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Artificial Lights for Food Photography

Let’s talk about artificial light! I’ve been excited to have this conversation with you, because switching from natural light to artificial light was a huge game-changer for me. I love natural light, but artificial light is all about control, my friend! And, the more control you have with your lighting, the more creative you can get with your images at any time of day and in any location. Not to mention, knowing artificial lighting is a big confidence booster behind the camera. This post shares three different artificial lights for food photography and behind the scenes images of each setup.

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Artificial Lights for Food Photography

Artificial Lights for Food Photography

Like most food photographers, I started off shooting with natural light and became very comfortable with it. In fact, I am not a technical person at all and the idea of learning artificial lighting was intimidating to me in the beginning. Can you relate to this?

But, 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. 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 wasn’t complicated at all and it was actually FUN to start manipulating the lighting to do whatever I wanted. Discovering that my images could still look like they were shot in natural light was also very exciting for me. I wish I had switched much earlier, because having this kind of control over my lighting has really boosted my confidence as a food photographer.

Check out this OLD behind the scenes pic from that basement shoot back from 2014! I even use the same speed light setup when I talk about speed lights coming up in this post.

basement shoot

Myths About Artificial Light

MYTH 1: ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING IS TOO COMPLICATED.

It’s really not. There’s just a little extra setup involved. No matter what light(s) you get, there are four things that you’ll learn how to do which will come naturally after the first couple times you do it.

  1. Setting up your light(s).
  2. Getting your camera and lights to communicate together using a sync cable or wireless trigger.
  3. Setting your camera’s shutter speed for the correct sync speed.
  4. Adjust 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.

Yes they will. You can create any kind of light you want. Your camera settings, light modifiers and the placement of the light(s) will help you achieve the style of lighting you want.

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

natural light vs. artificial light

General Tips for Artificial Lighting

1. USE LIGHT MODIFIERS

Light modifiers are soft boxes, umbrellas, diffusion papers and grids. Having a variety to work with will allow you to manipulate and shape the lighting style that you want.

2. ADJUST THE POSITIONING OF YOUR LIGHT

Think of your light as your window. You can move your light anywhere you need it to be, whereas with natural light, you can’t move your window.

3. USE A WIRELESS TRIGGER OR POCKET WIZARDS

My first speed light didn’t have wireless capabilities, but my strobe lights do and it’s so nice not to be limited by a sync cable. I highly recommend making sure your lights can work with a wireless trigger such as pocket wizards so you can move your lights around more easily.

4. CHECK THE CRI

CRI stands for color rendering index. A good strobe or continuous 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.

5. SPEED LIGHTS & CAMERA MODELS

Certain speed lights don’t always work with certain types of camera models. If you’re considering a speed light, make sure it’s compatible with your camera model. The product description will have this information and you can always reach out to customer service to be sure.

6. CHECK THE RECYCLE TIME

Recycle time is important when considering a speed light or strobe. Recycle time basically means how much time the light needs to reboot before it can fire the flash at full power again. This varies per light and is listed in the product description. You don’t need to worry about recycle time with a continuous light since those types of lights do not flash.

Three Different Types of Artificial Lights

There are a variety of lights out there and I remember feeling overwhelmed trying to figure out what to get.

I’m listing three different lights for you to consider in an effort to help you navigate the world of artificial lighting a little easier. In addition, you can use my recommendations and do some comparisons online to find what light(s) will be best for you and your space.

1. Speed Lights

A speed light is a great place to start before diving into strobes, especially if you’re new to artificial lighting. Speed lights are a more affordable setup and smaller in size, which makes them great for smaller spaces. They can also be pretty powerful little lights. CreativeLive offers a great online class about speed lights.

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 speedlight compatible with your camera model (wireless capabilities recommended)
  • 1 lightstand
  • 1 mounting bracket
  • 1 softbox

I’m sharing my first speed light kit in this example, but I highly recommend getting a speed light that can work with a wireless trigger. My first speed light required a sync cable and could not work wirelessly. This was fine to start with, but it can be limiting if you want more flexibility to move around.

artificial lights for food photography

The Setup

I setup my tripod and camera at an angle using my 105mm 2.8 lens. My speed light is positioned closely behind the glasses for a strong backlit look using a 16″ soft box. I had to use a sync cable with this speed light that connects from the light to my camera. The power of the light is set at 1/2 power (almost the strongest power setting for this speed light). My camera settings were: 1/200; f10; ISO 160.

Speed Light Gear

Pictured:

Also Recommended:

Check out the final image shot with one speed light.

artificial lights for food photography

2. 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 as needed. Because they don’t flash, you don’t need sync cables or wireless triggers to make these lights work with your camera. These lights are used to shoot both stills and video, so if video is on your radar, this is definitely something to keep in mind. In addition, these lights are bigger than speed lights and require different mounts for larger modifiers. They can also be more of an investment.

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 continuous light
  • 1 modifier with compatible mount
  • 1 light stand

artificial lights for food photography

The Setup

I setup my camera on 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.

My continuous light is positioned to the left of the image with the bulb exposed rather than shooting through a soft box. I did this so I would get more power from the light and used a translucent diffusor to keep the light soft. The power of the light was set at 75%. My camera settings were: 1/13; f14; ISO 200.

Continuous Lights Gear

Pictured:

Also Recommended:

Check out the final image shot with one continuous light.

artificial lights for food photography

3. Strobes

Strobes are my personal favorite to use for food photography because I love how powerful they are. They will require a wireless trigger like Pocket Wizards or a sync cable to communicate with your camera.

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 strobe light
  • 1 modifier with compatible mount
  • 1 light stand
  • Pocket Wizards (for wireless setup)
  • Sync Cable (non-wireless setup)
  • Hot Shoe Adaptor (some cameras require this to connect to your sync cable)

overhead setup

The Setup

I setup my camera on my overhead setup. I used my 105mm 2.8 lens for a closer view of the roasted tomatoes. My strobe light is positioned to the right of the image with a soft box. I wanted to 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 I needed it (unlike the speed light where I was almost at the max power at 1/2). My camera settings were: 1/200; f14; ISO 160.

Read More About: How to Shoot and Composite a Bottle | Studio Lights Demo

Strobe Lights Gear

Pictured:

Also Recommended:

Check out the final image shot with one strobe light.

image shot with ONE STROBE LIGHT

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that artificial lighting doesn’t have to be intimidating. 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.

Once you learn how to setup your light and get your camera and lights working together, the real fun begins! Getting an online workshop is super helpful too. 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. Give it a try… I have a feeling you’ll love it.

If you have any questions, please comment below or email me directly.

Happy Shooting!

Read More About: My Current Gear for Food Photography

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.

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Gear Recos

Dark & Moody Food Photography Tips

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Popular POSTS

I’m a food photography guru who turned my weekend hobby into a career-changing business. I’m also a cat lover, a moto rider and truly don’t think bay leaves serve any purpose whatsoever.

Hey, I'm Regan.

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