There are a number of options when it comes to choosing the lighting for your food photography, starting with natural window light — this is a great option because it’s free, readily available, and looks beautiful on food. The problem is that it isn’t consistent, can be affected by weather, and if you are trying to shoot at night, it won’t do you any good. So for other options, you’ll have to get an artificial light source.
There are many makes and models of artificial light sources out there, but they can be categorized in two different areas: continuous light or flash/strobe light, and either daylight-balanced or tungsten-balanced. There are pluses and minus to both of these. Both strobe lighting and continuous lighting are great options — what’s best for you will depend on your budget, whether you also want to shoot video, and what you’re most comfortable with.
A continuous light is like natural daylight. When it’s turned on, you can see exactly how the light will affect the subject on set. This is a great option if you’re just getting started and are unsure of how to modify your light source, fill in the shadows, or block out the spill from the light on certain parts of the set. If you plan on also incorporating video into your project, you can easily do so with a continuous light. The drawback is that they generally aren’t as powerful as a flash or strobe-powered light. A tungsten-powered lamp won’t be terribly expensive, but will get really hot while in use. LED lighting will stay cool while in use, but LED lights with a lot of power will be pretty expensive.
Flash or Strobe-Powered Light
Your other option is a flash or strobe-powered light. These lights work by the light source emitting a very high-powered flash of light when triggered. They’re very powerful, compact, and portable. The downside to this lighting is that it can be difficult for new photographers to understand. If you’re unsure of where the light will fall or how powerful the light will be, you won’t know until you take a picture. If you want to see what you’re doing as you move the light around your subject, there are some models of strobes that have modeling lights to help give you an idea of what the light will look like, but this feature can be pretty expensive. And if you’re interested in video, strobe lighting is not the best option. When shooting, it will only show up as a bright flash on your video.
When choosing the best light, another consideration is the color temperature. Artificial lights come in two color temperatures and are measured in degree units on the Kelvin scale. Cooler daylight-balanced lights give off a bluer light and are anywhere from 5000 to 5500 Kelvin. Warmer tungsten-balanced lights give off an orange-tinted light and are around 3200 Kelvin.
How Color Affects Your Image
Shooting in the wrong color temperature will have a drastic impact on your image. The images below were shot at a series of different color temperatures. Here’s a look at the set shots and the CTO gel that I used in later shots.
As you can see, the light sources are very similar in placement, and both use the same lighting modifier. The differences in this series are the white-balance modes and color temperatures of the lights.
Here is an image shot with tungsten light. The only difference in the two photos is the white-balance setting in the camera:
Here’s the same image shot under a small compact flash with a daylight color temperature:
Again, the only difference was the white balance of the camera. Notice how in both sets of images, there is one that looks okay and one that looks either too blue or too orange. That’s because the camera was set to the incorrect white balance. Your camera has several white-balance modes. Each of these is geared toward a different color temperature of light.
Here are images shot with Tungsten light with five different white balances. (I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II and the color temperatures listed are what the camera shoots in each of these five white-balance modes. Your camera may have slightly different results, but overall they should look similar.)
These images were shot using a daylight light source with five different white balances:
Notice how changing the white balance in your camera has a great impact on the way your image looks. If you’re shooting with an artificial light and notice that your images look way too orange or blue, you may be in the wrong white-balance mode.
The color temperature of a small battery-powered compact flash is a little too blue or cool for my liking. To fix this, I like to add a gel to the light. I use something called a ¼ CTO gel and place it over my flash. When the flash fires, the gel changes the temperature of the light to be a little bit warmer or more orange in color. On skin tones or food, this looks a lot better. Here’s a shot with and without the gel, so you can see the effect. It’s minor, but I think it makes a big difference.