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

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?

 

Yummy Pics: A Food Blogger's Guide to Better Photos, Photography eBook by Spicie Foodie

 

Comments

  1. says

    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!

  2. says

    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!

  3. says

    @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.

  4. says

    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!

  5. says

    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.

  6. says

    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!

  7. says

    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.

  8. says

    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?

  9. says

    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!

  10. says

    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!

  11. says

    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!

  12. says

    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 !

  13. says

    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

  14. says

    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.

  15. says

    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!

  16. says

    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.
    -Gina-

  17. says

    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!
    Dennis

  18. says

    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…:)

  19. says

    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!

  20. says

    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.

  21. says

    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 :)

  22. says

    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.

  23. says

    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…

  24. says

    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>)

  25. says

    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)!

  26. says

    @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!

  27. says

    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!

  28. says

    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!

  29. says

    @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!

  30. says

    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!

  31. says

    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.

  32. says

    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!

  33. says

    @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.

  34. says

    I am so happy that I found this post. Lighting is always an issue for me. The kit from Amazon is a great deal. Thank you so much for your tutorials.

  35. says

    I have the Lowel Ego lights – two of them – and you can tell a difference from the very first day! Since winter is upon us, they’ve been invaluable! That being said, I still have to make some adjustments to the exposure to lighten it up a bit….even with bounce cards.

    But they are WAY better than what I was using – which was nothing if we had no sunlight. I still shoot with a mid-range camera. A prosumer, I believe you called it. As it turns out – I’m really starting to enjoy photography….who knew?!

    • says

      Hi Ann, Yes the difference with lights is a big one, as you said specially in the winter time. The Ego lights are not as powerful as the light I used that is why you are having to making exposure adjustments. Of course it also depends if you are shooting with dark coloured props then you’ll need more light. I’m really happy for you that you are enjoying photography. That is great :)

  36. says

    Thank you so much. I have always had the issue of lighting while shooting my food photography. With very little direct lighting coming into my apartment, I’ve always wanted to learn more on this aspect. Being a non-professional photography lover haven’t been helping me either.

    Thank you for sharing:)

  37. says

    Some fantastic tips here, Nancy! Lighting—and associated white balance issues—have always been my downfall! By the way, I have the EVO lights and enjoy using them as they’re much less bulky than the typical umbrella set up. But I find that the light can be quite harsh, casting very deep shadows. Any tips?

  38. says

    Great tips Nancy. In school I was fortunate to have strobe lights and the ability to mimick natural light. Now that I”m home and way to poor to buy the other equipment, I use either an umbrella (bounced) with a black backing or I’ll use my off camera flash (gun) in a softbox that is specifically designed for it (costs about $60). But if ever given choice, natural is the way to go.

  39. says

    My preference is always daylight , I have not explored other options yet, this post gives great insite!! Thank you! Am really looking forward to a post which explains how the food can talk to the viewer – I don’t know how u do it but your photographs are multi dimensional and so dramatic. I loved the pear pix. It wld be great if we cld summit our pix and you cld critique them.
    Thxs for the informative post !

    • says

      Hi Simi,
      Daylight is the easiest to work with but because of the short winter days many need the artificial light setup. I am planning on doing photo challenges with critique and feedback. I’ve just been busy and haven’t had the time to get it started. Soon though:) Thank you!

  40. says

    Thanks for such a great tutorial! I try to use natural light and if there is none I usually won’t take a picture of any food since I don’t know how to get the right light without sunlight. I never knew those umbrellas were so cheap…will definitely have to look into getting one now! Thx for sharing!

    • says

      Thank you Asiya and glad to hear you found it useful. You could of course buy a fancier setup with more functions. But it is pretty amazing how an inexpensive lamp can yield great results. :)

  41. Anne says

    I just bumped to your website after I saw your article on Honestcooking.com and honestly, I can’t stop watching your site! Your photos are wonderful (as I want to put my tongue on screen) and you’re even more wonderful as you sharing all these tips to us. Thank you so much!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Another great thing to try is switching the type of light you use. If you mostly shoot with natural, window, light then experiment with artificial light. Likewise, if you shot with artificial light switch to natural, window, light. Don’t feel intimidated by the new light source. Just practice, observe and learn. I love switching back and forth between the two. Each light helps me experiment and learn something new about lighting and photography. You also don’t have to spend a whole lot of money on an artificial light kit. My kit was under $100, and you can even find some under $50. (My tips for artificial light can be found here: What Lights To Use When Sunlight Is Not Available) […]

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