How to photograph cakes... the right way.
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So you’ve made your cake or someone else has but you paid for it so that technically gives you the right to say you’ve made it!
It’s a stunner, a real show stopper, so it wouldn’t be right to just eat the thing, you need to capture it’s beauty so that you can show everyone how amazing you are at baking, YES even if you bought it!
So as you sit there holding back the urge to scoff your face hole with all of that glorious cake, you think to yourself, “hmmm, wouldn’t it be cool if I knew how to photograph cakes?”
And so with a little help from some clever framing and cropping, you’ll have some awesome cake photos and no one even has to know that you’ve destroyed the kitchen in the process, win, win!
So, here’s how to photograph cakes.
So tell me... How do you photograph cakes?
You can’t learn how to photograph cakes without first learning about lighting.
Use Natural Light
Try to position your cake in an area where light is abundant, natural light that is.
In a room with plenty of windows with the sun’s rays pouring in would be perfect.
But like cake, you don’t want too much, well if its cake and you’re like me, then you’ll probably want the whole thing, but when it comes to light, too much can be a bad thing.
Too much can result in an unattractive shot, the harsh shadows cast by the light can be very unappealing so plenty of natural light, but not so much as to make the image look harsh.
If you’ve got the perfect spot, but the light is a little harsh, then you can simply use a diffuser or a thin curtain to soften the light that comes in, this should give you a better light to work with.
Make the most of the Golden Hours
For great photogenic lighting, you will want to try shooting during the golden hours.
The light that is produced during the golden hours is beautiful and soft with a nice golden hue and can help even the dullest of images look good.
They occur roughly one to two hours after sunrise and about two to three hours before sunset, so keep an eye out!
Using Artificial Lighting
Now I know that I’ve just told you to use natural light, but that doesn’t mean if there’s not much available to just not bother at all!
I know you really want to get into the “how to photograph cakes” bit but it’s very important that you get used to using artificial lighting, here’s some pointers to get you started:
Get yourself a good quality lighting kit such as the Neewer 2 Pieces Bi-color 660 LED Lighting Kit and get yourself used to the setup.
Have a play with the light settings, harsher, softer and the different colour temperatures.
If you don’t have an adjustable lighting system then you will want to get a diffuser as well to get a softer light.
You will also need a reflector too to bounce the light back into your cake and soften the shadows.
- Back lighting – Pretty self explanatory, the light source is coming from the back
- Side lighting – Again, it does as it says on the tin, the light source comes from the side (a good place to start for anyone wandering how to photograph cakes)
- Back-Side lighting – A mix of the two above and the light source comes from the back and to the side, diagonal if you like
Side lighting is probably the most popular choice for the majority of food photographers.
Setting it up
Get your artificial lighting of choice and if you can adjust the lighting, set it to your desired setting, something that is not too harsh is what you want to go for.
If you can’t adjust it just use a diffuser to soften the light.
For side lighting, place your light to the right or left of your cake.
For back lighting place your light at the back of your cake.
And for back-side lighting, place your light to to the back right or back left side.
Position your reflector opposite to your light source to bounce the light back onto the cake and reduce the amount of unwanted shadows
If you want more shadows simply leave the reflector out or move it further away from your cake depending on the look you are going for.
Decide on your camera settings.
Using manual mode will give you ultimate creative control and that is why I’d recommend getting used to using it.
I’ll discuss these setting a little later on but as a starting point you may want to use these approximate settings:
- Aperture = f/2 – f/5.6
- ISO = 100 – 400
- Shutter Speed = Really depends on light available
Take the shot!
And then in your camera settings there should be an option for custom white balance, select the image you have just taken and there you have it, custom white balance.
Alternatively you can just use this grey card for use in post processing, remember though, if you change your lighting, you’ll have to retake the grey card photo.
You should also shoot in RAW format as this will allow the most flexibility in post processing.
A little more on lighting Direction
So as I’ve mentioned there are three main directions when it comes to lighting direction and they are:
Back lighting – The best way to describe the location of the light source is if we imagine its position on a clock face and the cake is dead centre on that clock.
So on our cake clock, sounds great, back light would be at 12 o’clock.
Back lighting can be a little fiddly and you may need to play around with using reflectors and diffusers to get the right balance.
For example, with a bright back light, whether its from natural or artificial lighting, you may find that your shot is way too bright at the back but still quite dull at the front.
To balance this out you could use a diffuser to soften the light and add a reflector at the front of the cake at 6 o’clock to bounce some of the light back onto the cake, you should end up with a nice balance of lighting.
Side lighting – On our clock this would either be 3 or 9 o’clock.
Side lighting is easier to get right than back lighting and so is a little more forgiving, for this reason if you are new to food photography, this may be a good lighting direction to experiment with first.
This type of lighting is very common amongst any kind of food photographer.
Back-side lighting – Kind of obvious but this is a combination of the above lighting directions and on our clock they would be any where from 10 to 11 o’clock or 1 to 2 o’clock.
Over time you should try and at least get comfortable with each of these directions, even if you never plan to use them, it’s still good to know.
What good would it be if I was telling you how to photograph cakes without going over a bit of the ole food photography styling?
No good is what!
The star of the show is your cake, so why would you want anything in the background to detract from it?
Position your cake in front of a blank wall or even a large piece of poster board, no distractions means that your cake is centre stage, right where it should be!
By all means you can tactfully add little things here and there that compliment your cake, for example, say you have a cake with sprinkles on, it may be nice to put some of those sprinkles on the table the cake is on to bring the whole shot together.
The point I’m getting at is don’t go too overboard.
Props, Props, Props!
Now I know it’s not how to photograph cakes and tonnes of other stuff but props really can add to the finished picture.
However, if there’s only one thing I could say about props, it’d be to keep them in context.
Good cake photography can tell a story and one of the best ways to do this is through the use of carefully chosen props.
And carefully choose your props you must.
Always think when choosing your props, “does this make sense?” if it doesn’t, then don’t put it in your shot, if it does, then cool, chuck it in!
I’m going to exaggerate here but putting a gym shoe next to a cake wouldn’t really make sense but a cake knife would.
Try to add things that will add to the story you are trying to tell, candles, party poppers and confetti would all help in telling the story of a birthday party for example.
Some other considerations that you should take into account before adding props to your shot are:
- Try to avoid big, bold and visually striking props that could steal attention from your cake
- Whilst the prop should always make sense, you can also add props that traditionally wouldn’t be on a table setting, eg. if you had a themed cake, lets say a tennis cake, you could add tennis balls to add to the overall shot
- Use appropriately sized props, you wouldn’t need a machete to cut a cake!
- Be wary of the effect your chosen prop will have on lighting, will it add unwanted glare or shadows
Another one of the biggest parts in learning how to photograph cakes is composition.
Without it, you get the Facebook posts of people and their cakes that they’re so proud of but you just can’t help but feel that it looks like something you did at school and dropped on the way home… sorry Karen, that’s just the way it is!
The best angle for cake photography will ultimately depend on the cake you are photographing.
You should pick an angle that compliments the best features of your cake
Let’s take a look a few different angles.
The Head on Shot
Even though we’re talking about a head on angle, I would advise that you still add a little bit of an angle as this is much more interesting than a dead flat, head on shot, somewhere around 10 to 15 degrees.
This angle is best suited to tiered cakes so that you can show off the different layers of the cake and also its height.
The 45° Tilt Shot
This angle is a great all rounder and will work well with most cakes.
It highlights any features on the top of the cake but also the side and is a good middle ground between the above shot and the head on shot.
The Above Shot
This angle is taken directly from above so 90° in other words.
It is particularly good for cakes with intricately or interestingly decorated tops and this angle will show this off perfectly.
The above shot is not very well suited to tall cakes though as you won’t be able to see this in your finished picture.
The Close up Shot
Not really an angle but hey ho!
The close up is a great angle for any cakes with any intricate details that you want to show off, this could be piping, custom decals or any other small decoration.
The close up can be as close as an individual sprinkle or slightly further out with just a specific layer, both work well and both will give you very different, yet attractive results.
The Rule of Thirds
This great composition rule is used widely in all aspects of photography and works equally well with cake photography.
When you are framing your shot imagine the shot split into three equal thirds, both vertically and horizontally resulting in nine equal parts.
The concept is that you place important parts of the shot either along one of the lines, within one or two of the thirds or at the points where the horizontals and verticals intersect.
According to some studies we are naturally drawn to these intersecting points and so placing focal points on one of these intersections results in a more natural and aesthetically pleasing photo.
In the image above the cake has been positioned to take up the two thirds on the left, whilst the third on the right has been left relatively blank.
This adds a great contrast to this otherwise full picture and the spoon in the lower right corner may seem insignificant but without it, the picture would seem unbalanced.
Also notice that the hazelnut has been positioned very close to one of the intersecting points making for a subtle point of interest.
The Rule of Odds
The rule of odds is a tricky one to explain and kind of contradicts the symmetry composition rule. Simply put, using an odd number of subjects or cakes in our case, is visually more interesting and pleasing to the eye.
This is partly because the brain being a brain, likes to organise things into neat little pairs, this then creates an image that is perceived as being symmetrical (symmetry can be done well though) and dull.
So say you were photographing cupcakes, one cupcake would look better than two, three would like better than four and so on.
One thing to bear in mind with this rule is that it works best with smaller odd numbers, one through to about seven or nine.
After this the brain just treats them as groups, you could play to this though if you had three lots of say five, the brain would likely read this as if it were three single objects.
Symmetry is very much associated with beauty so why not use this in your cake photography.
Symmetry really exaggerates the point that good balance is key and it epitomises that concept perfectly, it’s hard to argue that something that is equal on both sides is unbalanced.
The same can be said for patterns, generally repetitive in nature patterned photos can be quite intriguing and like symmetry offer a great level of balance.
Caution needs to be taken with this one as if done incorrectly or if there isn’t anything very interesting in shot the result can be quite a dull uninteresting image.
Referring to the space around the main focal point (the positive space), negative space is particularly suited to a minimalist type style of cake photography.
It will help the viewer of your photo to really focus on the cake with very little else to distract them.
Difficult to get right but when you do, it can make for some very effective photos.
In order to know how to photograph cakes, you need to understand the camera settings you’ll use to take those photos.
To have ultimate creative control, you will need to know how to shoot in manual mode.
This will allow you to change the individual settings of exposure, they are:
- The Aperture
- The ISO
- The Shutter Speed
Each of them allows for a different effect and to understand how to use manual mode, you first need to understand each of the elements that make up exposure.
Articles to learn more about exposure and settings:
What is it?
The aperture refers to the size of the opening in your lens that allows light to hit your camera’s sensor.
Measured in f-numbers, a high f-number say f/22, is a narrow opening in your lens meaning it lets in very little light.
Whilst a low f-number say f/2, is a much wider opening that allows much more light to hit the sensor.
High f-number (eg. f/22) = Narrower opening = Less light to sensor
Low f-number (eg. f/2) = Wider opening = More light to sensor
What does it do?
The aperture affects the depth of field (DoF).
DoF determines how much of the shot is in focus.
A large / deep DoF = Large amount in focus
A small / shallow DoF = Small amount in focus
A large DoF will result in a picture that is in focus at every depth, so the foreground, the mid ground and the background would all be in focus.
A small DoF will result in only a specific depth of the picture being in focus, for example the foreground would be blurry, the mid ground would be in focus and then the background would be blurry again.
But what aperture gives you what effect?
A wider aperture / Lower f-number (eg. f/2) = A shallow / small DoF
A narrow aperture / Higher f-number = A deep / larger DoF
What is it?
The ISO refers to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light.
A higher ISO value = More sensitive to light
A lower ISO value = Less sensitive to light
What does it do?
As a general rule you want to shoot at as low an ISO as you can, this will give you the best image quality possible.
If you use a higher ISO value, you start to add a graininess to the image called noise, which can lead to an unattractive image.
Some cameras can handle higher ISOs better than others and will produce far less noise at a comparable ISO value.
Luckily with cake photography, for the most part you will be able to use a low ISO, but we’ll discuss any changes you may have to make shortly.
Higher ISO = More graininess / noise
Lower ISO = Less graininess / noise
The Shutter Speed
What is it?
The shutter speed is pretty self explanatory, it is the amount of time the shutter stays open and thus exposes the sensor to the light.
It is measured in fractions of a second, for example one twentieth of a second would be written as 1/20s.
When you get to times of one second or more it is written as the amount of seconds followed by a double prime or quotation marks, so two seconds would be 2″.
What does it do?
A fast shutter speed will capture any action dead in its tracks, whilst a slower shutter speed would capture the same action, but it would be blurred.
The shutter speed you choose will depend on what you are capturing.
I’d imagine that for the majority of your cakes, your cakes will be stationary and so a fast shutter speed will not be essential, this is what will allow you to use lower ISOs.
Putting it all Together
One of the key things you’ll need to know about how to photograph cakes is how you put all of these settings together.
Your goal as a cake photographer is to get your perfect exposure level by manipulating these three variables.
It’s a bit of a balancing act but once you get used to it, it almost becomes second nature… almost!
I’ll explain how you put all of these components together to get the perfect exposure by giving you three scenarios.
If you’d rather understand through a slightly dodgy analogy, then you may want to see this article here.
Scenario 1 - Fixed Aperture
With the aperture at a fixed value, we’re left with the ISO and the shutter speed.
So the aperture is letting in a fixed amount of light in.
There are two ways you could go to get the right balance of the other two variables.
Use a low ISO value, this is less sensitive to the light being let in by the aperture.
Because it is less sensitive to the light, it will need more time to collect that light, you give it more time by using a slower shutter speed.
So unchanged aperture + low ISO + slow shutter speed = Correct exposure
This would result in a very good quality image with little to no graininess or noise.
Use a high ISO that is more sensitive to the light being let in by the aperture.
As it is more sensitive to light, it won’t need as long to collect the light meaning you can use a faster shutter speed.
Unchanged aperture + high ISO + fast shutter speed = Correct exposure
This would result in an image with a lot more graininess or noise.
Scenario 2 - Fixed ISO
So the ISO value has determined how sensitive our sensor is to light.
As with the aperture there are two ways we can balance the aperture and the shutter speed to get the right exposure.
Use a nice wide aperture (low f-number) that lets in a lot of light.
As there is a lot of light being let in, the sensor won’t need long to capture all of the light that it needs.
Because of this, we can use a faster shutter speed.
Unchanged ISO + wide aperture + fast shutter speed = Correct exposure
This would result in an image with a shallow depth of field.
Use a narrower aperture (high f-number) that doesn’t let in much light.
As there is less light being let in, the sensor will need to be exposed to the light for longer.
To do this, we will use a slower shutter speed.
Unchanged ISO + narrow aperture + slow shutter speed = Correct exposure
This would result in an image with a large depth of field.
Scenario 3 - Fixed Shutter Speed
With a fixed amount of time that the sensor will be exposed to the available light we once again have two options.
Use a wide aperture (low f-number) that gives our sensor plenty of light.
And as there is plenty of light, we won’t need a highly sensitive ISO, so you can use a low ISO value.
Unchanged shutter speed + wide aperture + low ISO = Correct exposure
This would result in a high quality image with very little to no graininess and a shallow depth of field.
Use a narrow aperture (high f-number) that would let very little light in to the sensor.
And with very little light, you will need a highly sensitive ISO, so for this we will use a high ISO setting.
Unchanged shutter speed + narrow aperture + high ISO = Correct exposure
This would result in an image with more graininess or noise and would have a large depth of field.
You may want to consider using manual focus too as like with manual mode, it will give you the ultimate creative control.
And as we all know, auto focus can be a little temperamental at times, so why not give manual focus a try?
That's how to photograph cakes!
So that’s how to photograph cakes, I hope that these cake photography tips will help you in your cake photo taking adventures!
And like most things, you should use these tips as a base to start from, you can experiment to see what works for you and see if you develop a particular style.
Anything you do that helps yo take better cake photos? Leave a comment below