Food Photography: My Shooting Setup With Artificial Light

>> Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Today I'm going to be showing you my photography set up, how I set things up to shoot with my light stand. I've told you in previous posts that I am not a professional and much of what I know is from trial and error. In the beginning my setup was simple, I used sunlight, placed food or ingredients on table, adjusted the camera setting, shoot and done. I began blogging in July of 2009, being that it was in the summer there was plenty of light to shoot. But as the Autumn approached I needed to figure out a way to keep shooting and started learning about artificial light. (You can see my post about shooting when sunlight is not available here.) I kept practicing with the light, moving it around, up and down, until I felt that I was going in the right direction. There were plenty of errors and bad photos along the way, but now I am happy with my setup.

In a previous tutorial post I told you that I use a light stand like the one above, with a flourescent lightbulb and a white umbrella. The white umbrella is used to diffuse or soften the light. The umbrella helps spread the light in a more direct area. It creates a softer light that shooting without an umbrella wouldn't. The bare lightbulb will give you harsh light and can cause overexposure or blowouts in some areas of your photos.
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This graphic above shows you how I set up a shot. I place the light stand off to one side, the light bulb faces the inside of the umbrella and the front or outside of the umbrella is what is pointed at the food. The subject or food is in the center and often times I use a reflector facing the light and on the side of the food. The reflector is used to bounce the light to the food in order to get rid of dark shadows. (see sample below) If you are shooting with sunlight coming in from a window you can emulate this set up as well. Sometimes if I want a different look with a darker or moodier light I won't use the reflector. It really depends on what kind of look you are going for.
To bounce light back to the subject I use a reflector kit, a 5 in 1 reflector kit.
5 in 1 Reflector kit; food photography; reflector; silver; white; diffuser; black
It is a collapsable round reflector disk that has a reversible cloth and folds up into its own small pouch. It has 5 options, gold, white, silver, black and translucent to use as a diffuser. I prefer the gold, white and silver sides to bounce back light to the subject. Basically bouncing the light adds highlight to the food where the light from the light source would not fall. The black side can be used to absorb too much light, but I never use that side. The translucent layer can be placed in front of a light source (e.g. lightbulb or natural light), to prevent harsh lighting and shadows. I will teach you about the translucent side another time. Below are samples showing you the results with the different layers of the reflector I use. (Please notice that results would be different on a lighter background. The background and shooting surface below is black, and some of the light is observed by the black surface. Shooting on a white surface would result in brighter photos.)

Gold Reflector Samples:
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Golden reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to
Silver Reflector Samples:
silver reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to
silver reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to
White Reflector Samples:
white reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to
This 5 in 1 kit is one of my favorite tools I own because of the photo results and for it's multipurpose. You can use any of the sides as a background, and I have. If you are thinking about buying one of these reflectors, here is a link to give you an idea of the price range. You can buy some fairly inexpensive ones but be warned that they may not last as long as their more expensive counterparts. If you are not in the market for a reflector you can also use a whiteboard or even a mirror to reflect light back to the food.
props; kitchen towels; scarves; napkins; paper; construction paper; art; and crafts paper; dried leaves; ribbons; lace; dried flowers; fake plants; wood table; baskets; dishes; food photography props; spicie foodie; how i shoot; light setup
The other part of my tools or setup are my props. I keep a very small amount of props, all that you see in the photo fits into a small basket and that's all I use. From the beginning I knew that if I started thinking about needing to buy a bunch of props and dishware, I would be wasting energy that I needed to direct on learning my camera and lighting first. As time went buy, I began experimenting with a few props. I feel that it is the food that should be the center of attention and not the props, so I tend to not use many. What I do use are tablecloths, place mats/table mats, kitchen towels, small pieces of fabrics, flowers, plants, ribbons, and color paper. The color paper is a great and inexpensive way to change it up a bit. It's just construction paper/arts and crafts paper that you can buy virtually anywhere. But perhaps my favorite things to shoot on are my small brown table and the black wood square plank you see in these photos. As for my dishware, I own white dishes. In some ways white dishes are easier to use than colorful dishes. The white dish will reflect light around the food, so this can help to light the food better. I do like colorful dishes and still use some now and then. If you are using colorful dishware, I suggest you use ones that compliment the color of the food. This will help balance the photo better.

The most important thing is practice, practice, it doesn't matter if you own a humble point and shoot or a fancy DSLR. I know many of you say you don't have the time to spend shooting photos before you eat. But if you can find 10 or 15 minutes to play around with your camera you will greatly benefit from it. Experiment shooting things on different surfaces, plates, or in different stages of preparation. If you are using artificial light play around with it by moving it around the subject and seeing what has the best results. Practice using a whiteboard or reflector to see how this improves the image. Once you have some practice with setting up the light and plating the food, it will become both easier and faster for you to photograph food before sitting down to eat. The key to all of this is to just keep learning and be creative with what you have before worrying about moving forward.

Do you do any post editing to your photos? I've seen some people saying that they don't like it, don't agree with it and they think it's wrong to do it. I not only disagree but I also think it's a silly attitude to have. This is as much a part of digital photography as properly developing film in a dark room was to film photography. You can see the great results that can be achived with the most minimal of editing to your photos. This photo literally took me 1 minute to adjust. You be the judge, which do you think is better?
See how much punchier the image is? The haze that digital photos have straight out of the camera makes images look dull and soft, you don't want that because that's not what it looks like in real life. Something this simple can be the difference in getting your images accepted by sites like Foodgawker, Tastespotting, Tasteologie or any other food photography sites like them. Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments. More tutorials on the way...


Sommer J February 11, 2011 at 11:02 AM  

Hokkaido my love! What a perfect subject ;)

Great tutorial! I wish I could have fancy light set up, but my lil ones would be swinging and climing it like the lil monkeys they are ;) I would love to try those Ego lights but I am sure they'll do the same to that somehow. I am really trying to learn the lights. I am learning to bake more for the blog during the winter or make early dinner/lunch on the weekend for light purposes.

I think post processing is key, too. It helps with light or a finger smudge and sharpening...I am *hoping* to take a class here soon..

Spicie Foodie February 11, 2011 at 11:14 AM  

Sommer, I was so happy to have found the Hokkaido the other day:) It's funny because the setup really isn't so fancy, but it does work good for me. It's good that you are finding natural light to shoot. I just don't get any light in my flat in the winter so this is how I have to do it.

Emily Malloy February 11, 2011 at 11:20 AM  

You rock the Casbah. Love the tips.

Paaka Shaale February 11, 2011 at 11:21 AM  

Fabulous post neena. There is so much to learn from you. I am looking forward to more tutorials from you :)

Anncoo February 11, 2011 at 11:33 AM  

Thank you Nancy for this great tutorial! I've learned something from you today :)
Have a great weekend.

Chef Dennis February 11, 2011 at 11:36 AM  

hi Nancy
what a great post on something that each one of us can use to imporove on! You are so right about adjustments, in the digital age it is a must! The food should be the focus....sigh...if only one thought that way, it seems to much is done on styling, it should be about the food!
Thanks again for sharing you wealth of knowledge with us!

Belinda @zomppa February 11, 2011 at 2:11 PM  

Great piece! You're a natural at this. Love the little basket of props.

All That's Left Are The Crumbs February 11, 2011 at 3:02 PM  

Thanks for all of the tips! I am seriously wanting an Ego light but I still haven't found a way to justify the extra shipping they charge to get it to Hawaii.

claudia lamascolo February 11, 2011 at 5:57 PM  

Amazing photography you have no idea how in the DARK no pun intended I am.... i really would love to have you here to show me how this is done. I am stumped on lighting and photo shop!

Susan February 11, 2011 at 7:28 PM  

Photography is the challenge and bane of just about every amateur out here in cyberspace! Thanks for the tips ... this wintertime lack of natural light thing is such a frustration! You really do need to have some reflectors and help with stands and bulbs ... I wish I had a closet that I could just set up as a permanent mini-studio place with table for display, lights, and shelves for storing fabric backdrops and props, but alas...

Memória February 11, 2011 at 7:51 PM  

I agree that food should be the focus, too. What a great tutorial. Thank you.

Torviewtoronto February 11, 2011 at 9:13 PM  

thank you for sharing lovely explanation and very true

Pacheco Patty February 12, 2011 at 8:58 AM  

Hi Nancy,
Thanks for sharing your photography tips on lighting, reflecting and editing digital photos. I look forward to your next installment. I also like your use of black backgrounds, it's so dramatic and rich looking. Have a nice weekend;-)

whatsfordinneracrossstatelines February 12, 2011 at 1:22 PM  

Hi Nancy,
I've never used a reflector, I can see how it does make a difference. I like how moody some of your photos look. I would like to add that to some of mine. I agree with your trial and error process, I think it's the only way to find what you like. I think fixing the photos is fine, I think that I prefer really good food shots over something that is overly composed and has too many props.
Happy Valentines Day!

Sandra February 12, 2011 at 2:55 PM  

This is more helpful tutorial..Nicely done Nancy!

MsByn February 12, 2011 at 3:28 PM  

Your blog is gorgeous and as inspiring as always. I love the photos and all of your tips! I've given you the stylish blogger award, if you want to participate, you can come and pick it up here:

FamilySpice February 12, 2011 at 10:10 PM  

What can I say that hasn't been said above??! Great information, as always. You have given me lots to learn and think about!

She's Cookin' February 13, 2011 at 1:24 AM  

Nancy, thanks for taking the time to put together all these examples and share your photography skills with us. I bought a very similar reflector kit and must start experimenting with it more. I've mostly used the diffuser. I totally agree that photo editing is part of digital photography and there's nothing wrong with enhancing your photos. Hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day!

Simply Life February 13, 2011 at 7:08 AM  

wow, this is so helpful! I still use natural light and just turn on the overhead light, when possible. I'm wondering about tips you may have for setting up a little photo area in a small apartment with a tiny budget? Thanks again - great post!

scrambledhenfruit February 13, 2011 at 2:19 PM  

Thanks for the tips- your photos are always gorgeous!

Victoria February 13, 2011 at 5:42 PM  

Once again, a great tutorial!! I often use artificial light (when the sun goes down there isn't much I can do) and generally just use the available light where I am, but I love seeing all the different reflectors you used, and it's also nice to know that you have limited props that you use. It's much more realistic for me to be able to emulate that then go all out and have closets full of props to take pictures with, haha.

penny aka jeroxie February 13, 2011 at 6:48 PM  

that is like a professional set up!

Stella February 13, 2011 at 9:31 PM  

This post is so bookmarked;-) Thanks for this, Nancy! Ooh, and I used your other night time photography post to shoot a vegan coffee cake. I got a couple of really good photos in terms of lighting and exposure. My composition wasn't so wonderful, but it was a test just to see if I could do it. Anyway, I did b/c of your post...:-)

Victor February 14, 2011 at 11:43 AM  

Thanks for the huge tip and tutorial, I was trying to figure a way to position correctly the light, and the pictures never turn out right!

Claudia February 14, 2011 at 5:31 PM  

Fascinating. The differences are vivid. Thank-you.

Bren February 16, 2011 at 10:43 AM  

nice post with great info. i have a "fancy DSLR" and have yet to really throw myself into all the details of using it. I need a great lamp like that and some tone reflectors... a much needed investment! Great looking squash!

Boulder Locavore February 16, 2011 at 11:14 AM  

I'm over the moon about this post. Is this not the center of all challenges with food photography? I totally appreciate the merits of natural photography but like you in Colorado this time of year I cannot make that happen. I too have been experiementing, have the same lighting set up and am hungry for more tips like yours. Going to order the reflector kit now! Thank you, thank you for doing these posts!

Magic of Spice February 18, 2011 at 12:43 PM  

Hi Nancy, sorry I missed this one before. I have been thinking about reflectors or something of that nature to help with shadows. I definitely agree about the editing adjustments and really need to spend some time learning to utilize my editing software :) Excellent tutorial!

Dionne Baldwin - Try Anything Once February 18, 2011 at 12:50 PM  

As someone who lives in a state with very few hours of good natural light I really appreciate this! This cuts down my trial and error time by a lot. Thank you for sharing this! That squash looks beautiful.

FoodieAnn February 20, 2011 at 11:05 AM  

Awesome article... Good to see the work happening behind each of your photographs...:)

Terra February 26, 2011 at 9:30 PM  

This was a very helpful post, Thank You! I agree, photo editing is all part of the process as a photographer. The picture you share at the end, where it has been edited. It makes such a difference being edited, and looks crisp, and clean.

Jenny @ Savour the Senses March 10, 2011 at 1:10 AM  

This is awesome thanks so much for your advice! I am a noob to food photography and I constantly feel like I am struggling with the lighting! Thanks for the help =)

Cooking Rookie April 13, 2011 at 5:26 PM  

Thanks, this was a great tutorial. Your photos are AMAZING, some of the best I recently saw.

Vicki Bensinger July 12, 2011 at 6:30 PM  

Wow what a great tutorial! So really that's all you are using besides a white umbrella and your camera? Do you get the umbrella at a camera store?

I so want to get my photos to look better. How do you put your name on your photos? I wish you lived near me so that you could give me a private lesson. Amazing photos!!!

Thanks for the tips. Now to read the rest of your tips.

Vicki Bensinger July 12, 2011 at 8:08 PM  

I was just checking the amazon and there are so many. I noticed yours was an SP 5 in 1 and checked that out as well for $44.95 for a 42 inch. What size is yours or do you recommend?

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