Tag Archives: Food story

Food Photography in artificial light *a LONG post*

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! =)

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