Food Photography: My Shooting Setup With Artificial Light

by Spicie Foodie on February 10, 2011

Today I’m going to be showing you my photography set up, how I set things up to shoot with my light stand. I’ve told you in previous posts that I am not a professional and much of what I know is from trial and error. In the beginning my setup was simple, I used sunlight, placed food or ingredients on table, adjusted the camera setting, shoot and done. I began blogging in July of 2009, being that it was in the summer there was plenty of light to shoot. But as the Autumn approached I needed to figure out a way to keep shooting and started learning about artificial light. (You can see my post about shooting when sunlight is not available here.) I kept practicing with the light, moving it around, up and down, until I felt that I was going in the right direction. There were plenty of errors and bad photos along the way, but now I am happy with my setup.

In a previous tutorial post I told you that I use a light stand like the one above, with a flourescent lightbulb and a white umbrella. The white umbrella is used to diffuse or soften the light. The umbrella helps spread the light in a more direct area. It creates a softer light that shooting without an umbrella wouldn’t. The bare lightbulb will give you harsh light and can cause overexposure or blowouts in some areas of your photos.

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This graphic above shows you how I set up a shot. I place the light stand off to one side, the light bulb faces the inside of the umbrella and the front or outside of the umbrella is what is pointed at the food. The subject or food is in the center and often times I use a reflector facing the light and on the side of the food. The reflector is used to bounce the light to the food in order to get rid of dark shadows. (see sample below) If you are shooting with sunlight coming in from a window you can emulate this set up as well. Sometimes if I want a different look with a darker or moodier light I won’t use the reflector. It really depends on what kind of look you are going for.

To bounce light back to the subject I use a reflector kit, a 5 in 1 reflector kit.

5 in 1 Reflector kit; food photography; reflector; silver; white; diffuser; black
It is a collapsable round reflector disk that has a reversible cloth and folds up into its own small pouch. It has 5 options, gold, white, silver, black and translucent to use as a diffuser. I prefer the gold, white and silver sides to bounce back light to the subject. Basically bouncing the light adds highlight to the food where the light from the light source would not fall. The black side can be used to absorb too much light, but I never use that side. The translucent layer can be placed in front of a light source (e.g. lightbulb or natural light), to prevent harsh lighting and shadows. I will teach you about the translucent side another time. Below are samples showing you the results with the different layers of the reflector I use. (Please notice that results would be different on a lighter background. The background and shooting surface below is black, and some of the light is observed by the black surface. Shooting on a white surface would result in brighter photos.)
Gold Reflector Samples:
Golden reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to

Golden reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to

Silver Reflector Samples:

silver reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to
silver reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to

White Reflector Samples:

white reflector; food photography; tutorial; how to shoot using a gold reflector; gold reflector; round; tutorials; how to

This 5 in 1 kit is one of my favorite tools I own because of the photo results and for it’s multipurpose. You can use any of the sides as a background, and I have. If you are thinking about buying one of these reflectors, here is a link to give you an idea of the price range. You can buy some fairly inexpensive ones but be warned that they may not last as long as their more expensive counterparts. If you are not in the market for a reflector you can also use a whiteboard or even a mirror to reflect light back to the food.

props; kitchen towels; scarves; napkins; paper; construction paper; art; and crafts paper; dried leaves; ribbons; lace; dried flowers; fake plants; wood table; baskets; dishes; food photography props; spicie foodie; how i shoot; light setup

The other part of my tools or setup are my props. I keep a very small amount of props, all that you see in the photo fits into a small basket and that’s all I use. From the beginning I knew that if I started thinking about needing to buy a bunch of props and dishware, I would be wasting energy that I needed to direct on learning my camera and lighting first. As time went buy, I began experimenting with a few props. I feel that it is the food that should be the center of attention and not the props, so I tend to not use many. What I do use are tablecloths, place mats/table mats, kitchen towels, small pieces of fabrics, flowers, plants, ribbons, and color paper. The color paper is a great and inexpensive way to change it up a bit. It’s just construction paper/arts and crafts paper that you can buy virtually anywhere. But perhaps my favorite things to shoot on are my small brown table and the black wood square plank you see in these photos. As for my dishware, I own white dishes. In some ways white dishes are easier to use than colorful dishes. The white dish will reflect light around the food, so this can help to light the food better. I do like colorful dishes and still use some now and then. If you are using colorful dishware, I suggest you use ones that compliment the color of the food. This will help balance the photo better.

The most important thing is practice, practice, it doesn’t matter if you own a humble point and shoot or a fancy DSLR. I know many of you say you don’t have the time to spend shooting photos before you eat. But if you can find 10 or 15 minutes to play around with your camera you will greatly benefit from it. Experiment shooting things on different surfaces, plates, or in different stages of preparation. If you are using artificial light play around with it by moving it around the subject and seeing what has the best results. Practice using a whiteboard or reflector to see how this improves the image. Once you have some practice with setting up the light and plating the food, it will become both easier and faster for you to photograph food before sitting down to eat. The key to all of this is to just keep learning and be creative with what you have before worrying about moving forward.

Do you do any post editing to your photos? I’ve seen some people saying that they don’t like it, don’t agree with it and they think it’s wrong to do it. I not only disagree but I also think it’s a silly attitude to have. This is as much a part of digital photography as properly developing film in a dark room was to film photography. You can see the great results that can be achived with the most minimal of editing to your photos. This photo literally took me 1 minute to adjust. You be the judge, which do you think is better?

See how much punchier the image is? The haze that digital photos have straight out of the camera makes images look dull and soft, you don’t want that because that’s not what it looks like in real life. Something this simple can be the difference in getting your images accepted by sites like Foodgawker, Tastespotting, Tasteologie or any other food photography sites like them. Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments. More tutorials on the way…


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


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