How To Use Artificial Light In Food Photography

How To Use Artificial Light In Food Photography by Christina Greve

Do you struggle to shoot good, quality food pictures during the dark winter months? 

If so I get you!

I live in Denmark and for the past few weeks there´s literally been NO good daylight available. Normally, I love myself some grey skies and often use it as part of my style, but at the moment it´s so dark it´s impossible for me to get any decent photos – especially when I shoot food indoor. So if you´re in a similar situation this tutorial is for you.

A long time ago I bought a Studio Photography Lighting Kit; two white umbrellas with light stands and 5500 kelvin bulbs. The funny thing is, I actually bought the kit just for the umbrellas, because I needed them for my audio recordings. Yes, you heard that right. It´s a dirty little trick to sit under an umbrella when recording in order to bounce the sound onto something soft rather than a hard ceiling. 

I thought I would never use the light bulbs that came with the kit so I just stored them in the back of my closet. Little did I know, that they would be very much needed for my food photography.

So after spending a few weeks in frustration over the lack of daylight, I finally remembered that I had these light bulbs. I decided to give them a go even though I was very skeptical. I have used other types of artificial lightings in the past, and never liked the result. But, it was worth testing. Trying and testing is always better than complaining and being frustrated, right!

I started with just one light, and it turned out to be enough, so I never ended up using the second one. Instead I used a reflector to help bounce the light more evenly on my scene.

I had just made some delicious Meringue Swirls and they became my choice of subject. So here´s how I did it.

Spoiler Alert: these photos looks like it´s in the evening, but it´s around lunch time….so you get why I need extra light! ]

I decided to test the artificial lamp as backlight. I put the Meringue Swirls on a rustic plate, placed the lamp behind the scene and tilted it slightly down towards the food. It took me a little while to get my camera settings just right. I used a 40mm. Shutter speed 1/80, f-stop 2,8 and ISO 200. I really liked how the light brought out the texture of the meringue.

The key to using the lamp as backlight is to bring it close to the food, without getting the lamp in the frame. The closer you bring the light to your food, the stronger it will be and if the light gets to harsh you just move the lamp further away to soften it. 

The great thing about using artificial light with a white studio umbrella is that it gives hardly any shadows. The light is so soft, it washes out the shadows. I think maybe the light would be even better with a big softbox, so if you have a softbox already you should definitely test it out.

Another great thing about the 5500 kelvin bulbs is that the light is “clean”. By that I mean it´s not yellow like your normal house lamps and it´s not blue-ish either. It look very neutral and when used with a white umbrella, softbox or diffuser you get a pretty good white balance in your photos.

When you shoot with artificial light make sure to turn off any other light that you have, so you avoid any yellowish colorcast in your photos. I also recommend that you stay close to a window or pick the brightest room in your home, so you have as much naturel daylight available as well – then the artificial light is just helping you bring in that extra light you need.

If you shoot in a dark room with no window and the artificial lamp as your only light, it will be some really dark images and you will struggle to lit all of the image – but of course that can be a style as well.

The next set-up is the sidelight. This is properly the most used form of light in food photography. Again move the light close to your scene – so it´s just outside your frame. Place a white reflector or card board opposite the light, or if you want even more light bring in an extra lamp. 

Also consider where you want the light to hit. Really look at your scene. If you turn the lamp a little to one side pointing into your scene it will also bring more light and attention to the background. In my photo above I think the wall behind the cake stand is lit up a little too much. It makes the raw texture on the wall stand out – which I would love to have avoided. So to be satisfied with the background I had to soften the wall a bit in photoshop.

If you turn the sidelight a little to the other side so it´s pointing slightly away from the scene (and more in the direction of you), the background will automatically become darker and get less attention.

Below, you can see the equipment I used. I got my kit from Amazon.uk. This is the kit I bought. (NOT affiliate). The kit is affordable compared to most photography gear and the light bulbs have around 5000 hours of lifespand!! To you get value for money – and hey, you can even use the umbrellas for shooting video, a rainy day or a podcast studio…haha…wink, wink.

The umbrella soft light photography set is very light and comes with a storage bag. That means you can also travel with it. It´s incredible easy to install, all you have to do is place the Light Bulb socket on the light stand and screw in the bulbs. Then finally attach the umbrellas. It literally takes two minutes to set up. The light stand can be adjusted from a height of 60cm to 200cm(27″-79″), and it can be tilted to the direction you need.

NB. Because I got this kit from Uk, it came with a UK plug. I cannot use a UK plug in Denmark so I had to also get a European lamp plug. So depending on where you buy your light just be aware of what plug it comes with.

Last, let me just show you how the images (below) turned out when shooting in a super dark room with no windows. The artificial light is the only light used and no window to support with extra light. The light falls perfectly on the subject, and the area around it stays dark. Perfect for the dark and moody style.

That´s it! I hope this tutorial was helpful.

If you wish to see how I edit my photos(without any use of expensive presets), I teach that in my online photography course. The workshop has more than 150+ helpful + inspiring photography, styling and editing tutorials and of course you have access for life, so you can study on your own terms.

Doors are closing dec 31. 2018. (And it´s not opening again until March 2019). Read all about it here –>

About Christina Greve

Christina Greve is a Lifestyle Photographer, Decorator, Educator, Podcaster and Mindset Coach. She helps heart-centered women, passion-driven makers and creative souls optimize life + make a living doing what they LOVE. She is known for her elegant storytelling photography and draw much of her inspiration from the Nordic countryside, travels, food and still life. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, blogs and books worldwide. After a decade of working with psychology and coaching, Christina´s passion for photography evolved into a full-time photography and coaching business. Today she runs a thriving + fast growing empire specializing in professional online training, motivating and engaging female photographers, designers, bloggers, makers + creative souls. She has coached thousands of fabulous women from more than 40+ countries.