Strawberry fields forever: lighting for my food photos

by Patricia on February 11, 2009

Photography has been a hobby of mine off and on for a while now. But until recently, most of my photos have been of landscapes…
Roll005012.jpg
Na Pali Coast on Kauai

Or people…
300 Pounds at Moe's Alley
300 Pounds at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz

And I have relied on good natural lighting or a good flash (not the wimpy built in flash, but the big kind of flash that makes people look at you like you’re with the press… or a huge camera dork). But photographing small objects like food and crafts has been a challenge. Especially in this apartment. My apartment is pretty dark and gets very little natural light (and no direct sunlight except in one corner of my bedroom which is where you’ll find at least 1 cat in the late afternoon). The apartment itself is great (for an apartment) but let’s be honest, its dark. And darkness + photography does not work.
I’ve been making due by adding extra lights around my cupcakes and then doing touch ups on my computer, but none of the lights have been bright enough. And the touchups have been excessive (in my opinion, but I don’t like to do touchups). Using a flash, even my fancy one, washes out the small subjects. So it has been frustrating…all the while foodgawker taunts me with rejections saying “Low lighting and/or underexposed” (Come on guys, I’m trying here — actually, I have gotten a few past the discerning eyes at foodgawker but not without some serious editing and a couple of re-tries).

But today, the light of my life gave me a birthday present that has brightened my day and my pictures (sorry, I couldn’t resist). D. — the best boyfriend ever — knowing my frustrations with lighting, gave me a portable light box! Naturally, I had it setup and ready to use within 10 minutes of opening it…

It all folds up into its very own carrying case. The 2 lights and the camera stand (that thing in the front) all fold down and have their own pockets too. How cool is that?

But now for the fun part: test photos to compare before and after the light box and then playing with a few options with the light box. My test subject today is a ramekin of strawberries. First, here is a photo taken with the lighting I was using before… without any editing:

Pretty dark, right? It’s not like I didn’t have a bright light shining on it, it just wasn’t enough. (Seriously, I had a bright light about 6 inches away from the ramekin). Normally, I would have edited this photo before posting it: increase the exposure, brighten, white balance… whatever it took to hopefully pass muster (first with myself and then with foodgawker).

Now, here is a photo using the light box with the blue background that came with it… also with no editing:

Wow. The difference is shocking. Granted, I do think the blue background makes the red strawberries pop, but the lighting is much better too. The photo no longer has that yellowy-darkness that I’ve been combating for so long. But you know what? I don’t really want all of my photos to have a blue background (boring). So let’s try the grey background that also comes with the light box (again, no edits):

The berries don’t pop quite like they do against the blue, but the lighting is still better than without the light box. With a little touch up, this could be pretty good. But the grey is kind of dull and I like open backgrounds or even white backgrounds… (again no edits)

Interesting that the white background seems to make the photo darker. Maybe that has been part of my problem all along? I would have thought the white would make it brighter what with white reflecting light and all that. Wait a second. What’s that? The voice of my high school Biology teacher, Mr. Powell… telling me that a blue prom dress would stand out more than a red one because blue light waves are longer than red ones and so it makes blue “pop” more even in low lights. Hmm…. (Do I feel like a nerd right now? Yes, yes I do).

Anyway, thank you for sticking with me through this long post *not* about food or cooking. I look forward to bringing you some beautiful pictures using my new lights and playing with different backgrounds. And I know I’m not the only one excited about the new light box…


Raven checking out the test subject and making sure I’ve got everything setup correctly.

* more landscape photos on flickr

Previous post:

Next post: