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, because you can literally shoot in any location and at any time of day. This post an introduction to artificial lights for food photography, so let’s dive in!
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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 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
Artificial Light Myths
Myth 1: Artificial Lighting Is Complicated
A lot of natural light photographers think that artificial light is complicated. I understand the 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? 😉
The Best Artificial Lights for Food Photography
There are three types of lights to consider for food photography.
- Speed Lights
- Continuous 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 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.
Like speed lights, strobes are also an off camera flash. They are much more powerful than speed lights, so when using strobes, you may only need one to light your subject the way you want.
How To Set Up Artificial Lights
No matter what type of artificial light you use, there is some extra equipment you’ll need.
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.
A speed ring is a metal ring-shaped disk used to attach your light modifier to your light. A popular speed ring is a bowen’s mount which is a versatile option for a wide range of lights.
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.
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. Plugging a light into a wall isn’t that big of a deal, but it can be limiting for where you are able to set up. Be sure to get an extension cord so you have more flexibility to move around.
Tips for Artificial Lights for Food Photography
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. You can switch these out to create a variety of different moods.
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.
Check out lights that are compatible with a bowens mount modifier. This is a very popular mount that works with a variety of lights which will range in price giving you more flexibility to choose a light 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 as needed. It’s much more consistent than using the sun, which 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 another 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 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. These lights flash, so they will require a little time to reboot to full power. Continuous lights are constantly on, so you don’t need to worry about the recycle time with those types of lights.
Artificial Light Demonstrations
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.
LEARN MORE ABOUT: SPEED LIGHTS 101 WORKSHOP BY CREATIVELIVE
Setting Up Your Speed Light
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.
My camera settings for this demonstration were: 1/200; 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
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.
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.
My camera settings were: 1/13; f14; ISO 200.
Equipment for Continuous Lights
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.
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.
My camera settings were: 1/200; f14; ISO 160.
Equipment for Strobe Lights
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!
READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO SHOOT A BOTTLE WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2020.