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Food Photography in artificial light *a LONG post*

>> Sunday, December 18, 2011

Friends around me know I have a special interest in food photography. It has been 5 years since this blog was open, and I have learned a lot from experience and others. I am not a professional photographer. All my works are experimental, and perhaps are often on impulse. So in this post, I have only documented my experience. Straight and forward.  I hope it helps some of you! :)

Winter strawberries

 {Example} strawberry still life. The white umbrella was at 4pm, higher up.

1 – Light and food photography 

Most of us have heard it before – natural light is the best for food photography! I tend to disagree. While natural light does work wonder in this line of work, it is not the only way. There is a larger degree of control when using strobe lighting. But of course, mastering strobe lighting is a very complicated process. And it is fairly costly compared with natural light. It also requires more disciplined approach to photography, and therefore it is perhaps more suited for more "advanced users". Having said that, there is a number of options out to start the learning process, too.

2 – My first basic set up 

This is my first artificial light set up. I bought a cheap lighting kit from eBay – two stands, two white umbrellas, two lights.

And it works fairly well. After much experiment, I have come to use 30W 5400 bulbs. You can buy these lights pretty much everywhere. The light from these bulbs are soft after being diffused.

This is a good starting point for those who advance from natural light. The source of lighting is continuous, and it is easier to adjust the camera (more on this later). The kit is fairly neat to set up, unlike a lot of other "home-made" soft boxes I have seen around. More importantly, the two umbrellas are mobile enough for us to try different settings and positions. I don't really like the Light Tent, because the light is generally strong and eliminates most of shadow, making it a bit "fake". It is great for product photography. Not so much for food.

With the two umbrella set-up above, the coverage area is enough for small-medium still-life objects. I say "small-medium" because you need to understand the size ratio of light source vs. the objects. The larger the light source, you will get a better coverage and less strong shadow.

Green tea + white chocolate cookies
{Example} Matcha cookies – umbrella is at 9pm, almost same level with the cookies. 

3 - The Elinchrom Set Up 

I acquired two Elinchrom soft boxes recently. It is a flash system, so there are a lot more controls for me to experiment. I am getting used to light meter, flash meter and everything else (my head hurts sometimes!) I am nowhere close, but the Elinchrom has allowed me to explore some ambiance shots.

Finnish Cinnamon Walnut Cookies

{Example} Cinnamon cookies – soft box is at 11pm,high up and point to side wall. 

The major drawback, technicalities aside, is that more professional flash/flash kits are more expensive. I was very reluctant to purchase this kit, until I attended a food pixel's class and was shown briefly how they should work.

Jam thumb print cookies

{Example} - Jam thumb print cookies.  Soft box @ 11pm, slightly behind. 

4 – So, A few advices on artificial lighting and food photos

 Start with something simple – the two umbrella kit I mention above or a light tent. Better still, you can try to diffuse a few table lamps with white cloth and take some experimental shots. (I tried that before. It was ok, but too messy to organise).

Understand your camera mode – When using artificial light, I always use manual mode, because it allows me to control the camera settings. I have heard that the camera built-in light meter is not so good in limited light conditions. So Av Mode (Aperture mode) often leads to "camera shake".

Matcha bubble tea

                                                                                                    {Example} - Back lighting with white umbrella. Heavily diffused!

Using a fast lens – which is good in low light conditions. I used the canon 50mm 1.4 (or its cheaper 50mm1.8 cousin) almost exclusively on the Canon 30D. Now I use 24-70mm and 100mm on the Canon 5D mark 2. I am sure you can find the equivalent Nikon lenses.

 Make sure to use only the main light sources – If you set up something, and leave the normal ceiling light on, obviously it will affect the photos! The same goes to natural lighting actually.

 Reflector – You will need this to control and fill shadow. Since artificial light sources tend to be smaller than say, a window, you will notice the effects of lights on the subjects a lot more.

Tripod – to prevent camera shake! (I have steady hands, but using tripods in these situations do HELP)

Check your white balance Not all lights are equal. You will notice their properties in practice. (eg Flash light is warmer than natural light or the kit light). There are a lot of posts on this already. Google them :).

Sweet corn pudding with coconut milk sauce (chè ngô)
{Example} Sweet corn pudding - white umbrella on the right 

Your choice background colours and materials – it is just my observation, but the darker and non-reflective materials are easier to control in artificial light. It might due to the fact that the objects are closer to the light sources. I've learned that further diffusing of light helps. I put extra layer of white linen on my soft boxes, just like I do with my window in natural light.

 Be aware of shadows and highlights – sometimes, the light falls onto the cutlery and cause unwanted highlight. You may need to change the set up a bit, or experiment with moving the light to different positions.

 All in all, it is all about lighting and how it affects your photography. Hope this little "guide" is of help for those who face the challenge of having limited natural light like me! It is a fun journey of learning ;) And occasionally, you will snap funny photo. Like this pic of my cat, Den. Priceless! =)


leaf (the indolent cook) 12:52 PM  

Thank you for sharing. I struggle with artificial light and it's nice to see how other people deal with it, and so beautifully.

Rosa's Yummy Yums 1:00 PM  

Very interesting, thanks!



Pam 2:17 PM  

What a great post!! I need to explore getting some light kits.

Lisa H. 2:17 PM  

An interesting read Anh... Thank you :)

Paaka Shaale 8:35 PM  

Lovely post Anh!!! Very informative. Thanks for sharing :)

Sneh | Cook Republic 9:59 PM  

Thanks for a great post Anh. I have still to experiment with artificial light, some great pointers here!

Catalina Alvarez 10:29 PM  

Hello from Italy!
Thank you indeed. Your post and your practical advices are great.
Cata, amateur photographer
Ps: love your cat :)

Aparna 11:56 PM  

Great post! Have just started experimenting with artificial light and yes, have started out the same way, with some inexpensive equipment. :)

Nami | Just One Cookbook 12:30 AM  

Hi Anh, what a helpful post!! I think I will need to read it carefully one more time (or even more) to fully understand. I have artificial light as well but I am not sure if I'm using correctly. I haven't read any instructions on how to use it properly so I was just "experimenting" it. I used natural light during summer time but now that the winter is here I need to practice using it. Your post will be very helpful. Thank you so much for writing to us!! You are so generous and kind!

Magda | My Little Expat Kitchen 1:54 AM  

Thanks for all the great tips Ahn. I have never taken photos with artificial light before.

Angie's Recipes 2:54 AM  

A very informative and helpful entry.
Cute kitty.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen 3:47 AM  

Wonderful information, Anh! I recently purchased a couple of umbrella light stands and will look into the soft boxes.

Lovely photos!

La Table De Nana 8:57 AM  

Generosity of knowledge:) Thank you for sharing all this I love your photos and only shoot in natural gave great advice.

shez 10:02 AM  

Thanks for sharing Anh - especially the captions to your photos where you let us know the direction of the light. I've got a "home made" soft box but it is so bulky and I am so lazy to pull it out of storage, especially at night.

Michelle Elliott 10:45 AM  

Congrats on the Photo Comp win! Your photo tips are great for me - I'm trying to improve my technique so I'll try them out! Thanks for the comment on my blog too!

Jennifer (Delicieux) 11:29 AM  

Fantastic post Anh and some really useful tips there, some of which I will try to use! I use artificial light too (Lowel Ego Lights), and like you have found that darker backgrounds are easier to work with.

Congratulations again on your photography competition win, your photos are truly stunning.

thingsforboys 1:02 PM  

thankyou for this. I do most of my cooking at night and have been trying to figure out a way to take my photos at night too.

Sarah @ Homestyle Cooking Around The World 1:42 PM  

Thanks for the comment of my blog. I really like yours and am a new follower. This post is quite helpful for me as I have been struggling with the natural lighting in my house during different seasons. Looking forward to looking around your site more!

Ashley @ Cooking for one 2:55 PM  

This advice is invaluable to me - I am still in the early stages of learning how to use my camera and take advantage of natural light, but the tip about umbrellas and light kits is great. Hopefully you will see some improvements on my blog photos soon, thanks to your great advice!!

Food Endeavours Blue Apocalypse 4:31 PM  

Thanks for this post :) It has been very informative and interesting to see how you have experimented with artificial lighting. Still trying to improve on my own food photography, your tips are very helpful.

Ai-Ling 7:59 PM  

Fantastic post, thank you so much for all of that info!! Will come much in handy for me - I've just got myself a fancy new camera to use on food and not much idea on lighting!

Yuri 9:14 PM  

Thank you so much for sharing kindly your helpful tips and hints!! You are so generous and so sweet to tell us step-by-step directions. I have never owned artificial lights and didn't know even how to use them. I should read and review your post carefully to learn:-) thank you for this thoughtful post!

Yasmeen 10:23 PM  

Anh, this is so incredibly helpful. I've been toying with getting lights to maximize my shooting time (and hence, creativity!) after work. I've bookmarked this and will keep coming back... and back... to learn more.

Beautiful snaps.

chinmayie @ love food eat 2:55 AM  

Such a helpful, informative post! Thank you. I don't see myself experimenting with artificial lighting in the near future but it does sound very interesting! May be one day when my daughter is no longer hanging on my legs while I am shooting! lol...

shaz 3:05 AM  

What a fantastic post Anh. Very informative and helpful, thanks :)

Faith 3:52 AM  

Definitely very helpful, thanks for sharing, Anh! Bookmarking!

mycookinghut 6:03 AM  

Great post - very informative!

Kristen 7:27 AM  

This was SO interesting. I have been looking at those two umbrella sets on ebay and wondering about them. Your photos are superb.

Tina @ bitemeshowme 8:18 AM  

Thank you for sharing. I don't think I've ever even thought about artifical light. I suppose it's something I should consider especially depending on where I would like to go with my blog down the track.

Peter G @ Souvlaki For The Soul 8:45 AM  

I totally appreciate this Anh! I too am still playing around with artificial lights!

Christine@Christine's Recipes 10:32 AM  

Great sharing, Anh. I believe that we all need to learn to how to use artificial light to take food photos for whatever reason in certain occasions.

Sonia (Nasi Lemak Lover) 6:23 PM  

Thank you for sharing, this is very helpful!

penny aka jeroxie 9:41 PM  

I will start exploring light kit when we move to a bigger space. Love this write up. Thanks Anh!

Winston 11:57 PM  

Wow... Simply, WOW. You are helping SO many ppl out there with this detailed post on such a common problem we all face. Also, THANK YOU for being so generous in sharing all your wisdom in photography and its tricks and advice. You really are talented beyond words. Honestly, your photos are even better than SO many of the cookbooks that I've come across! It's so hard to believe you're a self-taught photographer like most of us. Very inspired right now!!


Five years and going...I'm impressed with your tenaciousness to be part of a great ongoing 'Foodie' community.
Thanks for your inspiration and for the experience behind this post. ;)

...Dear Anh
Just briefly passing by to wish you and your loved ones the finest of Holiday seasons.
I'm very much looking forward to hopefully soon joining my Foodies again ;o) Until then, all the very best towards a desirable New Year.

Flavourful wishes,

Scott at Real Epicurean 6:43 AM  

This is a great post. I can take half decent photos but in winter my single Lowell Ego light struggles in the evenings to give me light all around the food. I'm sure these tips will come in handy.

mjskit 3:53 PM  

Great post with lots and lots of great photography tips! All of these pictures look fabulous but my favorite is the one of the cinnamon cookies. Congratulation on your new equipment and that's for sharing your experience.

Shulie 7:47 AM  

We've been traveling and just got back ho,e but saving this wealth of knowledge you gathered in this post to read later w/tea this weekend. Thank you for compiling this post I always look for advice on artificial lighting as I shoot in natural! I hope all is well Anh. Shulie

Erica 9:30 AM  

Wonderful post! I love learning about food photography!Happy holidays!

msihua 8:48 PM  

THanks for sharing! I struggle and really need to get started with the cheap lighting kit to start practising! AND OMG I love those glasses you used... I love it!

ChichaJo 9:29 PM  

Wow! What a great post Anh! So helpful...thanks for putting it together and being so generous with your experiences and expertise :)

Xinmei @ Pudding Pie Lane 9:49 PM  

What lovely photos and great tips (I really need a reflector), but I don't have any fancy camera equipment :S Only the sunlight and my Canon 500D... any tips for shooting on a student budget? :)
By the way, I saw on your profile you're in investment banking! I've just got a job in that :D

Quay Po Cooks 5:32 PM  

Anh, I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. Those tips are valuable. I don't have the umbrellla kit so I take most of my food photos using natural lights. At first I got a light box to take photos without natural light but find the space very constraining so I went back on taking photos in the day. Your photos are fabulous and thanks much for your generosity in sharing your knowledge with us.

Jo 12:42 AM  

Great tutorial Anh and gorgeous pics. I too have 2 studio lights and they are big and bulky. I have not used them for ages now and just shoot with natural lighting with a bounce reflector. And yes having to shoot on manual mode gives me so much more control as well.

michele 1:07 PM  

I do not know much about photography but your photos like enticing and that works for me.

Jen at The Three Little Piglets 1:50 PM  

This time of year lighting is definitely something I struggle with! It's hard to time the natural light around the rest of my circus of a life to get a good shot. Great tips!

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