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

by Spicie Foodie on 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?


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


in Photography

{ 79 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: