Getting Started With Artificial Lights for Food Photography

Learning artificial lighting for food photography was a huge game-changer for me and my photography career. It’s all about having control over your lighting. The more control you have, the more creative you can get with your images at any time of day and in any location. Not only does it boost your photography skills, it boosts your confidence too. This post shares three different lights (and behind the scenes setups) to introduce you to artificial lighting. Let’s dive in!

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Artificial Lights for Food Photography

I Was Intimidated By Artificial Lights

Like most food photographers, I started off shooting with natural light and became very comfortable with it. I am not a very technical person at all and learning artificial lighting seemed like it would be too technical and complicated. Can you relate to this?

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 light and fast. After a slight meltdown, I decided to buy an online class through CreativeLive and bought my first speed light.

Much to my surprise, setting up the light was really easy. And, discovering that my images could still look like they were shot in natural light was very exciting for me.

Check out this OLD behind the scenes pic from that same basement shoot from 2014! 😉

Read More About: My Current Gear for Food Photography

basement shoot

Artificial Light Myths

MYTH 1: ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING IS TOO COMPLICATED.

Artificial light SEEMS complicated, but it isn’t. There’s just a little extra setup involved. No matter what light(s) you use, there are four things that you’ll learn right away that will come naturally after you’ve set it up a couple of times:

  1. Setting up your light(s).
  2. Getting your camera and lights to work together.
  3. Setting your camera’s shutter speed for the correct sync speed.
  4. Adjusting the position and power of the light(s) so you’re lighting the food the way you want.

MYTH 2: MY IMAGES WON’T LOOK NATURAL.

I think this assumption stems from back in the day when we’d use the flash on a point and shoot camera and the result was a much harsher looking light. With artificial lights, you can create any type of light you want, including a soft and natural look. The decisions you make about your camera settings, the light modifiers and the power and placement of the light(s) will help you achieve the mood you’re going for.

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

natural light vs. artificial light

Tips To Consider With Artificial Lights

1. LIGHT MODIFIERS

Similar to how your camera body works with different lenses, your light will work with different light modifiers. Light modifiers are separate from the light itself and can be interchanged depending on what type of lighting you want. Having a variety to work with will help you shape the lighting style that you want. Light modifiers include:

SOFT BOXES

UMRELLAS

DIFFUSION PAPER

GRIDS

2. LIGHT POSITIONING

Think of your artificial light as the window or the sun. The cool part about using an artificial light is that you can move your light anywhere you want, whereas you cannot move your window. This level of control gives you the opportunity to really experiment with your lighting and learn how different positions do different things.

3. POCKET WIZARDS

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. Don’t forget to turn the pocket wizards on, though. 😉 (Yes, I made that mistake in the beginning.) 😉

4. SPEED LIGHTS & CAMERA MODEL COMPATIBILITY

My first artificial light was a speed light, which I’ll talk more about in a minute. Something to keep in mind with speed lights is that some only work with specific camera models. If you’re considering starting with a speed light, make sure it’s compatible with your camera model.

5. LIGHT 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.

6. LIGHT RECYCLE TIME

The recycle time on an artificial light basically means 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 because they only fire the flash when you hit the shutter button. Continuous lights are constantly on, so the recycle time doesn’t apply with those lights.

Recycle time is important, because if you’re shooting a bunch of images one right after the other, you’ll want your light to be firing at the same level of power for each image. If your light requires more time to reboot to full power, it may not keep up with how fast you’re shooting causing some of your images to be inconsistently lit and appear darker than others.

Food Photography Lenses

Different Artificial Lights for Food Photography

There are a variety of artificial light brands and models on the market. It can definitely be a little overwhelming figuring out which one to pick.

Brands and models aside, let’s start with the three “types” of artificial lights to consider:

  • SPEED LIGHTS
  • CONTINUOUS LIGHTS
  • STROBES

Artificial Lighting: Speed Lights

A speed light can be a great light when you’re first getting started with artificial lighting. They are like mini strobes. They’re more affordable and much smaller, so they’re great for small spaces and taking with you on location. They can also be pretty powerful little lights. CreativeLive offers a great online class about speed lights if you want a little extra guidance on them.

Check Out: Speed Lights 101 Workshop by CreativeLive

artificial lights for food photography

SPEED LIGHTS: THE SETUP

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.

SPEED LIGHTS: EQUIPMENT

PICTURED:

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

artificial lights for food photography

Artificial Lighting: Continuous Lights

Continuous lights don’t flash, because they are constantly 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 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, you will definitely need a continuous light. In addition, these lights are bigger and more powerful than speed lights. And, much like strobes (which will be discussed next), they are built with a specific mount design in order to attach different light modifiers.

For example, a bowens mount design on your light requires your light modifier to have a bowens mount design in order to connect it securely to your light. Bowens mounts have a wide range of compatibility across different brands. But, some lights are brand-specific with their mounts. For example, ProFoto requires you to use ProFoto light modifiers with their ProFoto lights.

artificial lights for food photography

CONTINUOUS LIGHTS: THE SETUP

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.

CONTINUOUS LIGHTS: EQUIPMENT

PICTURED:

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artificial lights for food photography

Artificial Lighting: 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 how powerful they can be. 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 design 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 so it securely connects to the light.

overhead setup

STROBE LIGHTS: THE SETUP

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.

STROBE LIGHTS: EQUIPMENT

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 and it really isn’t complicated once you dive in and start playing. I wish I would have switched to artificial lights much sooner, but it’s easy to get in our own way, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to breaking outside of our comfort zone.

But, knowing how to shoot with artificial lighting elevates your abilities as a photographer and opens the doors to a lot more variety of client projects. And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a huge confidence booster to know you can shoot in any location and at any time of day. Reach out with questions anytime!

Happy Shooting!

Read More About: Artificial Light Photography (How To Shoot A Bottle)

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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