Culann here. D and I were talking about photography, and she mentioned that a lot of people on one of her favorite galleries do not know how to take good cake pictures. They do not seem to realize how much impact a good picture can give. I wrote this to clear up some of the novice mistakes I see.

The first step to taking a good picture of a cake (aside from making the cake itself) is to get a good setting to put it in. Your kitchen counter is generally a bad setting. No matter how good your cake is, it will look lost if your shot is cluttered. To that end, I generally use our dining room table. (For clarity of demonstration, however, I moved to a folding table in another room.) Since the far edge of the table would create a distracting line right through the middle of most of the pictures I take, I need some sort of a backdrop. The best and cheapest you can do for cake is to get several rolls of solid-color wrapping paper in various shades. These create a blank background that focuses all of the attention squarely on the cake. Lay the paper on the table underneath the cake and roll it out behind, propping it on a chair or having an assistant hold it up for you. The boundaries of the roll should not be visible in the finished picture, so give yourself plenty of room to the front.

How to Take Cake Photos

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This tutorial is not the "Complete Guide to Everything There is to Know About Cake Photography," but it should be thorough enough to get you taking decent pictures. These steps can vary somewhat in their execution, depending on the subjects. Sometimes you just have to experiment a little to see what works best for you. Here are the five things to pay attention to when taking cake pictures.

This is the sort of mistake I am talking about. The orientation is wrong, the background is cluttered, and the lighting is bad.

1. Setting

Setup with background propped on a chair.

2. Lighting

The next most important aspect is lighting. This is another time where your kitchen is a horrible place to take good pictures, because light is coming at your subject from all angles. That eliminates all of your shadows, making the entire scene look flat. If you turn all but one of your lights off, then you will get garish shadows that make your cake look more imposing than appealing. The solution for those with little or no resources is to find a window facing away from the sun and put your cake beside said window.

Placement relative to window.

Morning or evening light works best, because the light comes in at an angle; and north-facing windows work best, because they are guaranteed to not face the sun. This positioning by itself will yield an okay snapshot, but it needs something else. You will want a piece of shiny white foam board or poster board, available at most craft stores or Wal-marts. Do not use foil or anything too overtly shiny (like tinfoil), because this will create patterns of light on your cake that make it obvious what you are doing, or it will cancel out the main light source. Both options are bad.

Assistant holding reflector. Assistant has chosen to hide her identity. (Hint: look at the hair.)

Position the reflector on the opposite side of the cake from the window (having the reflector sitting on a chair or held by assistant is best).

Angle the board so as to reduce your shadows slightly, playing around with it to see what you prefer. 

Round, tiered, or sculpted cakes take a bit of careful reflector work. If you have too much light from the one side, you lose the other in shadow. If you balance it out evenly, you lose the dimensionality. Make sure your reflector is close enough to cancel the shadows on the dark side about halfway. From there, fiddle around with it until you get it where you want.

Above Left: Too much reflector; there are no shadows to show shape or detail.

Above Center: Reflector is set properly. Shadows are subtle, but present. A little more would also work well.

Above Right: Too little reflector; shadows are overstated and ugly.

Never backlight or light directly from over your shoulder. This creates evil-looking shadows or loses the subject entirely. You want to shoot roughly parallel to the light source or angle away from it. 

Above Left: Backlighting - there is only one shadow, and it hides everything we want to see.

Above Right: Frontlighting looks awkward and loses the useful shadows on the roses, not to mention that moving far enough away to replace the background would move me too far away from the light.