Food Photography at Home, Part 2: Continuous Light

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Food Photography at Home, Part 2: Continuous Light

Now that we have a handle on using natural light for food photography, it’s time to move on to continuous light sources. When natural light isn’t available, or you want more specific control and placement of your light, you’ll have to use your own sources.

Natural light setup from Part 1
Natural light setup from Part 1

The first benefit of using continuous light is the full control you get. You can spend hours setting up a scene knowing that once your lights are in place, they will never change. As amazing as shooting with natural light can be, changing light is a major variable, especially for elaborate setups. In Part 1, our subject matter was a single ingredient: a tomato. Worrying about the light changing wasn’t too much of an issue. Another benefit you get from using continuous light sources is that you can capture video and still content using the same setup. In an increasingly hybrid media landscape, this can be a huge benefit.

The Setting

For Part 2, we’re creating a slightly more complicated composition than in the last article. For this image we’re going to construct a light and airy breakfast scene consisting of some waffles with fruit, a cinnamon glaze, and a cup of espresso.

BTS of the breakfast setup
BTS of the breakfast setup

Although the setup is a little more elaborate, the principles are essentially the same. We’re laying down a similarly styled wooden surface, but this time we’re going with a lighter color.

Simple wood surfaces with white paint
Simple wood surfaces with white paint

Where it gets a little more complicated is the composition and food styling that must be done. I know I want the star of the show to be the waffles and the fruit so I’m going to lay those down on a plate on the wood and find a camera angle that is flattering for the food.

Composition of the food
Composition of the food

I’m keeping the camera in roughly the same spot as I did for the tomato shot to keep things uniform in this series. We’ll break out of this angle in Part 3. Before I get into all the other aspects of the composition, let’s talk about the lighting.

How to Use Continuous Sources

We’ll be covering two methods for lighting this scene: using a dedicated LED light and a household light. I’m going to start with LED because it’s the preferred method in this scenario and gives you the most control. It’s also more color accurate and can produce a higher intensity than anything you have lying around your home.

LED light panel placement
LED light panel placement

Sticking with what we learned in Part 1, we’ll be placing our LED panel off to the side and slightly behind our subject. I’m using a 1 x 1 Lupo panel but any 1 x 1 LED will suffice. You could use smaller panels in this scenario, as well, but just be aware you’ll get a narrower source of light, and you’ll have to do more to diffuse it and spread it evenly. This will come into play when we utilize the household light.

To help diffuse the light and make it feel more like a natural source, I’ve placed a panel of heavy diffusion between the light and my setting. This particular diffuser is something I made myself and it’s easy to make. But if you’re not in the DIY mood, you can use a stretched-out shower curtain or thin white bed sheet, in a pinch. Doing this will alter your light color, though, so make sure you are aware of that. To create this diffuser I used a 24 x 36" empty Matthews flag frame and taped a cut-out piece of Savage Translum. I find it very useful to keep a roll of this white plastic styrene around because it can be cut and used to create all kinds of diffusers and bounce surfaces.

Once that is set, take a look at your scene and check how dark your shadows are. If you want a more dramatic image, then you won’t need to bounce the light back into the shadows. I want this image to be a little brighter so I’ve set up a simple V-Flat World bounce board to get some light into those shadows.

Make one light do all the work
Make one light do all the work.

Behind the setting, I added a smaller version of the diffuser I made to ensure there wasn’t too much intensity fall-off at the edge of the image. It will help bounce some light back in and keep the image uniform in its brightness.

LED Continuous

On the camera side, I’m going to be using a shutter release so there is no chance of shake. I’m operating at a very low shutter speed so I can keep my other settings where I want them. My focal length is 53mm and my aperture is at f/7.1 so I can retain deeper depth of field. I set my ISO at 200 to give myself a little extra room without adding that much noise into the image. Because of those settings, my shutter speed ended up at 1/5 of a second. Having a tripod here is crucial. This shot could not be done handheld with the amount of light I’m using and in this setting. Using a shutter release is just extra insurance to make sure my image is sharp as a tack, regardless of shutter speed.

 Final image using LED light
Final image using LED light

Looking at the final shot, we can see the image is bright, yet we retain good shadows. The fruit and glaze maintain strong highlights that make them appealing and appetizing. From here you can decorate the rest of your frame with complementary props and fruit.

Household Continuous

Now that we’ve got our shot with the professional light, let’s try and recreate the shot with a light that everyone has. At first, I was going to use a table or standing lamp, but then I noticed that my entryway light was positioned almost directly behind the LED light I was using. I powered down the LED, moved it out of the way, and turned on the ceiling light.

 Household ceiling light
Household ceiling light

The color of this light is not as accurate as the LED and produces a harder, narrower beam of light. Household bulbs are usually either incandescent or LEDs and you will need to adjust the white balance of your camera accordingly.

Set your white balance to 3200 for tungsten sources
Set your white balance to 3200 for tungsten sources.

As a rule, I like to work with color temp settings that match the most part prevalent sources found in life: daylight (5600K) and tungsten (3200K) light. These are great baselines for most things. You can then adjust your color in post to match the source better. You can also use a white or gray card here for easy color adjusting in post. Because I was photographing a white espresso cup, I did a quick and dirty white-balance read from that cup and got 95% there. 

Because the distance and intensity of the ceiling light is farther and lower, I had to alter my shutter speed drastically to compensate. My shutter changed from 1/5 of a second to a full 10-second exposure. This allowed the sensor to absorb all the light it needed to expose the image the way I wanted. Be mindful when doing this, because any other light sources in the room will bleed into your image. You will have to eliminate any errant sources.

The only other change I made was to swap out my white bounce board with a piece of black foam board.

Black bounce board helps with negative fill
Black bounce board helps with negative fill.

This helped to make sure less light bounced into the fill or shadow side of the image due to the extended exposure. Without the added black negative fill, there would be very few shadows in the image.

Final image using ceiling light
Final image using ceiling light

Right away, you should notice the difference in how the highlights hit the fruit and the right side of the waffles. The highlights are concentrated in that area more so than the LED image due to the ceiling light’s distance and smaller size. Think of how the sun creates very bright highlights, for example. It’s because it’s far away and appears small. The same principle is at play here. I happen to like this effect for this particular image. This is where personal preference comes into play. Each image brings its own unique characteristics to the table.

In the final part of this series, we’re going to introduce strobe lights. This will give us full creative control to create images that would be much harder to make using natural or continuous light. We’ll run though two setups showcasing how to get the most out of these lights.

Ready to use continuous light in your food photography setup? Post your questions in the Comments section, below, and let's talk!

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