Getting Started With Artificial Lights for Food Photography

Learning artificial lights for food photography was a huge game-changer for me and I can confidently say it will be a huge game-changer for you. The truth is, the more control you have over your food photography lighting, the more creative you can get with your images. Not only does it boost your photography skills, it boosts your confidence behind the camera too. You’ll be able to shoot in any location and at any time of day and still produce beautifully lit food images. Let’s dive in!

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artificial lighting for food photography

The Difference Between Natural Light and Artificial Light

Like most food photographers, I started off shooting food with natural light and became very comfortable with it. Natural light is when your light source is the sun or daylight. Artificial light is when you use a separate light, which eliminates the natural light from your images. I am not a very technical person, so the thought of using artificial light just felt too complicated… especially because you can produce absolutely gorgeous food images with natural light.

However, after I booked a shoot with a restaurant that was located in a BASEMENT with NO WINDOWS (gasp!), I was faced with the reality of needing to learn artificial lighting. After a slight meltdown, I decided to buy an online class through CreativeLive and bought my very first artificial light.

Much to my surprise, setting up the light was really quick and easy. And, discovering that my images could still look natural while using one light was super exciting!

Check out this old behind the scenes pic from that same basement shoot back in 2014! 😉

READ MORE ABOUT: MY FAVORITE GEAR FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

basement shoot

Artificial Light Myths

Myth 1: Artificial Lighting Is Complicated

A lot of natural light photographers think that artificial light is complicated. I understand this thinking, because I used to think the same thing. But, it’s just a little extra gear with a little extra setup involved. After you set things up once, the assumption that artificial light is complicated goes right out the window.

Myth 2: Images Won’t Look “Natural”

For me, the assumption that my images wouldn’t look natural stemmed from using the flash on point & shoot cameras waaaaay back in the day. The flash on a point & shoot camera or even on our iPhone can produce really bright hot spots and harsh results.

With artificial lights, however, your light is separate from your camera allowing you to place the light anywhere you want. You have the ability to adjust the light’s position, the power and the modifier to create a variety of beautiful light setups.

Check out the tomato images below. Can you tell which tomato image below was shot with natural light vs. artificial light? 😉

natural light vs. artificial light

The Best Artificial Lights for Food Photography

There are three types of lights to consider for food photography.

  1. Speed Lights
  2. Continuous Lights
  3. Strobes

Speed Lights

Speed lights are an off camera flash. They are much smaller and lightweight which makes them great for travel and taking on location. The drawback to speed lights is that they’re not super powerful, so you might need more than one to light your subject the way you want.

Continuous Lights

Continuous lights do not flash. When you turn them on, they are lighting your subject in real time. These types of lights are wonderful for photography and are also the recommended lights for shooting video.

Strobes

Like speed lights, strobes are also an off camera flash. They are much more powerful than speed lights, can be bigger in size and more expensive. However, because they’re so powerful, you will probably only need one light to light your food photography.

How To Set Up Artificial Lights: Equipment To Consider

No matter what type of artificial light you use, there is some extra equipment you’ll need.

Light Stand

You’ll need a light stand or a C-stand to attach your light to. This ensures your light is secure and makes it easy to move it around as needed.

Speed Ring or Mount

Your camera requires lenses with a specific mount in order to attach it securely to your camera. This same concept applies to your light and how you attach a modifier to it.

A speed ring or mount is a metal ring-shaped disk used to attach your light modifier to your light and each light requires a specific type of speed ring or mount. A popular speed ring/mount is a Bowen’s mount which is a really versatile option for a wide range of lights.

Light Modifiers

You’ll want to have a light modifier to soften the light coming from the bulb. These range in shape and size to create different moods and could include umbrellas, soft boxes, diffusion paper, grids, snoots or gels.

Wireless Trigger

A wireless trigger helps your light and camera talk to each other. Using a wireless trigger, such as pocket wizards, are helpful because it’s less cables to manage on set. You do not need a wireless trigger if you are using a continuous light.

NOTE: I recommend getting a light that is powered by a battery if possible. Plugging a light into the wall isn’t a deal breaker, but it can be limiting for where you are able to set up. If you need to plug your light into a wall, be sure to get an extension cord so you have more flexibility to move around on set.

Food Photography Lenses

Tips for Using Artificial Lights

Tip 1: Think of your light as your window

One trick that helped me was thinking of my artificial light as my window. The cool thing was I could actually move my light around whereas my window was locked in place. This was a big eye opener for me showing me that the ease of moving the light around was actually way more convenient than having to move my entire stage to accommodate the window.

Tip 2: Experiment with different light modifiers

You know how your camera body can work with different lenses? Well, your light can work with different light modifiers. Light modifiers are separate from your light and include things like umbrellas, soft boxes, grids, diffusion papers, snoots and gels. They come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. A rule of thumb is the larger the modifier, the more spread out and soft your light will be. The smaller the modifier, the more direct it will be.

Tip 3: Consider the speed ring or modifier mount

Artificial lights require a specific modifier mount in order to securely attach your light modifier to your light. Be sure the light modifier you get has the appropriate mount to attach to your light. For example, my ProFoto B10 requires me to use the ProFoto modifiers.

WHAT IS A BOWENS MOUNT?

The Bowens mount is a very popular mount that works with a variety of lights and modifiers that range in price. This type of mount is good to start with so you have more flexibility to choose a light and modifier that’s within your budget.

Tip 4: Adjust the power of your light

Natural light is constantly changing, which means your camera settings need to be adjusted frequently to create the same exposure throughout your images. With an artificial light, once you set your camera settings you can adjust the power of the light if needed. Artificial lights are more consistent, unlike the constantly changing sun, so using artificial lights results in a more efficient photo shoot.

Tip 5: Get a wireless trigger

Although you are dealing with more gear when you work with artificial lights, you don’t necessarily have to deal with more cables. In fact, I don’t recommend using a cable to connect your light to your camera because it limits your ability to move around freely.

Pocket Wizards are a great alternative to cables. You simply attach one to your camera, attach the other to your light, set them to the same channel and you’re ready to rock and roll.

NOTE: You do not need a wireless trigger for a continuous light. You only need them for off-camera flashes like speed lights and strobes.

Tip 6: Check the CRI

CRI stands for color rendering index. No need to overthink this, just make a note that a good artificial light will have a CRI that is greater than 90. So the higher the CRI, the better the color rendering ability. This varies per light and is listed in the product description of most artificial lights.

Tip 7: Check the recycle time

The recycle time is basically how much time the light needs to reboot before it can fire the flash at full power again. You only need to consider the recycle time with speed lights and strobes, not continuous lights. These lights flash, so they will require a little time to reboot to full power.

Artificial Light Demonstrations

Speed Lights

A speed light can be a great light when you’re first getting started with artificial lighting. They are like mini strobes, which is basically an off-camera flash. They’re more affordable and much smaller, so they’re great for small spaces and taking with you on location. The thing to note is to be sure the speed light is compatible with your camera make and model.

LEARN MORE ABOUT: SPEED LIGHTS 101 WORKSHOP BY CREATIVELIVE

artificial lights for food photography

Setting Up Your Speed Light

For my speed light example, I set my camera at an angle using my Manfrotto tripod and my 105mm 2.8 lens and shot tethered to my computer.

My speed light is positioned closely behind the glasses for a backlit look. I also used a small 16″ soft box to create a more direct light/harsh shadow look. The power of the light is set at 1/2 power (almost the strongest power setting for this speed light). You can see the final image below.

Something to note is that my first speed light didn’t have wireless capabilities. You’ll notice the sync cable connecting my speed light to my camera in the picture. If you consider getting a speed light, make sure it has wireless capabilities so you don’t have to deal with the limitations of the sync cable.

CAMERA SETTINGS: My camera settings for this demonstration were: 1/200; f10; ISO 160.

Equipment for Speed Lights

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artificial lights for food photography

Continuous Lights

Continuous lights don’t flash, because once you turn them on, they are on. This allows you to see how the light is hitting your subject in real-time and you can adjust the power and position of the light as needed. Because these lights don’t flash, you don’t need any sync cables or wireless triggers to make them work with your camera. You just turn them on, adjust the power and position and you’re ready to go.

It’s important to keep in mind that continuous lights are used to shoot both stills and video. So, if you want to learn video at some point, a continuous light will be a good direction to go.

artificial lights for food photography

Setting Up Your Continuous Light

For my continuous light example, my camera is attached to my overhead setup. I started the shoot using my 35mm 1.4 (which is pictured), but ended up switching to my 105mm 2.8 lens for a closer view of the details of the squid. I also shot tethered to my computer.

My continuous light is positioned to the left of the image with the bulb fully exposed rather than shooting through a soft box. I did this so I would get more power from the light and used a separate diffusor to keep the light soft. The power of the light was set at 75%. You can see the final image below.

CAMERA SETTINGS: My camera settings were: 1/13; f14; ISO 200.

Equipment for Continuous Lights

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artificial lights for food photography

Strobes

Strobes are my personal favorite to use for food photography because I love how powerful they are. They can be more on the expensive side because of this, though. They require a wireless trigger like Pocket Wizards or a sync cable to communicate with your camera. And, much like continuous lights, you need to be sure your light modifiers are compatible with the light’s mount so you can securely attach your modifier to the light.

In the example below, I’m using a Paul C. Buff strobe, which is a brand-specific mount. This means the softbox I’m using is also a Paul C. Buff softbox.

overhead setup

Setting Up Your Strobe Lights

For this strobe light example, I setup my camera on my overhead setup. I used my 105mm 2.8 lens for an up-close view of the roasted tomatoes. My strobe light is positioned to the right of the image with a large soft box. This softbox helped me keep the light soft and even on the tomatoes. The power of the light was set at 1/3 power with a lot of power left to play with, if needed.

CAMERA SETTINGS: My camera settings were: 1/200; f14; ISO 160.

Equipment for Strobe Lights

PICTURED:

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image shot with ONE STROBE LIGHT

In conclusion, I want to emphasize again that artificial lighting doesn’t have to be intimidating. I honestly wish I would have switched to artificial lights much sooner. Learning how to shoot with artificial lighting elevates your abilities as a photographer and opens the doors a variety of client projects. Reach out with questions anytime!

Happy Shooting!

READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT A BOTTLE WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only promote products that I actually use and support. 

All images ©Regan Baroni 2020.

Comments +

  1. lili says:

    Dear Regan,
    First thank you so much for sharing so much informations, also let me say that your work is just beautiful and perfect…
    I took the decision to start learning photography,I ordered My first artificial light and some gears …I have to admit that I’m scared of all the informations and knowledge I have to learn mostly how to work with artificial light.
    Any recommandation where I can start, online education or any other helpful place to learn?

    Thank you again
    Lili

    • Regan says:

      Hi Lili!

      Congrats on getting your first artificial lighting set! That’s super exciting, but yes, I remember that it can also feel a little daunting at first. My recommendation is to check out CreativeLive for some wonderful tutorials! They have great classes for learning artificial light! Reach out if you run into any questions – I’m happy to help!

      • Lili says:

        Hi Regan,

        Thank you very much for your reply :), I have a question about your lighting, do you use one or two artificial lights?

        Thank you again
        Lili

        • Regan says:

          Hi Lili! No problem! I have two strobes, but usually am only using one of them for my photography. For video, I have two constant (continuous) lights and usually use both (one as a key light and one as fill). Overall, I think it’s best to start with one light and add to your collection if and when you need to depending on what you’re shooting. 😉 Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

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