direct Sunlight

Part One : Position, Direction and Story 

In my early days of photography, one of the key pieces of info I heard over and over was to avoid shooting in direct light. " Direct light causes hard ugly shadows, we don't want that. Always use a diffuser!". Because of this misinformation, I spent many-a-times standing around during a shoot, waiting for clouds to form. I thought there was no way I could get a good shot with direct natural light. 

While I perhaps wouldn't go so far as to say it hindered my creativity, it did certainly take me a while to realise that actually, direct light is not something to shy away from and actually, can produce some really beautiful imagery, if done right.

This post will take you through some of the basics and fundamentals of direct light in food photography.

So what exactly is direct light? As described by brocolor.com, direct light is "any kind of light that has a direct source and is pointed towards the subject." What makes direct light different from the more traditional indirect light seen in food photography is that direct light has no filter to diffuse the light source. That means, no scrim, no softbox. Shadows are darker and stand in greater contrast to the highlights.

Let's take the example below. This is the exact same image, taken no more than a few minutes apart. The thing that sets the two images apart is the use (or lack thereof) of a diffuser (which if I remember in this case, were the clouds).

You can see that the ice cream scoop on the left has higher exposure on it, as well as the contrast on the wheat leaves in the lower left, and there are highlight 'hot spots' on the tiled backdrop. Even the cone itself is producing a more defined shadow.


Although direct light can make for some great photography, its use is not always fitting, or even desirable. Direct light photography works best for drinks and summer scenes.


- Due to the translucancy of drinks, spirits and cocktails, direct light creates a particularly striking effect on the liquid,  Have a look at the two examples below,of how the light hits liquid and creates coloured reflections and almost glowing specular highlights.

Summer Food Scene

Salads, ice-creams and summer mezze boards all work great in direct light. Why? because the direct light works perfectly to tell a bigger food story. 

Take a look for example at the image below of the halloumi salad. The lighting, the colours of the dish, and the ingredients selected all work together to tell a story of a hot, midday summertime food scene. Even the marble, stone-like backdrop invokes feelings of the outdoors (as apposed to grained wood, which although comes from nature, feels much more cozy and home-like).

Part Two: Post-editing in Lightroom

Like with all other forms of photography and particulary food photography, the editing process that comes next is equally as important as the shooting itself. In the case of direct light, we are focusing on manipulating the light, shadows and colour tone to achieve a harmonised but complementary look.
What this means is;
  • contrast but not too the point of loss of detail
  • defined shadows
  • clear highlights that are not blow out, or 'burnt'
  • A colour story that feels adapted to the scene (most often warm tones)

These glasswear photos  above were exactly the same out of camera. The changes that you can see here are down to careful editing on Lightroom.  For the image on the left, the differences are;

  • Reduced saturation of the red
  • Reduced overal saturation by 10 stops
  • Shallower, wider S-curve
So while both images certainly invoke a summery feel, the one on the right feels more like something you would shoot in a hotter, mid-afternoon in August, as opposed to the one on the left wich looks like it may have been taken earlier in the day. This goes to show that you don't need to shoot at different times of the day for different results, and that Lightroom can do that for you.

Taming the highlights

Direct light does not mean blown out light - highlights still need to hold some detail and texture. Take a look at the before and after of the salad photo below. Even though the highlights have been dramatically decreased and the shadows increased on the salad leaves, the photo still maintains its direct light, summertime feel. This is because those highlights and shadows created by the harsh light are contrasted enough upon capture that this info is kept in Lightroom, even with adjustments. The greater the contrast when shooting, the less likely you are to lose that tonal contrast info in post.

As you can see, the topic of direct light in food photography is a huge one, and this post covers the surface essentials. In a follow-up post, I will be deep-diving into angles, direction of light and even artificial vs natural direct light.

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