Learning how to use artificial lights for food photography was a huge game-changer for me. 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 so you can feel comfortable shooting anywhere and at any time of day. So, let’s talk about getting started with artificial lighting.
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Natural Light vs. Artificial Light
Natural light is when your light source is the sun. Artificial light is when you use separate lights, like continuous lights or strobes.
Like most food photographers, I started off shooting food with natural light and became very comfortable with it. I am not a very technical person and I avoided using artificial lights because they just seemed too complicated to me. And, besides, you can create beautiful food photography using natural light.
However, after I booked a shoot at a speakeasy bar that was located in a BASEMENT with NO WINDOWS, I was faced with the reality of needing to learn artificial lighting and FAST. I decided to buy an online class through CreativeLive and bought my very first artificial light (a small speed light).
Check out this old behind the scenes pic from that speakeasy/basement shoot back in 2014! 😉
READ MORE ABOUT: MY FAVORITE GEAR FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
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, the truth is that it’s just a little extra gear with a little extra setup involved. And, once you set up your light a couple of times, you’ll realize it’s really not complicated at all.
Myth 2: My images won’t look “natural.”
The assumption that images won’t look natural with artificial lights is usually stemmed from using the flash on the iPhone camera (or on a point and shoot camera). The flash on the iPhone camera can produce really bright hot spots and harsh results that definitely don’t look natural. This is because the light is shining in front of your food.
When you use an artificial light, however, your light is separate from your camera allowing you to place the light in more appropriate positions so the food looks natural instead of bright and full of hot spots. You can also adjust the power and modify the light with things like soft boxes, umbrellas and diffusers.
Check out the tomato images below. Can you tell which tomato image below was shot with natural light vs. artificial light? 😉
Types of Artificial Lights
There are three types of artificial lights to consider for food photography:
- Speed Lights
- Continuous Lights
1. 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 can be less powerful, so you might need more than one to light.
2. Continuous Lights
Continuous lights do not flash. When you turn them on, they are on. You can adjust the power as you need. These lights are great for photography and are also required for shooting video.
Like speed lights, strobes are also an off camera flash. They are much more powerful than speed lights, bigger in size and can be more expensive.
Artificial Light Equipment
No matter what type of artificial light you use, there is some extra equipment you’ll need to help you get your light set up correctly.
1. Light Stand
2. Speed Ring or Mount
Your camera requires lenses with a specific mount in order to attach the lens securely to your camera. The same concept applies to your light and how you will attach a modifier (soft box or umbrella) to it.
A speed ring or mount is a metal ring-shaped disk used to attach your light modifier to your light. Certain brands will require a specific type of speed ring or mount and this will be noted in the product description. For example, a popular speed ring/mount is a Bowen’s mount which works for a wide range of lights.
3. Light Modifiers
You’ll need to have light modifiers to help you create different styles of light. You can start with one and then get more down the road. Light modifiers range in shape and size and include umbrellas, soft boxes, diffusion paper, grids and snoots.
4. Wireless Trigger
A wireless trigger helps your light and camera talk to each other. Using a wireless trigger, such as pocket wizards, will help reduce the amount of cables you are using on set and allows you to have more flexibility in where your lights are placed. You do not need a wireless trigger if you are using a continuous light.
TIP: I recommend getting a light that is powered by a battery if possible. However, if you need to plug your light into a wall, be sure to get an extension cord so you have more flexibility for where you can place your light.
Artificial Light Tips
Tip 1: Think of your light as your window
One trick that helped me feel less intimidated by artificial light was to think of my artificial light as my window. The cool thing was that I could actually move my light around whereas my window was locked in place. This was a big eye opener showing me that the ease of moving the light around was actually way more convenient than having to move my table to accommodate to the placement of the window.
Tip 2: Experiment with different light modifiers
You know how your camera body can work with different lenses? Your lights work with different light modifiers. As I mentioned earlier, light modifiers are separate from your light and include umbrellas, soft boxes, grids, diffusion papers and snoots. They also come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. The larger the modifier, the more spread out and soft your light will be. The smaller the modifier, or lack of a modifier, the more direct it will be.
Tip 3: Get the correct modifier mount or speed ring
Artificial lights require a specific mount (or speed ring) to securely attach your modifier to your light. This will be noted in the product description. For example, my ProFoto B10 requires me to use ProFoto-branded modifiers.
What is a Bowen’s 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 you have to adjust your camera settings to create consistent light throughout your images. When using an artificial light, however, you don’t have to adjust your camera settings nearly as often. Once you adjust the power of your light and set your camera settings accordingly, you’re good to go.
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 the light 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 continuous lights.
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. The less time it requires, the better. You only need to consider the recycle time with speed lights and strobes, not continuous lights.
Artificial Light Demonstrations
A speed light is a great light to start with in the beginning. 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.
Setting Up Your Speed Light
The 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 with stronger shadows. The power of the light is set at 1/2 power (almost the strongest power setting for this speed light).
Shutter Speed: 1/200; Aperture: f10; ISO 160
Equipment for Speed Lights
- Promaster speedlight for Nikon (no wireless capabilities)
- Promaster Light Stand
- Mounting Bracket
- Softbox 16″ (includes a mounting bracket)
- Godox V860II-N with Trigger for Nikon (wireless capabilities)
- Octogon Softbox 32″
- Softbox and Mounting Bracket Bundle
You can see the final image below.
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.
Tip: Continuous lights are used to shoot both stills and video. So, if you want to learn video at some point, get a continuous light.
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.
Shutter Speed: 1/13; Aperture: f14; ISO 200
Equipment for Continuous Lights
You can see the final image below.
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.
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.
Shutter Speed: 1/200; Aperture: f14; ISO 160
Equipment for Strobe Lights
You can see the final image below.
Artificial lighting doesn’t have to be intimidating. And, honestly, I wish I would have switched to artificial lights much sooner in my food photography career. Learning how to shoot with artificial lights elevates your abilities as a photographer and opens the doors a wide range of client projects. Reach out with questions anytime!
READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT A BOTTLE WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2020.