How Cameras and Light LIE About Food
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Hey, let me show you a trick.
Lights, cameras and screens — three things
that have incredible influence over how you
perceive food, and three things that absolutely
can lie to you.
You think it doesn’t matter? Check this out.
Earlier this year, researchers at Kansas and
Tennessee State universities published a study
where they deliberately undercooked a bunch
of ground turkey patties. They cut the patties
open, and took pictures of them under different
kinds of lightbulbs. And then they showed
those pictures to a bunch of people and said,
“Hey, would you eat that?”
When looking at the patties under newer kinds
of light bulbs, like soft-white LED and halogen
bulbs, people were more like to say, “Yeah,
I’d eat that” — in reference to dangerously
Look, I’m not trying to say that you’re gonna
die of food poisoning if you don’t watch this
EXPERTS SAY THIS WILL DEFINITELY KILL YOU.
WHAT IS IT? FILM AT 11.
But at the very least, learning a bit of the
color theory behind all of this can help you
take better Instagrams of your dinner, and
it can help you spot when food marketers are
trying to manipulate you.
It can also help you understand the humbling
extent to which our own senses are simply
Let’s go back to my opening example. That’s
a plate of ham, the rosy-red color of which
has been set with sodium nitrite. I am flipping
a switch back and fourth that is changing
the color temperature. Warm light, cool light,
warm light, cool light.
“The color of your light 100-percent affects
the color of anything you’re taking a picture
That’s Christina Peters, a professional food
photographer in Los Angeles who’s been doing
this stuff for a quarter century.
“So, color temperature is the Kelvin scale.
So that’s where the color will be blue, neutral-ish,
to warm. You’re gonna be looking a little
golden, a little warm — or a little bit
blue, on the cool side”
I think it’s important that we understand
that when we talk about color temperature,
we’re not talking about literal thermal temperature.
When you think about incandescence — something
that gets so hot that it emits electromagnetic
radiation within our visual spectrum, aka
color — blue things are actually hotter
than red or yellow things.
But that’s the opposite of how we tend to
think about this particular spectrum in our
everyday lives. Blue is “cool” to us. Yellows,
reds, oranges — they’re the color of fire.
They’re “warm.” Yellow and blue are actually
“complimentary colors,” meaning they’re on
directly opposites sides of the color wheel.
When you mix them together, they cancel each
other out and you get some kind of gray. That’s
probably why we think about these colors as
being on opposite ends of a single spectrum.
So even though it’s not literally temperature,
we still measure color along this blue to
yellow spectrum with a thermal scale — Kelvin.
Now look what happens when I take this photo
of one of my steaks and make the temperature
“warmer,” i.e. more yellow. Now watch me make
it cooler, i.e. more blue.
It looks like Binging with Babish, right?
Babish, unlike me, is an experienced filmmaker,
and his videos have a really cinematic look.
One of the ways he achieves that is by making
everything kinda blue. Bluish, for various
reasons, is right now the chosen color scheme
among big-budget Hollywood filmmakers. When
I was in college, everything was green — think
“The Matrix.” Now, everything is blue — think
“Game of Thrones.”
Anyway, back to food. Restaurants tend to
favor “warm” light. A graduate student at
Iowa State University named Amy Elizabeth
Ciani actually did an experiment on this.
She had some people sit down for a meal. Without
telling them what she was doing, she gradually
changed the color temperature around the diners,
and at various points she asked them how they
were feeling. People felt measurably more
comfortable under the warm lights.
Christina Peters says food photographers have
known this forever. In general, warm light
makes people feel better, and it makes food
look better. Remember? Food show, hospital
show, warm light, cool light.
“I always warm up my food images. I always
warm up my people images, as well. Because
it’s more pleasing to the skin to have a warmer
tone than a blue tone with any person.”
Now, in addition to color temperature, there’s
another color spectrum that we tend to think
about: tint. If color temperature is hopping
from blue to yellow across opposites sides
of the color wheel…
“Tint is going from magenta to green.”
Peters actually ran into a tint problem one
time when she was shooting for a high-end
grocery store — shooting the meat department,
specifically. This is not that grocery store,
but it’s a similar one.
“If you kinda look at one type of light and
look over at the meat department, your eyes
take a second to adjust to it, and it looked
very magenta. So I was like, oh my gosh, they’re
filtering that. So I got my color meter, and
I put it up against the lights that were inside
the meat department and they were massively
They were trying to make their meat look really
red, because they know that’s what us consumers
expect of beef in particular. They’re also
trying to compensate for the fact that cut
raw beef actually turns brown as it oxidizes.
The color of light has a particularly big
impact on how we perceive steak. On the website
Chowhound, there’s a great thread where some
restaurant servers are complaining about a
common problem. They take a perfectly pink
steak to a diner on an outdoor patio, and
the diner insists that their steak is overdone.
Why? Because the sky is blue, and therefore
natural sunlight tends to be cool. Here, watch,
I’m gonna cook a steak, cut it up, and there
it is under the warm lights of my kitchen.
Now Lauren is gonna carry it out into the
living room. I’m having to adjust for brightness,
but I’m not touching color. Now we’re in the
living room, nothing but natural light from
the windows and … look at that. It doesn’t
look as rare, does it?
The meat industry knows this. Check out this
lighting guide created by food scientists
at Kansas State and my alma mater Penn State.
This is aimed at retailers: grocery stores,
butchers. That chart actually shows how different
meats look more or less perfectly pink depending
on color temperature.
Restaurants know this, too. As you can see
on Twitter, I am not the only person to observe
that steakhouses tend to be cave-like — few
windows near the dining area. A prime example
of this (get it, prime?) would be one of America’s
biggest steakhouse chain: Ruth’s Chris. I
sent an email to them asking if they indeed
keep out natural sunlight in an effort to
cast a nice warm artificial glow on their
steaks, thus making them look nice and pink.
“Hi Adam, Thanks for reaching out – this
is quite interesting! Unfortunately, Ruth’s
Chris is unable to provide a response at this
Can neither confirm nor deny. But I’ll give
you further evidence in the form of the exception
that proves the rule. One of America’s oldest
steakhouses, Peter Luger in New York, is bathed
in natural light — huge windows all around
the dining area. And as a result, the steaks
tend to look kinda weird, at least during
lunchtime. You can see the folks from Vox’s
Eater struggling with this phenomenon in a
video that they made about Peter Luger. I
suspect they intentionally ordered their steaks
unusually rare, and they clearly did some
color grading to this footage to make that
the steaks look pink, despite the sunlight.
How do I know for sure? Because they forgot
to do it to this one shot. See when I skip
from here to here? Whoops!
Now, one of the reasons you might not have
noticed this phenomenon until now is that
good-quality, well-operated cameras do have
a way of compensating for differences in the
color of light. It’s called white balance.
Here, watch, Lauren is gonna carry the plate
of ham from the warm lights inside the house
to the natural light in the living room and
then out onto the front walkway. Looks super
blue. Now, watch what happens when I adjust
my camera to a white balance calibrated specifically
for sunlight. It fixes the the problem. Basically,
white balance is changing your camera’s color
sensitivity with a goal of making, say, a
white thing look white in any light.
Most cameras have an auto-white balance function,
but they don’t always get it right, so if
you can control that manually, you might want
to try playing with that.
Our human perceptual system actually adjusts
for the color of light, too, when we look
at things in real life.
“Our eyeballs are constantly color correcting
every second our eyes are open. I mean, our
eyes are amazing, and that’s what makes this
so challenging, because we don’t actually
see light the way the camera is seeing the
I can’t tell you the number of times I have
been shooting food in this kitchen, and I’ll
look at the monitor, and then I’ll look at
the food in real life, and then I’ll look
at the monitor and look at the food in real
life, and they’re just not the same. Like,
I cooked this steak, I ate this steak, this
steak was perfectly medium rare, and it doesn’t
look like that in the camera. I theorized
at the time this might have been due to the
cool natural light coming into my my kitchen
from the windows. But Christina Peters says
it could have been all kinds of things.
“And especially when you’re photographing
something like a cut steak that probably has
moisture on the surface, even as you’re looking
at the steak and staring at it, if you were
to change your angle just by a few degrees,
you’ll notice reflections coming in, or it
You can read about all this stuff on Peters’
When she’s shooting for clients, Peters says
she has to do all kinds of crazy things that
are way over my head: back-lighting, three-point
lighting, gelling the lens. She uses decades
of experience and technical know-how to make
her shots look color-accurate, or not!
“I’m very inaccurate a lot of the time. Because
I’m trying to make the food look appealing.
And so, there are times when the steak might
actually be overdone and then I can just kick
extra light in there, lighten it up a little
in the center, and it looks like it’s medium.”
It’s such a hard thing for us to accept, because
we are so used to trusting our senses. Seeing
is believing, but it shouldn’t be, especially
when you’re looking at a photo or a video.
Here, let me give you one more example: dynamic
range. It’s really hard for cameras to accurately
render color on the extremes of brightness.
Extreme light things, called “highlights,”
tend to get rounded up to white, and extremely
dark things, called “shadows,” tend to get
rounded down to black. This is one reason
why everyone’s food photos on Instagram and
Twitter tend to look burned. Like, that sandwich
looks kinda burned, and I’m almost certain
that it wasn’t.
“A very inexpensive camera doesn’t have a
very large dynamic range. A very high-end
digital back will have a very large dynamic
range, so it can ‘see’ things — more detail
Your phone camera is a cheap camera, for example.
But most phones these days now have an HDR
shooting mode: high dynamic range. It basically
takes multiple exposures in rapid succession
at various exposure levels and then composites
them together. It’s a lie. Everything is a
I hope at the very least, this video has made
you a little bit more of a savvy, less credulous
consumer of food media – and indeed all
media. If you don’t believe that cameras are
lying to you — get one out and start shooting
a bunch of food with it. You will develop
an intuitive understanding of how the screens
in our lives are profoundly warping our perception
of reality. That is certainly what I have
learned making videos in here for you.
Though if you want to learn a little faster,
might I suggest Skillshare? Skillshare has
tons of amazing photography and videography
courses. Check out Tabitha Park’s course on
Adobe Lightroom, which is a great program
for doing color grading and other quick edits
to your photos. If you wonder why some people’s
Instagrams look way better than yours, this
is one reason why.
“I never share images that I haven’t edited,
and Lightroom is king.”
Then you might then want to graduate up to
Adobe Camera Raw, and Elizabeth Weinberg has
a great Skillshare course about how to use
just that to get those cinematic colors and
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And it’s not just photography. There’s tons
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Thanks so much to Skillshare for sponsoring
this video, and remember — don’t believe
“Oh, the pavement’s hot.”
“Can I eat it now?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Ah, it’s all stuck together.”