How To Photograph Food in Artificial Light

When I started my blog, I had this urgent need to convey my love for food through my wittering on, as I simply could not contain my enthusiasm for food any longer. My early writing voice had a pressure of speech which makes me cringe and smile in equal measure but I hoped my readers (all two of them, lol…!) enjoyed my Tigger-like bouncy zeal for all things edible. Alas, food is a sensory pleasure best experienced by taste, smell and sight with the written word coming much further down the list so taking wonky, poorly lit and badly composed photographs hardly had readers rushing to the kitchen to make my recipes.

It took a long time for me to learn how to handle a camera and then how to produce photos I myself liked, let alone you my dear readers! A huge turning point for me was doing this hands on Food Photography Course earlier this year but having finally gotten to grips with my camera and figuring out how the classical teaching about photography applied to food, I stalled once again. The winter is rolling in here in Yorkshire and that presents the extra challenge of hunting for just the right light to shoot in – if I’m lucky to find an hour or two of good light of a weekend altogether! I’d never managed to get my head around how to use artificial lighting to fake good natural light… until now! And I’m going to tell you how I did it!

 

The Food Photography Book

I used The Food Photography Book by Nagi!

For years, I’d been whining “if only I had someone to take me by the hand and show me how to take photos of my food”. I’ve been so frustrated at my inability to capture the delicious food I was making with my lens. Enter Nagi – she is not only a food blogger herself at RecipeTinEats but she has a separate blog all about how to make your blog the best it possibly can be, and she generously shares mounds of info about how she went from zero to hero i.e. from zero readers to a million in her first year of blogging! I’d say she’s someone to pay attention to! She believes the growth of her blog hinged on how fast she was able to improve her photography in the early days of her blog. “They” say you have do something for 10,000 hours before you become an expert and although Nagi is very humble about her impressive skills, when you read about how much time she devoted to taking images of food, you’ll see she is most definitely an expert in food photography.

 

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The beauty of the book is that Nagi gives specific worked examples of how to achieve exactly the same level of stunning, glowing images of food as she does – she doesn’t hold back anything! Or at least it reads very much like she doesn’t lol. She shows you her set ups, tells you her camera settings, explains how to detect if whatever light you have is good or bad (the Secret Light Test is hilarious to carry out but so helpful!), and she gives examples – good and “bad” – of her own work so you can see exactly what she means. The advice is clear enough that I believe a beginner blogger with an entry level DSLR could produce photos which have taken me 4 years of random guess work and more than a little luck to achieve up to this point! Nagi has managed to produce a book which is every bit as good as having a tutor watching you work and guiding you down the path to success in person!

But enough of me waxing lyrical about Nagi and her marvellous book! Let me let you a little bit of what I learnt and how I shoot in artificial light. Let’s start with my kit. My camera is a D5300 Nikon and I ‘only’ have a Nikkor 40 mm f/2.8 macro lens (I say ‘only’ as it’s actually a very good lens for food bloggers with some minor limitations). I never hand hold (ok that’s a fib – 99.9% of the time I don’t) and Hungry Hubby bought me a snazzy new tripod for our last wedding anniversary which is very sturdy and has an overhead arm. I love overhead shots! My typical camera settings for artificial light (as one of the benefits of using a reproducible light source is you don’t need to move the settings much to get the shots you need) are:

ISO 200 – Aperture f/2.8 – Shutterspeed 0.2-0.8 sec

As for the lighting, Nagi uses Lowel Ego Lights which she shipped to her in Australia from America. However, I was concerned about the voltage differences (and the hideous shipping/taxes it would attract to get them from the States!) so I use these very affordable tabletop lamps instead:

They produce a white light which is very bright and really has to be well diffused or you will end up with washed out, harshly lit images. I use a diffuser panel, muslin cloth and some cheap white curtains from IKEA (a Nagi tip!) to diffuse the light and I still think there’s room for improvement. I want to practice some more with this set up before I move onto dark ‘n’ moody shoots (I have big love for moody foodie photographers lol!). Once I’ve balanced the diffuser (often using my ample stash of canned tomatoes!), I grab whatever flat white or silver objects I can find – cardboard boxes or panels, cake boards, packaging of all kinds, rolls of white paper plus my large 5 in 1 reflector/diffuser. I have the light coming from the 10-11 o’clock position behind the food (what Nagi describes as “side-back lighting”) as my go-to set up whilst I’m still practising. I hold a piece of foil or a silver cake board to the right of my camera to bounce the light gently back onto the front of the food, setting the 10 second timer on my camera for each shot.

Here’s my current set up which has taken over the dining table for now! You can see how bright the light is as the room lights are off, the light is “just” coming from my lamp. I’d love to hear what others are using, particularly in the UK as the Lowell lights I’d really love to try aren’t available for sale within the UK (to my knowledge…)

 

Using these make shift pieces of kit and my entry level DSLR, I’ve managed to take the following photos here at the Apple Chapel, in the pitch black with nothing but my two lamps!

They may not be flawless food photography perfection but if you’ve been following me since the beginning, I think you’ll agree they are a huge improvement and the fact that they are all done with artificial light blows my mind lol!

So there you have it, that’s how I’ve transformed my winter food photography! I’ve got a long way to go to come anywhere close to Nagi in the number of hours she’s put in behind the lens but the great thing about blogging and photography is that it is a journey, not a destination (as cheesy as that sounds!). I’m so excited to try out more of her tips and can’t recommend her book enough if you too are struggling to get the images you want. It’s worth the price just to have the chapter on artificial lighting alone for me!

 

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By | 2017-07-18T22:10:08+00:00 November 18th, 2015|Categories: Foodie Fun|Tags: , , , , |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Chelsea 18/11/2015 at 13:20 - Reply

    Brilliant post, thanks for sharing. My problem is I’ve usually cooked the food to eat so I’ve got about five seconds before I want to grab a fork and tear into it!

    • Just Jo 18/11/2015 at 13:43 - Reply

      Oh that is always an issue – I *never EVER* make food “just” to photograph it, everything you see on my blog and social media accounts is eaten! In that instance, you need to prep everything up ready before you begin then you can plonk and snap. Nagi’s book has further tips in it on this sort of thing too. This sort of thing is easier if you are using artificial light as it’s controllable and reproducible so once you’ve had a few practice shots maybe with an empy bowl etc to focus the lens on, you can have your camera set up and ready as soon as the food is cooked. Hope that helps x

  2. Kari 18/11/2015 at 13:56 - Reply

    Nagi’s book is the best! I can’t believe you took all these AMAZING photos in the dark – I definitely need the Lowel lights or similar now that it gets dark by the time I get home from work!

    • Just Jo 18/11/2015 at 17:57 - Reply

      Aw thanks Kari – I still have masses of practising to do but I just had to share how much I love the book! It’s such a pain getting up in the dark and coming home in the dark!

  3. Frances 18/11/2015 at 18:31 - Reply

    Those images are super impressive with artificial light: I had no idea! I am going to get practising and reading up on Nagi’s blog and book.

    • Just Jo 18/11/2015 at 19:08 - Reply

      It’s shocking isn’t it? Too think I had those lights for more than a year and I had no clue how to use them!

  4. Diana 19/11/2015 at 17:51 - Reply

    This is wonderful! I have artificial light just for these things, but have never seriously sat down to play with it! Thank you for the tips! 😀

    • Just Jo 19/11/2015 at 18:35 - Reply

      You’re more than welcome Diana – go forth and play!

  5. Jacqui 20/09/2016 at 11:44 - Reply

    Really interesting read and I wish I had found a post like this when I started. I too have Nagi book and yes do recommend as well. I tried to get the lowell lights and although i found one place here in the UK that sold them they were out of stock and they had no idea when they were going to come in (after 2 months we will have them in 4-6 wks) I gave up. I was using my homemade version it was so so and then got cheap lights on stands which are ok for now but take time to get out and put away.

    What tripod do you have and can you recommend it?. That is what I want to get next my cheap one is not very good and doesnt have the over head arm. It’s my wedding anniversary tomorrow wonder if I mentioned this post wether Mr B would get me one somehow I doubt it.

    • Just Jo 20/09/2016 at 17:52 - Reply

      HI Jacqui – thanks for stopping by and having a read. I really like my lights but will hopefully find the time and money to play around with other types of lighting in due course. These are cheap and work very well for now, using Nagi’s advice on where to put them and how to diffuse light extra. I do think I learn something with every snap I take.

      With regard to the tripod, Hungry Hubby surprised me with a fabulously sturdy and very easy to use tripod last year as a wedding anniversary gift funnily enough and it even has an overhead arm. You will find it and all my photography kit on my Amazon Shop page 😀 Happy wedding anniversary!

  6. Eb Gargano 03/11/2016 at 13:57 - Reply

    Great post Jo, I am now totally fascinated by this natural vs artificial light debate. And I must say I am really impressed by how naturally lit your photos taken with only artificial light appear. I am very fortunate in that I have a good deal of natural light to play with – my ‘studio’ is also our conservatory so even on dark days I have enough light during the day, but there are some times when it would be nice to be able to photograph in the evenings when it is dark, so definitely something I will look into further…and this book is definitely going on my Christmas list…0 to a million followers in one year, seriously??? I need to know her secret!! Eb x

    • Just Jo 03/11/2016 at 14:16 - Reply

      She is phenomenal Eb – I’ve learnt so much from Nagi and quite genuinely, she holds nothing back in this book. Essential reading for every food blogger imho. Plus I think the mark of a great photographer is to be able to craft whatever light you have – like it’s good to do things like shoot in manual and auto, take autofocus off, use other cameras or lens etc I think it shows great skill if you can use daylight and artificial light to convey your message. And the great news is, artificial light is super easy and quick to work with – certainly way easier than natural light which changes from moment to moment.

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