Natural light is beautiful for food photography, but won’t always meet the requirements of a professional shoot. While editorial food photography is often shot with natural light, most commercial jobs require the control of studio lighting.
As a food photographer, artificial light will help you create the exact lighting scenario required by your clients, and to create consistency from image to image.
In Part 1 on PROEDU.com, we talked about the basic equipment you need to start food photography, but this gear will only take you so far. To seriously up-level your food photos, you need studio lights and a variety of accessories.
Luckily, there are a variety of options across price points, so you can always upgrade as you begin to earn more money from your food photography.
The Different Types of Studio Lights
There are several types of photography lights built for studio use at a variety of price points. Your choice of lights will depend on how much power you need and will be influenced by your budget.
You might want to look at cheaper photography lighting brands like Godox if you’re just starting out. They put out some decent equipment for an affordable price, and can be a good choice when you need the flexibility of a studio light but are on a limited budget.
If you understand the physics of light and the principles behind it, you don’t need top-of-the-line gear to get good results.
You can invest in a higher-end brand for your light source, from brands such as Profoto or Broncolor as you develop your career and secure clients with larger budgets, like advertising agencies. If you do need high-end gear from time to time, you can always rent it and charge it back to the client.
Here is the lowdown on key food photography lighting equipment:
Strobe lights are a type of flash lighting. A strobe light can be a mono head, which houses the battery and light in one compact unit. Or it can be a light that needs to be hooked up to a high-powered battery. A Speedlight is also an example of strobe lighting.
With these kinds of lights, the strength of the flash output can be modified. Their power is measured in watt-seconds.
Certain studio lighting situations require more flash output than others. For example, an editorial shoot for a food magazine may require just one light with 400 or 500-watt power. The scene is small and the requirement for the lighting is usually to look natural.
On the other hand, a much larger scene like a table featuring a large spread of food might need two or three lights.
When you’re shooting food product or advertising photography, the client will quite often want the product or food shot on white, or with a white background. This can necessitate bouncing the light off white walls or v-flats to get a soft dimensional look. Using this technique also requires a lot of power.
When buying strobe lighting equipment, you want to make sure that you’ll be able to plug it into the wall of the studio without tripping the power. Some strobes are cordless and don’t need to be plugged in; they’re battery operated and can also be used outdoors. This can come in handy if you shoot on location a lot, in places like restaurants, but not necessary if you’re mostly in the studio.
Note that when purchasing strobe lights, you need a syncing device that will help you sync your strobe to your camera. If you’re buying a kit with two strobes or more, this is usually included.
Also known as “hot” lights, continuous lights offer a steady light source. The benefit of working with them is that they allow you to see exactly how the light is falling on your subject before you press the shutter.
This is a great advantage for food, product, and still life photography.
However, continuous lights tend to have less power, and matching the light to other ambient light sources that can influence the scene can be challenging.
When looking for continuous light, make sure that it has a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of at least 90 and that it’s daylight balanced. That way you’ll be able to match it to the natural light in the room.
Another disadvantage to continuous lights is that they can get very hot, hence the nickname “hot lights”.
Currently, LED lights are changing the face of continuous lighting. They don’t heat up like other continuous lighting does and provide a high quality of constant light.
The better LED lighting equipment costs in the thousands, rivaling the price of the best strobes.
Speedlights are a type of small flash used in and out of the studio. They provide light, or in the case of outdoor daylight, add fill light.
However, for regular use in-studio, they are a relatively weak power source compared to strobe lighting. Speedlights emit about 1/4 of the power that the average strobe can output. They also produce a narrow beam of light due to their small size. This can result in harder shadows and a look that is more obviously “lit” and artificial.
Many food photographers start their artificial light journey with speedlights because they are relatively inexpensive and offer a light, portable option with versatility. However, if you intend on spending a few hundred dollars on a good quality Speedlight for food photography, I’d recommend getting a lower-priced strobe instead.
Unless you’re doing mostly restaurant photography, a strobe will give you more power and will, therefore, be more useful to you for a wider range of work.
If you get a Speedlight, don’t mount the Speedlight on your camera hot shoe. This will give you flat light with unattractive shadows. For best results, speedlights should be fastened to a light stand and used off-camera. Note that you’ll need a trigger for this.
Modifiers for Studio Lighting
Modifiers help control and shape the light. The modifier you choose for your food photography will depend on your goal for the image.
For food photography, the desired result is usually a natural light look, which is created with soft, diffused lighting. The soft light will give you soft, subtle shadows and bring out the best qualities in your subject.
Hard and direct light like in the beverage image below is having its moment—especially for cocktails—but it’s not the most flattering look for food. It can make it look greasy and unappetizing.
A softbox can be square or rectangular in shape, or octagonal. When it comes to food photography. Because they provide soft, diffused light, they are the most probably the popular light modifier for food photography.
When purchasing a softbox, you’ll need the accompanying speedring and to make sure that it is compatible with the mount on your light.
A strip box is a softbox that is rectangular and narrow. It’s ideal for liquor photography or situations where a long, narrow beam of light is required. A popular option is the Godox strip box. Because the beam of light is narrow, you have more control over where the light falls.
An umbrella is another common modifier for food photography and is relatively inexpensive. They come in silver or white.
The light is shot into the umbrella to reflect back into the scene. This helps you create a larger and thus softer light source. The problem with umbrellas is that the light tends to spill, so they can be harder to work with.
When you buy an artificial light like a mono head, a reflector is often included. They are a standard lighting modifier that attaches to your strobe. They create very hard, directional light.
Typically, they are used with a variety of grids to help control the beam of light. A dish reflector is a good modifier to use when bouncing light off white cards to produce a soft wash of directional light.
Grids come in several sizes and forms. They are a type of attachment you can use with other modifiers to create lighting with a larger amount of contrast.
Some of these grids are made of a hard material and can be attached to a dish reflector, or they can be soft and attach to the front of a softbox or strip box.
In the case of a hard grid, they often come in a honeycomb pattern and in different sizes. The purpose of a grid is to add contrast and control the quality of light and the area of coverage.
A 50-degree grid will give you more coverage than a 30-degree grid. Less restriction of the light will allow more light to pass through, thus giving you a brighter image and the ability to increase your f-stop. The spill in the shadow areas of the image increases as you go to larger grids. I recommend a 30-degree grid for food photography.
A snoot allows you to create a very focused beam of light on a very specific area when you’re lighting food. For example, creating background light or skimming light off the surface of a burger.
Studio Lighting Accessories
Several C-stands (Century stands) are a must in every food photographer’s studio.
To set the power on your lighting and achieve the proper exposure, you’ll need a light meter. A light meter will allow you to see if there is enough lighting falling on your scene. You can then make the necessary adjustments to your flash output or aperture.
Super Clamp with Spring Clamp and Articulated Arm
This is a piece of grip equipment that you can clamp to your C-stand, table, or even tripod. The original Super Clamp was by Bogen, which was bought out by Manfrotto. So if you’re going to purchase one of these, get the one by Manfrotto. There are cheaper knockoffs but they don’t tighten down enough, which is a problem when you’re rigging things.
The articulated arm with a spring clamp will hold bounce cards to kick light into your set anywhere you need it, squeezing into hard to reach areas. Again, invest a few dollars more into the one by Manfrotto to ensure that it will be tight enough.
Gobos and Flags
Gobo stands for “go-between”. It is placed in front of a light source to change its shape. It can be used to narrow the light or otherwise create a pattern.
For example, you may need to cut down some of the light hitting a burger bun and creating a patch of glare. This is known as a “hotspot”.
You can buy a set of flags or gobos, but they can be a bit on the pricey side. Make your own by cutting out shapes from a piece of black cardboard or foam core. You can attach a wooden skewer to create a handle and hold it where you need it to affect the light.
You can also purchase a product by Matthews called “fingers and dots”, which is a specialized kit of small gobos that are ideal for carving your light in food photography.
The kit includes several different little flags, scrims, and nets to soften, reduce, or block the light in specific areas in your image. They can be held in place with C-stands or A-clamps.
A color checker is a device that will help you get accurate color in your images. It’s particularly helpful if you mix your lighting. It will also help you get the right white balance in your images.
To use a color checker, take a shot with it placed in your scene where the light is not too bright, but also not in the shadows. Once you are doing your post-processing, you can match your images. Select the appropriate color in the image featuring the Color Checker.
Gels are an inexpensive and handy way to correct for color when shooting in a less than desirable lighting situation.
For example, you may be using lights that vary in color temperature. You can match them by placing the appropriate color of gel on your modifier or speedlight.
You can also use gels creatively. They can put a bit of a given tint to your images without making them look like a preset or filter has been added to them.
As with any genre of photography, the gear requirements can seem never-ending. Since shooting food is tabletop photography, you actually don’t need a lot of gear to get started. Your lighting and set-ups can be as simple or complicated as you want to make them.
Start small and buy what you need. You can add equipment from the list as you grow your client list and establish yourself as a food shooter.
This article was guest authored by our good friend Darina Kopcok.
Darina is a commercial food photographer, writer, and educator based in Vancouver, Canada. You can find her at https://www.darinakopcok.com/