Food Photography: What Lights To Use When Sunlight Is Not Available

>> Friday, January 7, 2011

Photography Tips & Tricks, food photography
It is said that food is the hardest subject to photograph. Why? Because after a few minutes the food will change colors from oxidation, cool down or warm up and melt, the moisture and water droplets will begin to dry out or run down the subject, etc. Let's face it if you leave food to sit out you know how ugly it can look after a while. So when it comes to food photography it is important to plan ahead.

Before I begin with the inaugural photography tutorial I would like to take a minute. I decided to start sharing some photography tutorials (tips) because of you guys. Some of the most common questions or comments I get are regarding my photography. I am not a professional but rather someone who has a love of all things photography. I started with a basic or point and shoot type camera than gradually worked my way up to a DSLR camera. What I have learned has been by practice and picking up a few tips here and there. I want to make it clear that my tutorials and tips are just that, tips. I am not saying my way is the only or best way of doing things, it's my opinion and my choice. If along the way you guys learn or pickup somethings, than mission accomplished. Thank you and now on to the tutorial.
garlic; spice; garlic clove; white; fresh garlic; cloves; white; brown; table; food; flavor; herb; taste; healthy; close up; closeup; garlic bulb; clove; orange; amaryllis family; Amaryllidaceae; Liliaceae; Allium sativum.
*Shot with indirect sunlight.*
Us food bloggers want to shot nice photos of our food and want them to represent the plate of food we are about to eat in the best light possible. I think we can all agree that it's disappointing and even frustrating after cooking and plating our food and not being able to snap a decent photo. I'll admit to those horrible shots (and have the proof on the blog archives) But, hey we only learn from our mistakes right? The cliche saying practice makes perfect, well it's said for a reason. Even the great masters Ansel Adams, Richard Avendon, Herb Ritts David LaChapelle, Dorethea Lange, Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and any of your favorite photographers-they all started from the beginning and by practicing. That being said the first lesson or tutorial I am going to share with you is a bit of a strange place to start because it's jumping a step. While I had my first basic tutorial ready, I felt it would be best to address the common problem and most asked question I am seeing and getting about photography right now. Lighting. When shooting food or really any type of photographs natural/sun light is the best option. The light is nice and even, soft and makes for a prettier more natural photo. In the northern hemisphere we have just started our winter, this means shorter days and the sun has set by 4 or earlier. So obviously natural light is out of the question. A (unrealistic) way to fix this issues is if you can get all the cooking and photos shot before the sunsets.

These are the lighting options when sunlight is not available and can apply to any type of photography.

1. First before you go any further turn off or disable your camera's flash. (Now please don't be insulted if you use the on camera flash.) The on camera flash will not help in shooting appetizing photos of food. It creates harsh lighting which flattens the food and there is no dimension in the photo. Learning to use your camera without the on camera flash is a great thing that will help improve all types of photography. You can see the difference in samples below.

Artificial light options .

Flash Guns,
*Click image for more Flash Gun options*

2A- Flash Guns: Some cameras have the option of attaching a flash gun. I personally didn't like it, it turned me off and I gave up on learning to use it properly. Sorry no tips on flash guns from me. If anyone has any tips let me know and I can host your tutorial. Below is a sample of how to use a flash gun.
Camarones Al Mojo de Ajo

2B-You could use the light from the lamps or ceiling light fixtures in your kitchen or house.The bad side to those is that the light output can be low.
A way around this it to use multiple lamps to provide enough light or use fluorescent bulbs which have a higher light output. You may also need to steady the camera with a tripod or by setting it down to prevent blurry images, and/or shoot at a higher ISO - which can result in lower quality images. Another important thing is that you will need to learn about white balance, learn how to change the white balance accordingly. White balance is what helps your images have the correct tone/color when shot with different light sources. (In the future I will be doing a tutorial on white balance to further explain.By the way most cameras have the option to change the white balance.)
This photo above was shot using a regular house lamp with a 45w bulb, at ISO 1600, Aperture F3.5 at 1/125 sec. You can see that there is a decent amount of light shot as is, but still a bit too dark. The image is out of the camera without any editing.
With a small adjustment I can brighten it up a bit more. But what you won't see on a small size photo like this is the digital/image noise that appears when shooting with a small amount of light at ISO 1600, and brightening it up using photo editing software. So this is not the best choice, but if you can get enough small lamps to shoot and lower the ISO you could improve the image quality.

2C- The following option I will be taking about is the option I use when sunlight is not available. I use a fluorescent light clamped to a light stand and diffused with a white umbrella. Very similar to the image below.
This is an inexpensive setup that is easy to disassemble and set aside when not in use. (**UPDATE: The same kit I use like in the photo above, can be purchased at Amazon for $29.99. This price includes the stand, umbrella and lightbulb- a great price!**) Again I need to recommend that you learn how to change the white balance on your camera otherwise you will end up with images that have the wrong color cast. (You could also adjust the white balance in photo editing software but that adds another step and more work for you.) The image below is how I set up this shot, In another tutorial I will go into further details on the exact setup of how I shoot a photo for Spice Foodie.

The photo below is straight out of the camera, shot with a fluorescent clamp light diffused through a white umbrella and a small reflector to the side. At ISO 200, Aperture F5 at 1/200 sec.
This is the same photo after a slight contrast adjustment, simple and clean.
There are other types of studio lights available that are more expensive and have more controls, like flash, but I think this set up/kit is a great way to start, learn and see immediate results.

2D- There is one other option I have heard about, the Lowel EGO lights. These lights are tabletop lamps that are easy to move. I've never used them but I first heard about them on Steamy Kitchen and Jaden gives them a good review. Chef Dennis also recently spoke about them and gave a few links for more information. You can purchase them from Amazon for about $90 each. Do any of you use these and do you like them?

Ego Digital Imaging LightLowell E1-92 Ego Two Light Set

Now I have some questions for you. What type of light source do you use when sunlight is not available? Of the options I listed above which would you be most likely to use? And last question what tutorial do you want to see next, cameras explained, my light set up when I shot a photo for my blog or do you have something else you'd like to see?


Whats Cookin Italian Style Cuisine January 7, 2011 at 5:52 PM  

Well without a doubt I am SO bookmarking this one! I have photo equipment, studio equipment, 1000k camera plus lenses and still don't come close to these gorgeous shots! Why because I am a want to be photographer! 'I love the differences you have shown here. I have harsh lighting all the time but with Foodgawker 162 our or 167 pictures sent in were composition. and/ or harsh lighting thank you so much for posting I have to finish reading this now such valuable info!

Unknown January 7, 2011 at 6:14 PM  

Nancy, this is very useful but since I don't have a DSLR, I have not much idea about the effect of aperture opening and speed. The lighting part is good, I normally use natural sunlight, so thank goodness I live in the tropics! If I could choose away from natural light, I think the Lowel EGO are the easiest to use and create great photos (from other blogs).

What I'm interested for future tutorials is to learn more about how you style your food and photo composition. I'm really bad at this, but would really like to improve! Thank you for taking the time to do this precious tutorial, we do appreciate it!

Nancy January 7, 2011 at 6:42 PM  

@Claudia, I'm glad you found it useful.

@Maya, I plan on discussing more about those features and how to get around it with other types of cameras. You are lucky to have great light year round. Ok I will add styling and composition to the tutorial list, thank you.

FamilySpice January 7, 2011 at 6:58 PM  

Thank you so much for posting this! Lighting is a HUGE issue for me as I have a dark kitchen/family room and most of what I cook must be photographed in dark conditions. I invested in a flash for Nikon D60. The trick is to bounce it the right way, which takes time to figure out. I'm still learning. It also has a diffuser on it, which keeps the light specs from showing up on your food. I am also relatively savvy with Photoshop, which is a big no-no for some foodies, but I don't care! I was thinking of investing in an EGO light. Can't wait to read the rest of your tutorials. I tend to spend minimal time on styling, as my family is usually eagerly waiting for dinner to be served and I'm tired and "not in the mood" to style the meal!

All That's Left Are The Crumbs January 7, 2011 at 7:03 PM  

Thank you so much for this post. I am really inexperienced as a photographer and it is so frustrating to have poor photos. I should have great lighting because of where I live, but I guess I just need a lot more practice. I did look into the lights that Chef Dennis mentioned but the shipping was almost as much as the light itself.

Belinda @zomppa January 7, 2011 at 7:24 PM  

These are so incredibly helpful!!! I have been trying to figure out what is the best lighting situation for helpful. Thank you!

Kim - Liv Life January 7, 2011 at 7:31 PM  

I have the Ego and am really happy with it! For the month of November my shots were consistently, well, for lack of a better word, bad. After getting the light in early Dec I have seen a marked improvement in my shots. Even still, the lighting is not perfect. A set of two lights would be optimum, but I'm so far doing fairly well with just one.
Thanks for your tutorial! I love reading about what everyone else is doing and I always learn something. I did here too... Nicely done!

Green Girl @ A little bit of everything January 7, 2011 at 7:42 PM  

thanks for the tutorial Nancy. I learned a little bit more.

since I'm without a camera right now I'd like to see a tutorial on cameras to help me decide what to buy.

Have a wonderful day

Unknown January 7, 2011 at 8:09 PM  

Thanks for the tutorial! I've been debating whether or not to get the white umbrella or the Lowel EGO light

Green Girl @ A little bit of everything January 7, 2011 at 8:11 PM  

Hi again.
I remembered that most of my photos are rejected by Foodgawker for composition, a tutorial on that would be perfect, thanks

Cristina January 7, 2011 at 8:59 PM  

Fantastic post on photography lighting.

I use several techniques for lighting when natural light is not available. I have the Lowel EGO lights, but have found that they practically have to be up to the food and tilted towards the food to get the best out of them. They work well in confined situations.

Victoria January 7, 2011 at 10:58 PM  

Great to find your blog from Foodiva's Kitchen :) I agree, lighting seems to be the biggest problem with photographing food, at least for me. If I can't use natural light, I use the lights in my house, and I adjust the white balance later on my computer (I know I can do it on the camera, but for some reason I guess I feel like I can control it more manually later). My biggest problem is that using the lights in the house, I often cast shadows over the food depending on where the light is coming from (usually these are lights in the ceiling that I can't move or adjust).

I also would really love to spend more time creating backgrounds for my food, but I don't really have the space or props to do that most of the time. I guess in the end the focus is on the food, and not the pretty placemats or silverware, right?

Sandra January 8, 2011 at 12:20 AM  

wonderful tips, photo and advices all in one!:)
I went today to see those little photo tents with LED lights..probably will get that!

Taste of Beirut January 8, 2011 at 12:26 AM  

I have trouble getting some good pictures and although I own a good DSLR and a good light, I still need more practice and knowledge. Thanks for the tips.

Medeja- CranberryJam January 8, 2011 at 2:36 AM  

I guess it will take me years to learn to make decent photos.
Though first thing I should get better camera:/
Thanks for the tips

penny aka jeroxie January 8, 2011 at 8:20 AM  

I try not to take photos after dark. But I have recently bought a florescent light. Still experimenting. And also I do some post processing. Great tips. :)

Fun and Fearless in Beantown January 8, 2011 at 9:29 AM  

This was really informative. Thank you!

Lindsey January 8, 2011 at 9:37 AM  

What a great post! Thank you for taking the time to share such great info. I struggle with lighting a lot and would love to see a tutorial on your light set up.

By the way, your pictures are fantastic!

Sommer January 8, 2011 at 9:40 AM  

Excellent tutorial, Nancy! I fancy one of those ego lights. A bit expensive, but I am sure they're worth it!

I, too, would love to see a post about composition. I am quite clueless in that dept apparently. Also how to style shots. I often do not have time to make things all pretty because my kids are hungry little people and my husband gets a bit annoyed which I understand, though!!!

Love this series, looking forward to reading more. Your photos are always gorgeous!

Boulder Locavore January 8, 2011 at 10:01 AM  

This was great! When I started my blog I thought it would be all about the writing. Now I find I'm in a state of really focusing on lighting for photographs. I too use umbrella lights but realized recently I was using them incorrectly and with no reflector (remedied that). I recently built a light box which is fun but can lead to over exposure I think. I also shoot on automatic; I'm not manipulating the settings of my DSLR. I would love to hear more on the white balance. I am going to check my manual today about it; thank you. This is a great segment. And well timed for me!

Krista January 8, 2011 at 10:16 AM  

What do you use for your reflector?

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite January 8, 2011 at 10:50 AM  

Super helpful post - printing this out for reference.

Kulsum@JourneyKitchenw January 8, 2011 at 11:20 AM  

Very helpful indeed. I always find myself reading article over articles on lighting and yet I'm haven't felt like considering expensive artificial lights. I still need to learn about decent photography before I switch to bigger things. Thanks for the post !

Evelyne CulturEatz January 8, 2011 at 12:26 PM  

great post of a new series. I would like to learn more about white balance and a tutorial on point and shoot would be awesome as I do not have the funds for a DSLR (yet). My best light source is putting a plate on my tv by the window which kinda sucks. Oh and a tutorial on adjusting pics to not be to yellow or blue on Photoshop would be awesome

Carolyn January 8, 2011 at 1:10 PM  

So far, I only take pics in my front window in natural light. That's why I so rarely post anything savoury! I bought an IKEA hamper that I read makes a good lightbox, but I haven't picked up any lamps to light it with yet. It's on my to-do list.
I am looking forward to your tutorial on white balance, that's something I haven't quite figured out yet.

Evan @swEEts January 8, 2011 at 1:13 PM  

Your post could not have come at a more convenient time :) I was just talking to some ladies on twitter about lights! Your pictures are always so lovely.. photography is such a learning process but I love every second of it!

whatsfordinneracrossstatelines January 8, 2011 at 1:53 PM  

Nancy this is a great post. I got the stand lights for Christmas and I'm so thrilled with them. I needed more flexibility, I could never get a shot on my stove, because there was no light. Now I just move the stand light close enough and it's like daylight. I'm glad I didn't go with the tabletop ones for that reason. Just depends what people want shots of. I'm looking forward to your styling tips. I still need to work on the white balance and other adjustments. Have a great weekend.

Anca@Bistro Gerard January 8, 2011 at 2:58 PM  

Thank so for an excellent tutorial, Nancy. Lighting is something I struggle with very often, and your tips have given me a lot of good points to think about.

Chef Dennis Littley January 8, 2011 at 3:23 PM  

HI Nancy
what a great post!! Thank you for tackling this issue, we all need so much help to improve our images. I have been using the lowell lights and they are much better than what i did before, but I am working on fine tuning them to really get the most our of them. I still need to do some adjustments to the color but its a lot closer.
When I did portrait work and fashion we used soft boxes, I did love those, but they take up so much room and are quite expensive. I have never loved umbrellas, but you seem to get very good results with them. I think for food they work better, with a person it was too uneven across the whole body.
Keep the tutorials coming!

Stella January 8, 2011 at 6:43 PM  

Hey Nancy, this was a very timely post for me and I imagine others! The days have, indeed, become a lot shorter here lately. Also, I hate to admit it, but I only post like once a week b/c I have to photograph between 12-1 to get any kind of decent light. I'm not always home at that time though. If I do photograph after that time slot, the photos aren't accepted on F.G. or T.S. due to lighting and exposure issues. Plus, outside of being accepted on the photo boards, I'm never happy with them either. Point is-thanks! I am going to try to do a later in the day post soon with some of these tips and see what happens...:)

Nandita SS January 8, 2011 at 10:25 PM  

This is an amazing post nancy. Thanks so much. I can't wait for your post on white balance. :)

Rivki Locker January 8, 2011 at 11:19 PM  

Womderful post! I have about $100 to spend and am debating between the lowel lights, a tripod, and a macro lens. I have a tiny tripod which is serving me ok, and the basic lens I have with my digital rebel is ok, so I'm thinking of doing the lights. Your thoughts? Thanks so much!

Nancy January 9, 2011 at 1:04 PM  

What great feedback from all of you. This really helps me in putting together future tutorial, that is great. Hope everyone is having a great weekend!

She's Cookin' January 9, 2011 at 1:46 PM  

Thanks for the great tutorial, Nancy. I use a flourescent stand light with a diffuser similar to the umbrella set up. Looking forward to your future tutorials on white balance and styling. I haven't purchased a DSLR yet, so info on upgrading your camera would be helpful, too.

Magic of Spice January 9, 2011 at 3:00 PM  

Hi Nancy, this is such a great post and as you already know I am crazy for your photos! I just bought my first camera this past summer and it is definitely basic, but since I know so little about photography on a technical level I thought it was a good place to start. I live in Southern Ca, but at the beach so lighting is a major issue as the morning has the best lighting but I just have overcast :(
I especially love this information because I intend to gradually move to better equipment but really want an understanding before making the commitments of purchasing.
Looking forward to anything you share :)

Anonymous,  January 9, 2011 at 3:46 PM  

Great tutorial -- thanks!

Dimah January 9, 2011 at 3:59 PM  

Great tips - thanks for sharing!

Winnie January 9, 2011 at 4:26 PM  

This is a great post. I have the Lowel Ego lights but they are a little work to set up (or maybe I am just lazy) so I don't use them as much as I should. But I have 2 and the light they give off is really nice- not appropriate for in-process photos necessarily, but nice for shots on the table when there is room for both lights on the side. Seems like the stand light would be more flexible, and I could see how it would be nice to have one of those, too. Again, great post. Can't wait to read more of your photography series.

fromBAtoParis January 9, 2011 at 4:43 PM  

Hi Nancy,

This is great !! Thanks for sharing!! I don't have any kind of extra equipment, only my camera! Paris is normally very gloomy...much more now in winter, so I just adjust aperture and speed..I hope to have the budget some day for a more professional thing...

Umm Mymoonah January 9, 2011 at 8:18 PM  

That's really very useful, well explained. Does camera plays a major role in photography or the way we use it. Is it possible to get good pictures without any SLR ?

Tiffany January 9, 2011 at 9:05 PM  

SUPER helpful! This is DEFINITELY an area I struggle with!

Claudia January 9, 2011 at 10:37 PM  

Very helpful - now what do I do about my family that ex[pects to eat within three minutes of the dish being finished?

(Can you tell photography is my weakest link>)

Lacey @ dishfolio January 9, 2011 at 11:54 PM  

Great information! We'd love to see your stuff posted at!

Suzanne January 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM  

great post! Thanks for the info on the lighting kit, I am buying one of those.

Tenina January 10, 2011 at 9:55 AM  

Nice info…just got a DSLR and still in point and shoot mode, tho I am loving what I get now. Have some lights, but afraid to use them…still on auto focus (blush)!

Nikki January 10, 2011 at 3:43 PM  

This is so very helpful! thank you!

sweetlife January 11, 2011 at 9:41 AM  

great info, caught your garlic on photograzing and had to come check it out..great tips..

Nancy January 11, 2011 at 1:31 PM  

@Priscilla,The Hungry Artist, Dimah, Thank you!

@Alisha, Thank you and I think that the way you are going about it is great, it's how I've gradually moved on too. You bring up a good point about overcast light that I'll have to make a note for future tutorial, thanks!

@Winnie, Thanks. That is why I love the light stand- I can move it around where ever I need it and it's so easy.

@Cristina, Paris overcast is a bit less than Prague. So for me it's only artificial light in the winter.

@Umm Mymoonah, Yes the camera can effect the quality of the photo and can make it easier if you have a camera that you can control better,but it's a learning process. But I have also gotten good results with my point and shoot camera. I think the first point is to really learn the camera you have before moving on.

@Claudia, That is a problem for some. Maybe have them help you as a condition to getting dinner on time :)

@Lacey, Thank you I'll stop by.
@Tiffany, Suzzane, Tenina,Nikki, and Sweetlife, Thank you!

Lynn January 11, 2011 at 2:04 PM  

Nancy, THANK YOU for this amazing tutorial! I can't tell you how long I've struggled to take decent photos of my food (I won't even go into my challenges regarding styling). I really appreciate all the time and effort you've put into this project. Thank you for your consideration and generosity!

Tasty Trix January 11, 2011 at 2:16 PM  

To be honest with you I haven't really put together a non-natural light system yet that I love. My preference is always daylight - I have a several places and ways I shoot, but I prefer either side light with a reflector to cut shadow or a lovely gray day on my porch. This is however quite limiting as you can imagine! (And no, I NEVER use flash! *shudder*) I have been procrastinating about getting a light kit, but the one you mention here is just too good of a deal to pass up - thank you SO much for the nudge, I am going to go order it now!

Redkathy January 11, 2011 at 4:42 PM  

From a poor girl's position, try "daylight" rated bulbs in conventional lamps rather than soft white or regular household bulbs.

Nancy January 11, 2011 at 5:28 PM  

@Lynn, Glad you enjoyed it :)

@Trix, It sounds like you have a great setup for the natural light setup. I also put it off for a while until it was so frustrating I went to buy a solution, so glad I did. Hope it works out great for you:)

@redkathy, Yes exactly those are the light bulbs. Perhaps I need to make sure I said that. Thanks for that!

Anonymous,  January 11, 2011 at 9:14 PM  

DONE! I just bookmarked this. What a wonderful and inclusive guide, Nancy! This is really very helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together!

scrambledhenfruit January 12, 2011 at 10:09 PM  

Those are some great tips- thanks! Taking photographs in low light has always been a problem for me. Now that it's dark so early, I don't get the chance to take photos in natural light. I think hubby got tired of hearing me complain so just last night he bought me one of those lights on the stand with the umbrella. I haven't used it yet, but I'm anxious to try it. Thanks for showing how you use it to set up your shot- Your photos are always gorgeous!

Trish January 13, 2011 at 12:52 AM  

Wow, what an informative post. Thanks so much for sharing your photographing tips. I haven't had much luck with indoor food photography but maybe with your tips I will :-) Bookmarking now.

Emily Malloy January 13, 2011 at 12:42 PM  

This is great! I built my own lightbox. It's not perfect, but I'm working my way around it and making it better.

I love the umbrella stand combo. And it's at a price that won't break the bank! Very nice!

Nancy January 14, 2011 at 4:54 PM  

@apiciusapprentice, Thank you:)

@scrambledhenfruit, Thank you and I hope your new lights are helpful.

@Trish, Thanks and I hope it's useful for you.

@ Emily,Yeah it's such a great bargain! I hope your lightbox works out great for you.

Simply Life February 13, 2011 at 7:16 AM  

wow -again! SO helpful! THANK YOU!!!

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