Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Shoot At Night WITHOUT Expensive Lighting Equipment

4 Easy Tips For Shooting Food At Night

I think it's pretty common for us food bloggers to photograph and blog about the meals that we eat on a day to day basis. Unlike a professional food stylist, I don't make a separate plate JUST for the purposes of photographing it. In the past I've tried this very technique, but it never really ends up working out. Besides, now that my teaching job has started again, the only time I have to photograph is at night...so saving an extra plate really didn't matter much because shooting at night was always so impossible.

I think many of us run into this problem. One of the most important aspects of food photography is the lighting. Every post you read about improving your food photos will tell you to use natural light, but what if dinner time is the only time you have to cook AND photograph? What then? There are lots of expensive options out there, but as soon as I started researching for my own solution I quickly realized there was a really cheap solution to this problem. The photograph above is a testament that it can be done...this shot was taken at 10:30pm and I only spent about $20 dollars total for the "equipment". Find out how in the second part of post...

Daylight Balanced Fluorescent Bulbs

Daylight balanced bulbs are the KEY component in this lighting set-up. These bulbs replicate the neutral color quality of daylight so your photos wont have an ugly yellow tint to them. I bought 120w bulbs from Home Depot and also bought two clamp lights. Clamp lights are lighting sockets that have a clamp at the end. This is extremely helpful because the lamp can be clamped to almost anything for perfect placement. Below is a picture of one.

Diffuse The Light

Diffusing the light is really, super important in shooting at night. The direct light from the bulb will create harsh shadows that will look un-natural and harsh.

Never, ever, ever point the light directly at the food! This will create harsh shadows and highlights. Instead, point the light AWAY from the food, but place a piece of white board in front of the light (facing the food). This will then "bounce" the light back toward the food, but in a much softer, glowing manner. You might have to play with the placement of the light and with the placement of the board (a white foam presentation board works great for this). The photo below shows a similar set up, only here its set up as a box...ignore that for now and just concentrate on how the light is pointed away from the object but toward a white wall...again, light will bounce from the wall toward the object.

Place One Light High, and One Light Low

One light should be placed high and slightly to the right of the food...in essence you are trying to recreate the sun. we call this the "main light". The second light should be placed low and to the left of the food. This light is called "the fill light" because it is meant to "fill" in the shadow areas caused by the main light. The fill light is always slightly dimmer than the main light, so I simply use a lamp with a shade on it as my fill light. The shade diffuses the light and creates a nice, even glow.

Use A Tripod!

This is probably the only "expensive" equipment you need. There really is no way around it. Even with a 120w bulb, the amount of light these bulbs produce is small so large apertures and slow shutter speeds are needed to fully expose the image. A tripod will allow you to shoot with slow shutters without causing blur. A tripod is a must for night time shooting so if you don't have one you could try this little trick:

Take a gallon size ziploc bag and fill it with sand. Place a chair or stool in front of your food and put the bag of sand on the chair. Next, place your camera on the bag and nestle the camera into the sand. The sand will act as a firm cushion and will hold the camera in place.

There are lots of hacks out there for making your own softbox set-ups but those all seemed way to complicated for me. How do you shoot at night? I'd love to hear about other peoples solutions to this problem!


  1. Danny - this is great - thanks for putting this post together. Over the weekend, I purchased 2 daylight balanced bulbs and two reflectors and have used them for one shoot so far (results not posted on my blog yet - but will be in the next day or two)...funny that I was thinking along the same lines!

  2. Great post! Very useful and perfect timing! I've been making 2-3 meals on Sundays lately just to shoot them in the daylight! This is great. I've experimented with a table top studio but find that the confined space is limiting. Will have to try those clamp lamps with a bounce asap!

  3. I love this! This site is helpful for food bloggers all around, not only beginners! Thanks, Danny!

  4. Brilliant piece Danny. Love it!! I have to ge here one day, and stop chasing the sun! Thank you!!

  5. Thanks everyone..I was hoping that readers would find this helpful! If any of you try this lighting set up, send me a link to the photo and I'll post them here!

  6. I love the way natural daylight makes my photo's look, but I have 2 kids and a full time job, and sometimes it's just not possible to get things done before I loose the light. And my kitchen is a cave anyway, so I needed to find a way to get pics of food cooking on the stove. After much trial and error, I finally settled on 2 clip on desk lamps with a flexible neck that were rated to hold the 100 watt equivalent daylight fluorescent bulbs. I can clip them to my cabinets and point them at the cooking food or food prep on the counter. To diffuse the light, I just wrap them in tissue paper secured with a rubber band. I'm so high tech ;) The Fluorescents don't put out any heat, so it's perfectly safe. I use the same lamps cliped to my table or a piece of board for stability to take pictures of the food money shot. I point the tissue paper wrapped lights right at the food, which means I can shoot at a nice, low ISO. I sometimes use a presentation board for diffusion, but I find that the tissue paper diffusion works pretty well, and then I don't have to lug out the big bulky board. I'm lazy that way. I still prefer the daylight, but you work with what you've got :)

    K, I'm done typing now :D

  7. Oh!! I forgot to add that the absolute best thing I ever bought to help me with non-natural light photography was a $4.95 grey card I got at my local photography store. I snap a picture at the start of shooting in a particular area, set the custom white balance in my camera, and presto, waaaaay less work and guessing in lightroom to do post processing color correction!

    I'm *really* done writing now :D

  8. Excellent idea Karen! I would think that the light would cause heat and burn the tissue paper, but you're right, flourescents don't make that much heat so this is an excellent solution!

    Do you have pictures of your lighting setup? I think readers would love to see!

  9. I have one of those white boxes that I use - it's a portable photo studio of sorts. Bulky, yes. But for $99 on Amazon.com the quality of my pics improved 100%. And, I run them through Picnik.com - I haven't invested in Photoshop so for $25 a year this works nicely.

  10. I took some pictures last night. I just need to get them off the camera. I can post a link in the comments when I get them done :)

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  12. This is question, rather than a comment. I've read the DPS DIY light box tutorial and it's a great idea. However I live in a one bedroom apartment that already is home to three bikes, spare wheels, and whatnot and there is no room to store that box. Are there small, collapse-able light tents that I could stick in a drawer, cupboard or under my bed?

  13. theuffda,

    check out this DIY softbox tutorial. These lights could potentially be collapsed and stored.

  14. Thank you so much for this post and the next one. I can never take photos in natural light and the flash is just too much. These posts help a lot to know what to do to still take a nice photo.

  15. Thankyou for this help. I can't wait to go to Wal-Mart and pick some of this stuff up to help improve my food photography skills!