Lately I have been getting more into food photography for commercial reasons. So I am going to show you the main commercial studio lighting setup I use for food.
But first I am going to explain why I shoot food with studio strobes as opposed to many food shooters who photograph food with only natural light. First off, a lot of food bloggers like to shoot with natural light because for one, there is no need to spend thousands of dollars on a studio lighting setup. It is also WYSIG (what you see is what you get). Plus it is a lot easier for shooters who don’t have that much experience working with studio strobes to get the light into the right position when you can use daylight and see how it is lighting up your food before you press the shutter. This is of course something a bit trickier to do with intermittent studio strobe lighting. The main thing about shooting with daylight that food bloggers like though is that it really has that look of light coming through the window that many of them are aiming for. And for a non-commercial look to food photography, a lot of people want that natural look of daylight hitting the food as if the dish were sitting on the kitchen table next to a window.
But shooting with daylight is not as good as shooting with strobes because with strobes you are able to control the direction and power of the light at all times, something you can’t do with daylight. With studio strobes you can also shoot day or night, on rainy days, and all the other times of the day when there is no natural daylight available. So, if you have studio lighting there is no good reason to shoot food with natural light, especially since you can create the same effects as natural light with strobes as wellwhich I teach about here in my other post if you are interested.
When shooting food for commercial purposes I also don’t want the light to look like natural daylight because commercial lighting for food is more about nice crisp highlights on the top of the food to help bring out the texture. Plus being able to have highlights on the food from lights placed on both sides of the food is nice too. It is of course unnatural to have light coming from two directions like this, but commercial lighting is not about a natural look. And double sided highlights isn’t something you can create when shooting with a single natural light source like daylight coming through your window. Lastly, when shooting with natural light you may encounter slow shutter speeds. This may require you to shoot on a tripod at all times. With strobes the duration of the light from the flash is very short. So you can shoot at faster speeds of 1/125th, 1/160th, or 1/200th and handhold the camera at all times if you want. This offers a lot more versatility on changing camera angles quickly.
So let me get back to what I am here to show you about. Last week I did a food shoot with a commercial food lighting setup. I shot some bagel sandwiches on a white background.
As you can see in the photo above from the shoot I did, there is lighting that appears to be hitting the food from all directions and there are no heavy, dark areas. The lighting is crisp, vibrant, has plenty of contrast, good highlights on both the top and sides of the food, and there is nice color pop. The setup was 4 lights.
Here is how I did it. I placed 1 light each positioned at 10:30 and 2:30 to the food as 2 separate backlights. Each of the backlights where fitted with honeycombs (grids) over the lights and barn doors (directional panels on the sides of the lights) to control the width of the beam of the backlights. The grid sent a nice hard focused beam of backlight onto the food and the barn doors helped to narrow the beam of light coming out of the strobe by flagging the light so that it didn’t hit anything except the top and sides of the bagel on both sides as I wanted it.
But now you need some more overall light because with only 2 backlights you are going to end up with a lot of heavy shadows in front of the food and basically a rather dark picture except for the 2 back highlights you have setup on the food. So then I added in a 3rd strobe positioned at 7:00 and aimed at the ceiling to bounce it indirectly back onto the food. That light at 7:00 bounced off the ceiling and filled in some light on the front of the food and a bit more light all around. Alternatively, some people will hang the 3rd light with a soft box above the food, but that is more work to setup and requires a boom. It is also just as easy to bounce the light off the ceiling if you have a white ceiling that is not more than 3 meters high. So all you have to do is raise the strobe on the light stand high up and close to the ceiling so that the light doesn’t spill directly onto the food below and thus it creates a nice soft diffused bounce off the ceiling landing back onto the food.
Three lights is usually enough light for a commercial food setup like this, but I was shooting on a white background and the background itself was still looking a bit too dark for my taste. So I setup a fourth light at 3:00 to bounce off the ceiling from the side of the white background and fill in some light behind the food on the white paper background itself. Below is a snap of my lighting setup:
Unfortunately you can’t see the other 2 lights at 7:00 and 3:00 in the lighting setup shot above (which were positioned high up to bounce off the ceiling), but you can see the 2 backlights, which were positioned about 12 inches above the food. This is a good height above the food for backlight purposes.
This covers the standard type setup for commercial looking lighting for food photography. If you would like to read more about lighting for food I have another article which covers The Effect Of Light Through The Window For Food Photography Using Strobes here.