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Jul 30, 2007 06:55 PM

Food Photography - Lighting recommendations

I'm starting a food blog in the near future, but first want to be sure my food looks good in pictures. Currently I have a digital Canon S3, but want to upgrade to a digital SLR Canon 30D. That should help with the picture quality, color and depth of field problems that I am encountering now.
My question is: can anyone recommend a good lighting system to use? Something on the cheaper side (am spending $$ on the camera), which is easy for an amateur to use.
Thanks !!

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  1. Alien Bees are good - but by the time you've got all the umbrellas, beauty boxes, etc. they're not exactly cheap - but compared to say, Elinchrom, they are "cheaper".

    A REAL cheapo method uses clip-on lights, cheesecloth, tracing paper, and illustration board to diffuse/bounce the light around. Make sure that all the lights are the same kind of source (all fluorescent or all incandescent) Use manual white balance to keep the color accurate and shoot in RAW mode.

    I'm assuming that you have a good, solid tripod - since you're going to be shooting long exposures and probably small apertures.

    Don't use high ISO - it will add noise to your images, although if they're only for the web, it probably won't be noticeable below ISO 1000 unless you crop the images heavily.

    Pay attention to what's in the background - if you're using a background, keep it away from the food (subject) so that it lacks detail and therefore stays in the background.

    Have fun, play around, and relax!

    1. If you want cheap, hard to beat the sun. You'll need home-made diffuser and reflector boards. Like Curly said, "Obsoive":

      (BTW, forgive my pedantry, I don't know how much you know.)

      First, we'll assume your Canon has a flash unit, either on-camera or in-camera. You're responsible for working that out. I'm just the Low-Tech guy.

      Second, You can build a homemade diffuser simply by clipping a white bedsheet or men's business shirt to a light source (lamp, window, flash unit, girlfriend's personality, whatever). To diffuse the sun, use a bent-out coat hanger as a crude frame and have a friend hold it between the sunlight and the food in the shot.

      Keep a pure white king-size flat sheet as a full-set diffuser in case you need it. Drape it over you, the camera, and then the subject if necessary.

      Third, build two easy-peasy reflectors by using aluminum foil to cover one face each of two pieces of foam-core poster board (use foam core because of its rigidity.) One board will have the foil's shiny side out, the other will have the duller side out. You'll need to have a third piece of board to use as a white reflector. I suggest the two foil boards, rather than one board with a matte side and shiny side, because at some point you'll need both types of reflection at one time.

      (Later on, you can get all Martha Stewart and cover additional boards with solid-colored foil gift wrapping paper to bounce color into the shot.)

      Now you have your reflectors and diffuser(s), you'll need a stage. A card table positioned under a north-facing window is fine, as is the same table outside in full shade. Keep several different-colored tablecloths or large fabric squares to address themes in your photography. Hit the thrift stores and pick up cheap, funky salt and pepper shakers, little knick knacks, plates and bowls and cups if you want to add some background interest to your shots.

      Avoid using incandescent bulbs as your only light source because they burn on the red end of the color spectrum. (Daylight burns blue, so be aware.) NEVER shoot using fluorescent lights as your only source: They burn a baby-puke green and make whatever you're shooting look like it's covered in algae.

      When you shoot, experiment with aperature value and time value settings, see which gives you better results. If you really want to get tweaky, use a hand-held light meter to scan the shot and then use those settings on the camera in its manual mode, if it has one.

      Never photograph reflective surfaces while you're naked. It's a bad thing. Trust me. (Look on some funny pic websites to see what I mean.)

      Studying and mastering food plating will go a long, long way to making your shots look great.

      To learn about food styling, Google "food stylists" +tricks and see what I mean.

      1. Fantastic suggestions. I have a lot to work on!

        1 Reply
        1. re: monavano

          As do we all, as do we all....

          One book I loved, helped me a great deal years ago was Richard Sharabura's "Shooting Your Way to a Million."

          Amazon has it:

          It's an excellent tutor on placement, composition, creating drama, etc. I've never seen any other photographer with his sense of visual drama. Hey, for $3, how can you go wrong?

        2. Go give a read. It is a great blog about off-camera small flash lighting with a strong emphasis on quick, easy, cheap and very effective solutions. The man who runs strobist also has made some really good deals with a camera store for packaged kits to get you started.

          The site contains a Lighting 101 series (how to for beginners) from last summer. He is currently doing 102 (intermediate stuff). There are also 'On Assignment' reports of stuff he shot when working for the Baltimore Sun (left this spring to run the blog and give workshops full-time).

          You might be particularly interested in:

          Those are all food-related 'On Assignment' reports and go through how the final shot was made. Each of the final shots was chosen for print in a major daily too. Moreover, between the four, a range of lighting styles and results are discussed.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Atahualpa

            Thanks for these replies. I really didn't know what I didn't know. This has been really helpful in leading me to resources I'd never have found on my own.

          2. Here is a whole food photography hints blog: