food photography

Artificial Light Food Photography

October 24, 2010

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: 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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  • Kalynskitchen October 25, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Great post; thanks for sharing the tips. I didn’t realize you could get one of those umbrella lights for under $200, will check it out more.

  • My Kitchen in the Rockies October 25, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Thanks for all the tips. They will come very handy.

  • Prerna@IndianSimmer October 25, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Awesome! This is exactly what I needed right now. I work on 100% natural night but now that days r getting shorter and I’m getting more n more busy I was planning to buy artificial nights and wanted some expert advice on how to use it.
    Thanks for sharing! Will come back to you with more light questions very soon πŸ™‚

  • October 25, 2010 at 7:18 am

    on your advice i’m about to order my second tota. b&h should have you on retainer. timely, wondrous post. -L

  • Jane Ko October 25, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Thank you thank you thank you!

  • Happy Cook October 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

    I am raising my hands and legs, it is getting dark earlier and earlier here too. And it put me off to taking pictures saying it will be anyway too dark.
    Wish I could afford these lights.

  • Kitchencowboy October 25, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Thanks for your post. It really comes in handy today. I have the same problem as a food-blogger with no available light in the dark season and it took me the whole weekend to research for artifical lighting solutions. I read a bunch of articles about continous light vs. studio lights and I was about to go to buy a small studio light (w/ umbrella) today. Now you got me thinking. What do you think of studio lights for the matter of food photography? You would prefer the continous lights, right?

  • Miriam/The Winter Guest October 25, 2010 at 8:01 am

    Wow, great post really! Now I have to start saving for an umbrella light… maybe I will request a special Christmas gift this year… πŸ˜‰

  • nina October 25, 2010 at 11:59 am

    You are an absolute star…thank you!! Here in Ct it gets so dark and gloomy in winter….I am going to try these ideas!!

  • leaf @ theindolentcook October 25, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    These tips will definitely come in handy for my dinner photos. Thanks heaps! πŸ™‚

  • Karen October 25, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Wow, thanks for sharing I’m impressed!

  • Rich October 25, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Man, if I could get my hands on some of that eqipment … I’d be a happy man.
    But as it is, I’m stuck with a nikon coolpix and a photo box made with foam paper. It does the trick, but you’ve definitely given meal something to shoot for in the future!

  • claire October 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    wow! I wish you would come to Dallas an help me take all of my photos!

  • Jenn October 25, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    This is so informative! Lately I’ve been doing shoots for my blog only on weekends to be able to get any natural light at all…without good artificial lights I know it’s pretty much pointless for me to even try after dark…maybe I need to get myself an early Christmas present of some good lighting πŸ™‚

  • Anna October 25, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    excellent post! Thanks for all the tips….now how about some tips for someone who lives in a tiny one bedroom NYC apartment with no garage and not an inch of storage space left?!

  • Charmian @Christie's Corner October 25, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am struggling with my winter shot. This solves a lot of problems. I’ve got everything on this list but an umbrella light and patience. The umbrella light I can get this afternoon. Patience? Not so easy to come by….

  • Patrick October 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you for this post. It’s become very clear that I’m going to need to purchase some artificial lighting if I want to getting any decent food shots done between now and March.
    However I haven’t been sure what type of lights to get. This post has been very helpful.

  • Kristina@FormerChef October 25, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Like most, blogging is not my full time job (though sometimes it feels like it) and I have to do most of my photography at night or on the weekend. Yes, I am raising my hand in frustration along with everyone else.
    I have two Lowell Ego lights and I almost never use them. I don’t think they throw enough light to be able to shoot without overhead lights and flash. But I need to find a way to make them work because they certainly were expensive.
    I also need to be more disciplined in setting up the space to shoot in advance. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Monica October 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Wow.. it nice to know that I’m doing something right, my indoor set up is similar like yours. Exept it’s in my laundry room.. and the lights are cheap home depot clip on’s but they work.

    But, I like the tips and sand inside paint to give texture – brillian!

  • Shirley@kokken69 October 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been shooting with artificial light lately too and have been testing things out over trial and error. You mentioned about white on white… That I have a big problem. I can’t seem to get nice pure white, my white always come out slightly tinted. In addition it gets grossly under exposed when there isn’t a darker element in my photo against a pale background….do you have the same issue?

  • Carolyn Jung October 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Great tips! I had not heard the one about the aluminum foil, either. Am definitely going to try playing around with that.

  • mattwright October 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    to answer some comments –

    Happy Cook – there are some cheaper options, I will amend my post tonight with a few other ideas.

    KitchenCowboy – I don’t have any experience with other lights than this umbrella and the EGO. Flash based lights (off camera) can be a good option if you don’t want the heat of continuous lights.

    Anna – the umbrella lights fold up REALLY small, you can just unfold as needed.

    Shirley – make sure you set your white balance correctly. If you shoot in RAW you can also adjust the white balance afterward using your photo editing package of choice. It is best however if you can get it right on camera. I think if you shoot JPEG you have some options to sort out white balance after you shoot too using Photoshop/Lightroom/blah blah.

    Make sure you work on your lighting, with a bounce card. That helps fill in the shadows. Make sure you use the correct settings on your camera too. Try not shooting full auto, and using manual settings – then you can increase/decrease the exposure as needed easily.

    Carolyn – the foil thing can be really good to bring a lot of bounce light in. I know a lot of pro photographers also use small compact mirrors to reflect light back in to a certain target – to “hero light” as some call it.

  • Elizabeth October 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you for the awesome explanation! I have been waiting for this post.

  • Kate @ Savour Fare October 25, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Thanks Matt — I have a whole setup — fluorescent lights in the kitchen, a Lowel Ego, and a Speedlite. I need to dig up my bounces, though. And USE A TRIPOD. More important in the winter than in the summer I think.

    However, I covet your silver plate from the braesaola shot.

  • Nelson October 25, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you for publishing this and sharing your tips and tricks. I’ve been wondering how I was going to manage with the waning natural light, given that I’m just figuring out how to use it.

    I do have a suggestion along the lines of the foil. I found a great way to bounce light was the shiny side of the car’s window shade. It’s not as harsh as foil. And, since it probably won’t be in use for the next few months it might be worth a try.

  • DianasaurDisehs October 25, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Great tutorial! I’m down in Auburn and it’s already getting harder to photograph dinners, especially with the crazy weather right now. I made my own ego lights with daylight bulbs and much bigger diffusers. It only cost me $20 which is all I can afford. I also have daylight bulbs in my kitchen so sometimes I just turn the lights on in there and find it works really well!

  • argone October 25, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    great tips, thank you, that’s awesome !

  • Jen October 25, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Excellent post! You are so generous to share this information with those of us in the dark about this. I’ve been worried as the days grow shorter that I’ll have to find a solution to this problem. No more yellow food photos for me…

  • Abigail @ Sugar Apple October 26, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us, so generous of you. And the bresaola shots from your recent post are sensational!

  • Jess October 26, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Thank you so much for this information. I’ve been trying to figure out what equipment to buy to get the kind of look that I’m after with food photography, but every other time I’ve found a blog post like this with info about the hardware, lighting arrangement, etc., it always ends with “and here’s how the photos turn out” and… it just doesn’t look professional. At all. The photography might be technically proficient, but it hasn’t been done in a way that showcases the food in the best way. But your final photo is fantastic, so now that I have a clear idea of how to achieve that effect, I’m definitely going to look into obtaining this sort of equipment. Thanks again.

  • mattwright October 26, 2010 at 4:32 am

    I have just updated the post with some information on how to build an artificial light rig for around $50. Should work good too!

  • Aparna October 26, 2010 at 6:06 am

    I always shoot in natural light as we have plenty of it where I live. But am finding sometimes I need to shoot food at night and that’s where this post of yours is going to help me (I hope). πŸ™‚

  • Dana Zia October 26, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    β€œStop bitching and start taking pictures” yes, that is good advise for me!! Sometimes I get a fluttery anxious feeling in my stomach for an hour before I take my pictures. It is nerve racking!!! I even have taken a few workshops and those just made it worse because the guy I took them from is a professional food photographer and he actually takes an entire day to get the shot sometimes! EEK! Meanwhile I’ll just keep slugging away and read informative posts like yours. Thank you.

  • Peter G @ Souvlaki For The Soul October 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Thanks for posting this Matt…a great resource for someone starting with artificial lighting. Cheers!

  • Kasey October 26, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    This is so helpful! I dread the wintertime for food blogging because I always feel that the quality of my pictures go down. I just ordered a Lowel light, though, and planning to invest in a tripod, too. Thanks again!

  • Jeanette October 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Thank you once again for so generously sharing your knowledge. I’ve been trying out a lot of your tips from BlogHer food, and am looking forward to trying artificial lighting in the winter.

  • Velva October 28, 2010 at 3:11 am

    Awesome tips! Thank you!

  • anja October 28, 2010 at 4:03 am

    thats a great post. i seriously have to look for a light rig.

  • Anja October 28, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    thanks for this post. i have to make the next step in photography and i have to look for a light rig soon (thanks for deleting my last comment yesterday, there was a mistake in the link).

  • Angie October 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, now that I am busier, I have to do stuff in the evening and am relying on very long shutter times, which isn’t really working sometimes. My husband asked me to get one of these, and I didn’t know where to start. What kind of bulb, or what wavelength should it be? Any specifics, or just a ordinary halogen?

  • mattwright October 29, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Angie – the bulb will come with the umbrella light. From what I see, they look like standard halogen bulbs that you could find at Home Depot

  • Kita October 30, 2010 at 2:41 am

    Thanks for this post as well as your others on photography. We have been searching for an inexpensive way to photograph food at least until after the holiday season and we can return to investing money into our hobby.

  • sarah, simply cooked October 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Great ideas here, Matt, thanks. I use a little homemade lightbox made from a cardboard box and a piece of diffusion paper. It’s even cheaper than any of the things you’ve mentioned here and has been giving great results. I plan to buy a Lowel Ego bulb to put in the desk lamp, but at the moment I just use a compact flouro and adjust the white balance accordingly.

    Thanks for all these tips and tricks. Sharing ideas is one of the great parts of being a food blogger!

  • Marieve October 31, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    … Im raising my hand!!! Thank you SO MUCH for all this information. Really appreciate it. I will try it as soon as possible πŸ™‚

  • Adrian from Victoria, BC October 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Matt, I’ve been photographing for years, and playing around with Photoshop for years. But I’ve never really done so well with food photography. Until this morning. This morning I made my wife my very first (successful) eggs benny, and I was finally able to capture the achievement on film and, well, thanks to your advice on this site I was able to record for posterity (and my own chef’s ego) this delicious breakfast. Thanks for all the hard work and advice on here! Cheers, Adrian, Victoria, BC

  • Cristina,from Buenos Aires to Paris November 1, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Thank you SO much for all these tips !!! Photography with natural light is a big issue in cloudy Paris, and with the winter coming…light? what light?
    I’m starting a markt research here in paris, to buy all that at a good price!
    Thanks again!

  • Pam @ Kitchen Cookware November 2, 2010 at 1:13 am

    I love cooking but photography is something I still need to work on. I am usually too famished to wait for photo, before starting to eat! πŸ™‚ Great tips.

  • Debs November 2, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Great post. Just what I needed. I had a major problem just saturday night trying to shoot my smoked duck breasts. Visit my blog for the latest post to see how I cheated LOL.

  • Victoria November 2, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I will be using some of these ideas! Thanks for sharing your tips. Just like you I can only take photos in the evening and it gets dark early here now. I also have a toddler and need to get the photos right when he is in bed, I don’t have hours to play around with photography! Thanks again.

  • cynthia November 6, 2010 at 3:20 am

    I am just getting started with setting up my business and website and will be needing to shoot a lot of product shots. This is exactly what I was looking for to get started! Thank you so much for generously sharing your knowledge with us!!

  • Julie November 9, 2010 at 12:08 am

    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.

  • Shelley Noble November 12, 2010 at 4:35 am

    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!

  • kitchensidecar November 12, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I love the rowing machine…

  • Brooke November 29, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    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!

  • Kimberly December 4, 2010 at 5:03 am

    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,

  • Peter T December 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    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

  • Amanda Padgett December 10, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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

  • Marilyn@ButteryBooks December 27, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    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.

  • Lori December 29, 2010 at 10:32 am

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

  • Scott Duncan December 29, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Fantastic tips. Thanks a million.

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

  • Jenna January 5, 2011 at 2:45 am

    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.

  • Julia February 3, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    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!

  • Snippets/Sarah February 5, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    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!

  • Sanjeeta kk February 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

    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.

  • katie moroney March 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    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!

  • Yudith April 27, 2011 at 12:42 am

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