Monday, June 27, 2011

Do It Yourself Lighting for Food Photography

Apples and Oranges Difused 3 and 10-1

As many of you who follow my other blog, Craig’s Grape Adventure, where I write (and photograph) about food and wine pairing, I have put a good amount of energy into building my food photography skills since the first of this year.  In pursuing this type of photography, I quickly learned that I would not be able to rely on the natural lighting I prefer for the rest of my photography.  Not wanting to blow a mound of cash to set up a good food photography lighting rig (yet), I decided to go the DIY route as an interim measure.

Strawberry and Bananna-11

I followed a three step process:

  1. Constructing two PVC diffusers.
  2. Finding the “right” amount of light.
  3. Experimenting with the direction of the light.

First, I constructed two diffuser frames from PVC.  I constructed a large free standing unit that consists of a 42” square frame with support legs that bring the diffuser frame to table height.  This is a simple matter of cutting PVC to length, and connecting the joints with elbows and tees.  I constructed a second 30” diffuser frame for table top use – short legs so the unit could sit on the table.  Next it was a matter of draping bed sheets over the frame and securing the sheets to the frame with spring clamps.

Apples and Oranges Difused 3 and 10

Continuing with the budget theme, I used halogen work lights I’ve had for a number of years.  Note; using lights that are not white balanced will require you to adjust your in-camera white balance or adjust in post (possibly both – I manage color correction in post).  Not a big problem, just something to be aware of.

Getting the “right” amount of light was a matter of experimentation that involved moving the diffusers varying distances from the subject and moving the lights varying distances from the diffusers.  I don’t have a magic formula for this.  There are a number of variables, including the amount of ambient light, so I encourage you to experiment until you get the lighting effect you are looking for.

Pepper Zucchini Squash-6

The last step is the most important – the direction of the light.  The key to good food photography is giving the subject a three dimensional feel (the zucchini and red pepper above are good examples).  In other words, straight on lighting (from the direction of the camera) will result in a flat image.  As you move the light source to the side and back of the food, you begin to manage the light and shadow resulting in the addition of depth and dimension to the subject.  I spent the better part of an afternoon experimenting with this.

Because all food is not created equal, the location of your lighting can vary from subject to subject.  Said another way, food is not all the same shape, and adding depth and dimension to a banana is different than a piece of toast, a bed of rice, or an apple.  Through my experimentation, I found that to bring depth and dimension to the composition, the lights were never in front of the 3 o’clock and nine o’clock positions.  Using a two light set up, I frequently have one light at the 3 or 9 o’clock position and another further behind the food at say 10 or 2 o’clock.

If I don’t have time to play with the lighting for a particular dish (i.e., people are waiting to eat), my default is 3 o’clock and 10 o’clock.  This may not be “perfect",” but it yields solid results without much thought or effort.

You don’t need to spend a bunch of your hard earned cash to get satisfactory lighting for food photography.  After pulling the work lights from the garage, I invested about $20 in this lighting set up.  The real challenge in this rig is taking the time to experiment with light intensity (distance and more/less layers of sheets) and lighting location.  You can do it.

Too see more of my food photography and some mouth watering food and wine pairings, please visit Craig’s Grape Adventure.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


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