What equipment can I use for a food photography setup in low light?
January 17, 2013 11:07 AM   Subscribe

What kind of equipment could I purchase within a $300 budget for the backdrop and lighting? My house is naturally very dark. I use white plates and minimal props for the food. My camera is a Canon 40D. I don't have much time lately so I'll spend a little more for convenience.

My house is quite dark so I have a tough time finding bright back drops for my food photos. I would love to show a sunny kitchen table or a brightly lit cutting board and ingredients in the background of my food photos, but my kitchen is so dark naturally that I end up taking the same shot with the window in the background, or just an aerial view of the food. Poor lighting has always plagued my food photography despite my use of reflectors (white foam boards and foil covered posterboard) and artificial tabletop lamps. I just have a dark house not conducive to photography!

My photos are shot with a Canon 40D (this lens) or a Fujifilm finepix digital. The lighting is much more problematic when I use the DSLR.

What kind of equipment could I purchase within a $300 budget for the backdrop and lighting? I know a tripod could come in handy but I'm not sure whether a table top or a full sized tripod is best for shooting food on a table. I don't have much time lately so I'll spend a little more for convenience.
posted by sunnychef88 to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Tripod and a cable release (or set your camera for the 2 second delay mode) are the first things that this screams out for. At that point what matters isn't the overall lighting but the relative lighting.

Last time I bought a tripod was 15 years ago, but for best value for the dollar at the time I liked the smallest of the full-sized Bogen tripods with the Bogen medium ball head. The tripod is large enough to use standing up, but with all the legs at their minimum extension small enough to use on a table top and the legs have several different splay settings. The medium ball head is no Arca Swiss, you won't be panning with it in the variable tension mode, but it's affordable and lets you quickly and easily position the camera.
posted by straw at 11:13 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Search for "continuous lighting kit" on Amazon.
posted by The Deej at 11:15 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Lighting design on a budget"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:19 AM on January 17, 2013

Definitely a tripod. If you want to get a cheap one to start, you should be okay since you are working in a pretty controlled condition.

You also might get a more even exposure if you use medium-colored plates rather than white - often a super-light background can throw things off, in your case making the food look dark (ignore if you are already adjusting the exposure to compensate).
posted by ella wren at 11:20 AM on January 17, 2013

In order, I think you should get a light meter, a tripod, and a soft box.

A light meter will let you set a perfect exposure without having to worry about what color dish you have it on. Measure the light falling on the subject and set a perfect manual exposure. If there's one thing that sets apart pros from al the advice on the internet, it's this. Pros use light meters when shooting staged photos.

A tripod will let you take a longer exposure than you can hold still. I'd skip the cable release and just use a timer. The point of both of these is so you don't shake the camera by pushing the button.

A soft box will give you nice even light. Shoot whenever you need to!
posted by advicepig at 11:48 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to give up the "kitcheny" background in exchange for much more even lighting, I would build or buy a light box (also called a light tent) big enough to hold your plates or your cutting board or what have you. Well within your budget and would make a world of difference.
posted by Partial Law at 11:52 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can't stomach the cost of a light meter, at least get a gray card and learn how to use it. Not only can you use it to set exposure, but you can also use it to set white balance.
posted by advicepig at 11:54 AM on January 17, 2013

Why is it that you are shooting in a naturally dark place? Because it's your kitchen? There are other kitchens. You may even have access to some.

Obviously, do not ever shoot with the window in the background. Not only will the light be coming from the wrong direction to light your subject, this is a recipe for underexposing your shot if you do not compensate properly (or expose manually, of course).

The best advice I can give you if you insist on shooting in such a location is to bounce your flash off the ceiling. If you don't have an external flash, this should be one of the things you buy, along with a tripod of course.
posted by kindall at 12:17 PM on January 17, 2013

Are your ceilings white? Bouncing a flash off the ceiling makes an excellent soft overhead light, with minimal shadows. This works very nicely for food lighting. A continuous light system is not ideal for food, particularly if you are shooting things that tend to wilt or melt.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:18 PM on January 17, 2013

A continuous light system is not ideal for food, particularly if you are shooting things that tend to wilt or melt.

This is/was true with incandescent lights. Many current continuous light systems now use CFLs which are much cooler.
posted by The Deej at 12:39 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't shoot with the window in the background. It will make setting exposure hard.

Then try this. Set your on-camera flash for SLOW (fill/background) mode. Shoot. Look at the amazing shot with the nicely exposed background.

If you have a light color ceiling, hold a white index card in front of the flash, so it is blocked from shining straight on the subject, but instead is going to reflect off the card onto the ceiling. Shoot. Admire the evenly lit photo.
posted by zippy at 1:53 PM on January 17, 2013

The tripod is no-brainer number one, and there is very little reason to spend a lot on one for this purpose. It will allow you to increase your shutter speed to dramatically brighten your photos, and this should work well with your existing cheapo reflectors and such.

An inexpensive manual flash unit, perhaps with a sync chord to get it off your camera should be your next purchase. Adding controllable light will allow you to bounce it into the ceiling for soft fill, or perhaps blast it from the side for hard, dramatic light. Both have their place in good food photogrpahy.

Maybe this? With your budget you could afford a cheap tripod and two of these units. This would give you the ability to setup really great shots. You could also add a couple cheap lightstands and umbrellas if you want to get really fancy.

A light meter is soooo not necessary for this and will eat up most of your budget without adding anything new to your arsenal. You need to add light, not measure it. Your camera has one built in and in the digital age, you can always chimp the back of your screen and adjust from there. Also, I challenge the advice upthread to avoid the backlight of the window. Backlight is some of the best light you can work with. Just expose for the foreground (or add your reflector for fill) and enjoy stunning images.

Finally, one of the best things you can do to make your dim images look better is learn a bit about white balance. Often, in dim kitchens and such, your images will default to a pretty orangey white balance if left on auto mode. Put your white balance on tungsten (or adjust as needed) to make sure your white plates are actually coming out white. This will make even dim photos look much better and your colours will pop. Shoot in RAW for even more control, and then you can adjust this later.
posted by hamandcheese at 2:40 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been in this exact bind and I bought some very basic gear and spent way less than $300.

First, buy a tripod. A cheap one is fine if you're just going to be using it indoors in a fairly static setup. Start with taking longer exposures to brighten your shots. You don't need a trigger-release (to avoid jolting the camera when taking a shot) - just use the self-timer option on the camera.

Second, buy a cheap lighting setup. I bought something like this. I dislike using a flash because I find I take forever to set up a shot and the food goes limp and horrible. I normally set up using a stand-in so I can get the lighting, exposure etc ready and then swap out for the real item.

hamandcheese makes excellent points about backlight and white balance. I suggest forgetting about the food for a while and just muck around staging practice shots - you'll do a lot better when you're not under pressure from "Oh noes - the food is wilting!". A grey card will help post-processing to tweak levels.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:49 PM on January 17, 2013

For quick and decent white balance, since you're already using a white plate, use that as your reference when processing the photos. Decent tools will let you choose a region of the photo as "white" and will recalibrate the image to make the selected area look white.

Shooting low light photography, once you've got focus, exposure and white balance are the big elements, and you can play with both of these in processing to see whether you want to buy equipment later on (a meter, a grey card) to improve things.

tl;dr, play with these and see if they make a difference before buying $300 of kit.
posted by zippy at 5:30 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do you use in post-processing? I do more portraits than anything, but highly recommend Lightroom, if you aren't already using it.
posted by pyjammy at 10:27 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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