How To Use Artificial Lights for Food Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

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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getting started with artificial light

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

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, 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? 😉

natural light vs. artificial light

Types of Artificial Lights

There are three types of artificial lights to consider for food photography:

  1. Speed Lights
  2. Continuous Lights
  3. Strobes

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.

3. Strobes

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

You’ll need a light stand or a C-stand to attach your light to. These help with setting the position and height of the light.

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.

Food Photography Lenses

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.

Purple Wine Glass and Gels

Artificial Light Demonstrations

Speed Lights

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.

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.

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).

Camera Settings

Shutter Speed: 1/200; Aperture: f10; ISO 160

Equipment for Speed Lights

PICTURED:

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

You can see the final image below.

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.

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.

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

Shutter Speed: 1/13; Aperture: f14; ISO 200

Equipment for Continuous Lights

PICTURED:

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

You can see the final image below.

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

Shutter Speed: 1/200; Aperture: f14; ISO 160

Equipment for Strobe Lights

PICTURED:

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

You can see the final image below.

image shot with ONE STROBE LIGHT

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!

Happy Creating!

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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