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Artificial Light Food Photography

Artificial Light Food Photography tips

Raise your hand if you have a problem taking food photography in the winter?

If you could see me now, I would have my hand raised (with an alocholic bevy in it too, most likely). Heck, I would most likely be pouring one out for all the fallen photos I have tried to take in the winter, but have had sucky lighting.

The problem is this, unless doing a photography job, I shoot most of my stuff in the evening. In the summer, this works out OK – it stays light here pretty late. Sometimes you will find me taking shots at lunchtime on the weekends too, but busy weekends (hello toddler) mean this often doesn’t happen. Even if this does work out through the winter months, typically it can be too dark to get those really lovely light filled shots we are all seeking these days.

It can work out good. Natural winter light can be really majestic. It can have an almost dreamy, distant quality to it. Course, it can also be gone in a flash too. That is why From about this time to march I tend to have to rely on artificial light to take my food photography.

Now, I know a lot of people spout out “food should only be shot in natural light”, and other rubbish like that. I will be the first to say that natural light is a great way to help make food look fabulous, but it certainly isn’t the ONLY way. Even if I could be a kept man, and could stay at home all day taking food photography I would still end up resorting to artificial light for some shots. If I was doing a series of photos for instance that needed the same light quality to them – I would have to turn to artificial light. Natural light changes too much (especially up here in Seattle), so continuity can be a problem.

Let me get this out – Artificial light isn’t bad. It really isn’t. Some of my favorite shots on this blog I took using artificial light – in a room with no windows. Unfortunately it can also be far too easy to screw up artificial light food photography, and end up making food look greasy, fake and unappealing.

Since the dark seasons are setting in, I thought I might share some stuff I have learned and figured out about shooting food using artificial light. So here goes!

1) Buy a light rig.

Yes, this sucks doesn’t it? Natural light is basically free, but in my mind good artificial light isn’t. There are a few options here, lets look at them:

Umbrella lights: These are my favorite. It is a bright halogen light on a stand. This generally comes with an umbrella attachment. The umbrella softens out the harsh, strong halogen light and makes for lovely shadows, subtle highlights and broad soft lighting. Without this umbrella shadows would be harsh, highlights would be harsh, and food would look very greasy and nasty.

My favorite of these lights is the Lowel Tota: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/465459-REG/Lowel.html This kit includes a very bright light, a stand, and an umbrella. It works great. You can see the thing in the picture above.

Soft Boxes: These are large bulb lights that are covered with a diffusion screen to soften out the light. They can be really great – but personally I don’t have the space for them. The best ones are big – 3 or 4 feet across. They too can be ordered through BHPhoto, like the umbrella light.

The smaller Lowel EGO lights have become popular with food bloggers too. These are small tabletop sized soft box lights, that give out a good soft bright light. Personally however I find their light spread too small for most of the wider shots that I do, so find that they have limited use.

UPDATE: I got thinking about a cheaper way to do this. In my mind, an umbrella light, or large studio soft boxes are really great. However, that is impractical and not that creative:

How about something that Heath Robinson would find interesting? It might just save a few bucks too, which is good for everyone –

Say you happened upon a hardware store that stocked those bright halogen work lights? Purchase one which is either on a small stand, or that can clip to something. Or, take a look here for some options. If you can, 750W is best. 500W will do if you must. There are some 500W ones for about $16, which is a bloody steal people. There are also some on a tripod too, which look interesting (and sturdy).

Go to BHPhoto and order yourself either the white or silvered umbrella. The white is cheaper and will reflect less light than the silver. Go check them out here.

This umbrella will cost you $18.

Now we need to attach this umbrella to the lamp. What I suggest here is going to your local hardware store and getting two small adjustable hose clamps. Heck, you could order this set from Home Depot, for $5, and more stuff than you need.

Use these hose clamps to clamp the shaft of the umbrella on to one of the round tubes on the frame of the lamp. Now when you move the lamp around, the light will follow!

I reckon if you spend over $40 on this setup you are doing something wrong. It should work great too. About $60 all in would get you one of the work lights ON A STAND. Clamp the umbrella on, and have you a setup the same as the Tota, for 1/3 of the price.

2) Diffuse, diffuse, diffuse.

This is the absolute key to artificial light food photography. Take that bright light and diffuse it. We want soft, voluminous light, not pointy sharp light that makes food look greasy and unappealing. Soft light gives food more depth and dimension too.

If you use an umbrella light, you already have the diffusion there. Either bounce the light off the umbrella, back in to the scene (as shown in the first picture in this post), or turn the stand around so that the light is cast through the umbrella on to your subject.

You can diffuse this further using a sheet of artist vellum held in a frame (buy a cheap canvas frame from an art store, and staple the vellum on to it). You can stretch this vellum out between two posts too if you want. Position the vellum between the light and your subject. Make sure not to get it too close to the light, otherwise you might melt/burn the vellum.

3) Bounce it.

There is little natural fill light in the winter, especially when shooting in the dark. You want to use a sheet of white card (foam board is best, since it is more rigid) to bounce light back in the scene.

In the shot above you can see I have my light on one side of the food, and a large sheet of white card on the other. The light hits the white card, and softly bounces back towards the food. This adds some light (but not much) to the shadows, helping fill out shape, and not make the lighting too harsh.

If you need more bounce, take a smaller piece of that foam board and wrap it aluminum foil around it. More light will be reflected off the foil. Go careful with it though!!

4) Prep EVERYTHING in advance

This is pretty important. Those halogen lights can get really hot. If you use a small room, and a strong light the place can heat up quickly, and food can start to wilt pretty fast. I generally eat my food after photographing it too, and a hot light with some food can yield a health inspectors nightmare pretty fast.

Get everything ready to go, then turn on that bright light of yours. Work fast, keep it simple. Turn the hot lights off when you aren’t shooting or adjusting lighting.

5) Turn off the incandescent lights

I can not tell you how often I have forgotten to do this, and had to reshoot something. You know those horrible yellow lights we have lighting our rooms, that make food look nasty? Yeah, gonna want to turn those off before you start taking pictures. Even with the bright halogen lighting the way, those will have an effect on your shot, and cast a nasty color tint to your work as well.

Turn off all overhead and tabletop lights before taking any pictures

6) Space

Stop bitching and start taking pictures” I constantly say to myself. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a large dedicated studio for food photography. When I know I am going to be shooting all day, I clear out a room in my house, and get to work. Otherwise typically I just have to “make it work”. Clear some room where ever you can find it. Since we are using artificial light, the room doesn’t have to have big windows (in fact, it is better to cover all windows if you can – to help control your light better.


So here we have my garage. A place with no natural light, since I covered all the windows with thick paper. (charcuterie hates light). Down here we have my meat curing fridges, boxes and boxes of Christmas decoration (Danika..), some exercise gear, and a meat slicer. Personally I rather like the combo of charcuterie and cardo equipment, the oxymoron that is our garage just amuses me.

Anyhow, there is very little space down here. I took all of the shots you see in the recent bresaola blog post using artificial light in the setup you see above, in the garage. I had to clear a fair amount of stuff to make room for this shoot, but hey, you don’t need a lot of space – just some patience really (oh heck).

The image above explains it all really. You have a bright light. A bounce card is supported on the other side of the food to bounce light back in to the shot. The backdrop is some white boards I normally use as a surface. This is leaning up against a step ladder I have down in the garage. Prepared food is on the floor (on a cutting board).

The actual surface for this shot is just a sheet of MDF, which I painted white. In the paint I added a bit of coarse sand, just to give some texture to it. It is easily one of my favorite surfaces to shoot on, but then I am a sucker of white on white photography.. This is raised off the ground thanks to a cardboard box that I should have broken down to go in to recycling, but never got round to it. Raising it up a little bit makes it easier to shoot low shots without having to make time consuming adjustments to your tripod.

There we have it folks. Some tips, suggestions, and products to help with shooting food photos in artificial light.

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66 Responses to “Artificial Light Food Photography”

  1. Julie says:

    Thanks so much for the tips!

    I’m just getting into food photography and having a devil of a time when it gets dark outside as well. My husbands a carpenter so we have the spotlights that you speak of out in the garage. Now just need to invest in an umbrella.

  2. Great ideas, presented with wit. Any chance of seeing a photo of the halogen, hose clamp, umbrella set up you invented? I can’t understand how the clamp gets used to attach the brella. Thank you!

  3. I love the rowing machine…

  4. Brooke says:

    What an incredibly helpful post as we head into the dark months! Thank you. You have me thinking of great solutions to problems in the dark!

  5. Kimberly says:

    I think you are my new hero. I too live in this gray, gray world known as Seattle and struggle constantly with shooting in the winter. You have inspired me and I think, after I visit the University Farmer’s Market tomorrow morning, I shall be doing a bit of shopping for some new lighting equipment…
    Have a great weekend,

  6. Peter T says:

    Hi Matt,
    Just wanted to say a BIG thank you from a very amateur brit trying his hand at close up food photography. While I have mastered web and publishing for our cake business in the UK photographing our cakes, especially close up’s of cupcakes has been a nightmare. Thanks to your info on “artificial light food photography” I have renewed hope. Love your blogs and your photo’s are GREAT.
    Thanks once again, Pete

  7. Wonderfully helpful post!! Thank you so much for spelling it out for us! I cannot wait to build my own little studio.

  8. So glad I found your blog. Went out and purchased my spot lights and clamps and am awaiting delivery of my umbrella. New to photography and kept putting off investing in a light set up – thanks for the great suggestions.

  9. Lori says:

    A great post! I love your writing style, you have really inspired and motivated me, and your photos are absolutely gorgeous. Thank you!

  10. Scott Duncan says:

    Fantastic tips. Thanks a million.

    Really enjoy your blog. I’ll make sure to check in every now and then. Cheers.

  11. Jenna says:

    Q: When using artificial light is it best to use a high iso setting?

    Also, thank you for posting this article. It has come in handy.

  12. Julia says:

    I’m among those who has troubles taking shots these days because of winter season. and I’m going to get myself halogen light to work with. thanks for the post!

  13. This blog is such a wonderful find! I am new to blogging and love to post photos of the dishes that (am also learning) how to cook and photograph. I have no idea why I all of sudden have started enjoying photography. I certainly know that I like food! Thank you for keeping all of us fledgling photographers moving forward. I always cook at night/afternoon and lighting is so poor. Going to start searching for the white umbrella!

  14. Sanjeeta kk says:

    Loved all the tips given in the article, Some of them are going to be my fave. Mixing sand with paint, using white on white are the few I would love to try in my food pictures. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post.

  15. Matt, Thanks a ton for this post. I’m a new blogger and while I know I have tweaking to do across the site in general I think my photos are in need of the most attention. I’m heading out today to try to solve the problem with your advice on my mind! Thanks for the tips!

  16. Yudith says:

    Thanks for the great post! I have been blogging for about 2.5 yrs and I still need tips on lighting.