Let There Be Light

Even more important than what kind of camera you use or how many megapixels it has, proper lighting is perhaps the single most important technical element to creating captivating photos. Capable of adding whimsy, intensity, clarity, or drama, a few bright spots can make or break the mood of a picture. In food photography, brighter is typically better in my experience, and thus scores of dedicated food bloggers inevitably get caught up in the endless battle to achieve rosy exposures on cloudy days and late nights. Up until recently, I had no choice but to schedule my baking exploits for only the nicest, sunniest days to ensure a winning photo, putting a serious wrinkle in my work flow. And forget about ever going outside to enjoy those lovely summer afternoons; If the sun was out, I was inside, snapping pictures in rapid succession, trying to capture as many shots as possible before dusk fell! After years of this frustrating arrangement, it was due time to get serious, take the plunge… And start working with a strobe.

At first, just like my transition from a point-and-shoot to a dSLR, I was highly resistant to employ this new piece of equipment, and frequently disappointed with the results. The food just never looked as good as it would with daylight, looking as poorly as if I had merely flicked on a tungsten light nearby. Thankfully, something clicked, and I realized that the problem lay in an improperly set white balance and F-stop, not the strobe itself. It just goes to show that you must learn how your camera works before expecting great things of it- And don’t forget to read the user manual!

Now, and especially with the absolutely gruesome rain that’s been pounding the east coast as of late, I absolutely can not imagine life without this beautiful light. It’s a Calumet Genesis 200, and I would recommend it to any aspiring or established still life photographer in a heartbeat. Not only is it very reasonably priced, but it’s incredibly user-friendly. Yes, they do make a 400 version which is supposedly “better” because it has more powerful settings, but trust me, you don’t need it. The 200 light has different levels of brightness that go from 1 – 40, and I typically set mine around 15, and still need to dial down my exposure in many cases.

With this sole monolight, I’ve been happily shooting away at 2 and 3 am, getting results just as bright and beautiful as if it were 2 or 3 pm. What has worked best for me so far is to keep on the house lights like usual, and place my strobe directly behind the set, perhaps a little bit to the right or left of the actual focal point. Using a large white umbrella to reflect the light and facing the bulb away from the set, the soft, diffused light that hits the food is just as good as the sun’s rays. A few mirrors might be helpful to fill in excessive shadows, but it’s otherwise a stand-alone, fool-proof system. This formula might work for you, and it might not, but there’s no right or wrong answers here. The degree of control that you can gain by using a single studio light is so entirely worth the investment, I wish that every single food blogger out there could at least give one a spin.

I realize that it’s simply not in the cards for a lot of you, but is there any interest in getting further pointers using a strobe, such as example of set ups? I’d be happy to share my “knowledge” gleaned by trial and error, so speak up!