Artificial Light Gear Guide for Food Photography

 I was tired of feeling rushed during my shoots. I remember being pre-occupied about where the sun was in the sky, what the clouds were doing, and when the sun would set. After resisting artificial lighting for a long time, I finally gave in and my life was forever changed.

I can shoot any time, anywhere and get natural looking results like these:

From “light and airy” to “dark and moody” and everything in between, I have full control over my lighting.

Any experienced professional photographer will tell you that even if you plan to be a natural light shooter, having the artificial lighting skills are indispensable.

Heirloom Tomato Salad captured in a restaurant dining room with flash

WHERE DO I START?

If you’re shooting still images, the best place to start is with a basic off camera flash.  It’s my vote for the best bang for your buck.  It gives you a ton of brightness and total control in any environment, because with flash, we can literally cancel out any ambient light and create lovely light anywhere.

This is an absolute must if you’re going to shoot in restaurants.  Like this shot of heirloom tomato salad, captured despite being surrounded by those orange overhead tungsten restaurant lights.

Many students also remark that their images are sharper and crispier once they start shooting with flash. This is because flash doesn’t rely on the shutter speed to freeze action. If you struggle with blurry or flat lighting in your shots and have been thinking you needed a new lens, hold off on the lens purchase and shoot with flash first. You’ll be amazed at the results!

The one drawback to shooting flash is the learning curve. Instead of the light continuously being on like natural light or a continuous lamp, the flash fires when you hit the shutter button on your camera to illuminate your scene. There are also some technical hurdles that can cause frustration at the outset.

That’s why I created my Artificial Academy course, a comprehensive online class that teaches you everything you need to know to get started and avoid the headaches.

Myself and my support team are excited to help you learn this invaluable skill!

WHAT DO I NEED?

To make it easy, I have created starter “packages” of all the exact gear you’d need for a complete set up based on the kind of camera you’re shooting, your budget and the work you’re doing.

Most of the packages list a speedlight as that is generally going to get you great quality for a low price and they’re easily portable. However, if you’re planning longer shoots and want a light that plugs into the wall or need something with greater output (for example, if you plan to regularly shoot images that require higher aperture numbers like F8 and higher) then a monolight strobe will be a great pick. I have options in both categories below.

The one big caveat is to double check in terms of the trigger, that your camera is compatible. When you follow the link, check the specs to make sure your model is listed. The triggers are made specifically to work with particular brands. Also, some entry level DSLR cameras or older cameras have limitations.  So, just double check your camera’s compatibility before buying. If you’re enrolled in Artificial Academy we’ll be happy to answer any questions about gear and help you make the right pick for you. We’re able to navigate international sites, too, providing support to students across the globe.

The mounting bracket that I list in each of the packages is my current favorite because it will be compatible with a wide variety of modifiers (aka, the umbrella / softbox / etc…the thing that modifies the light) and speedlight styles.  The s-type speedlight bracket I recommend that you’ll see in all of the packages works with umbrella style modifiers AND bowens mount softboxes.

When it comes to modifiers, in each of the packages I recommend starting with a simple, affordable, softbox for flattering, natural-looking lighting. But, if you are looking for a very particular style of lighting, check out the “Other Modifiers” and styles section at the bottom.


I’m Looking for the Best Quality Budget Option for a Canon Camera

approx $300 for total package

***Some of Canon’s entry level cameras are NOT compatible with 3rd party flashes. Double check the specs to confirm if your camera is compatible or if you’re a member of Artificial Academy you can confirm with a Bite Shot team member.


I’m Looking for the Best Budget Option for a Nikon Camera

approx $300 for total package


I’m Looking for the Best Budget Option for a Sony Camera

approx $300 for total package


I’m Looking for the Best Budget Option for a Fuji Camera

approx $300 for total package


I Shoot Canon and want Canon lights

approx $865 for total package


I shoot Nikon and want Nikon lights 

approx $605 for total package


I want a strobe that will serve me well for a long time but am a little budget conscious

approx $680 total package


I Want Exactly What YOU have, Joanie, and something I won’t outgrow for most food photography work 

approx $971 total package


Other Modifiers

If you are seeking a very specific look to your lighting, the magic is all in the modifier.  Here are recommendations below for options that are different from the modifier I recommend in the packages above.

  • Multipurpose & Great for Drinks / Product work The rectangle shape of this one creates nice clean reflections in glassware and is a large enough modifier for soft, window-like lighting. Also easy to setup and a personal favorite for general use.
  • Dark and Moody Style This little modifier creates a dramatic sliver of light and is easy to assemble thanks to the Rapid Box technology, opens just like an umbrella. You will also need to get the bowens mount ring to mount it to your bowens mount light. For even more drama also get the grid attachment. Get 10% off your order through Westcott.com using promo code SIMON4110 at checkout.
  • Soft & Light – for those who want the white, bright, feeling with soft shadows. Also easy to setup.
  • Diffuser or Scrim – This is what I refer to as freestyling since you can move the light around different heights and distances behind a scrim or diffuser for a unique look. This does require some patience and experimentation compared to softboxes that are built to create a specific lighting. If you work with natural light, a big diffuser or scrim can help there, too. There are lots of options in scrims and diffusers. I like this giant pop-up diffuser which can hang from a c-stand or prop up against a window or table. For something more formal, the 4’ x 4’ Westcott Scrim Jim has the option for different diffusion material thicknesses depending on how hard or soft you want your light. You can mount the scrim to a c-stand with the clamp accessory. Or for something super soft, you can get a roll of Rosco diffusion and make your own frame or hang the paper from a c-stand.

CONTINUOUS LIGHTING

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a flash fanatic. However, I also own continuous lights, primarily for the use in shooting video. You can also shoot stills with continuous lights, however, you’ll want to make sure you’re working in an environment where you have total control over the ambient lighting. bowens mount insertget the grid attachment

Shot with a single LED light

When I shoot with my continuous lights, I have all of the overhead room lights off and have blackout curtains drawn over the windows. Otherwise, other sources of light can have a negative impact on the final images. For example if an overhead room light is a different color temperature compared to my photography lighting, it can interfere with the colors being captured. Or if light is entering the scene from too many directions, it can cause a feeling of flatness in the images.

If you’re looking for a continuous light, I’d recommend going with an LED. There are affordable options in the LED category, quality ones will render colors accurately and they run cool so you don’t run the risk of your food melting due to heat from your lights.

One important spec to pay attention to in terms of continuous lights is the CRI, the Color Rendering Index. Make sure to select a light with a CRI rating of 92 or higher in order to ensure accurately portrayed color in your images.

The LEDs I recommend below have a Bowens mount so that the same softboxes that I use with my flashes can be used with my LEDs. I love versatility! Most of them come with a built in bracket that can attach to a standard light stand.

Here are a few LED options at different price points

Godox SL-60W – A quality light and great for the price. However, if you have a bit more budget you might consider opting for the higher powered Godox SL-150W (silent fan version!) or 200W for a brighter light (especially helpful if you’re planning to shoot 60fps or 120fps slow mo b-roll shots.

Aputure 300D – this is the light that I own and use for everything from YouTube videos to client videos and all my video needs. Intended to be used with bowens mount softboxes like those linked above and Aputure brand softboxes.

WE’D LOVE TO HAVE YOU JOIN US!

If you’ve been considering Artificial Academy we’d love to have you join us. The course includes everything from how to set up the light, the step by step to get the camera settings to communicate with the light, how to manipulate the light, how to make it look natural, and tons of live demos including shooting light & airy, dark & moody, capturing drinks, shooting in a restaurant, shooting outdoors, shooting action and capturing headshots.

Skip the trial and error method and learn to shoot like a pro right away. Too, it includes access to a private group just for students enrolled in the course to get help, feedback on images and to connect with other awesome food photographers. We can’t wait to see you rock your lights!