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!

19 thoughts on “Let There Be Light

  1. Your photos are always so lovely!
    Ive just upgraded my old old digital camera and have spent the last week trying to work it out lol. Nedless to say I am getting there and hope to be posting better quality photos soon…fingers crossed!
    Ill be looking out for your next photos with your new strobe :)


  2. Great tips, thanks Hannah! We’ve had rain for about 2 weeks here and I am sure we’re going to get more so I need to look for an alternative light source!

  3. Ah, a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes of creating your gorgeous photos! I enjoyed reading this post, Hannah, and would love to read more tips you have about food photography. I’m fairly certain that my camera has capabilities that I have not yet tapped… the user manual isn’t the most user-friendly one out there so I suppose I should buck up and take a class.

    Thanks again for the info about the strobe.

  4. Definitely of interest to me! I’m still using a point-and-shoot, but I’ve added a light tent and professional lighting, which have made a big difference. One of these days I’ll be ready for another upgrade though!

  5. Hi Hannah,
    Recently I’ve been getting into photography more, beyond food but also people, animals and still life. My camera now is an ordinary, pocket-held little black rectangle of a machine, but I am seeking a more advanced model. This sounds excellent, not to mention many fancier cameras tend to be on the pricier side. I’d love to hear more about your use with it and example set ups, so please, do continue! :-)

  6. That’s definitely something I might pick up. Being that it is so reasonably priced, it’s more in my range of upgrading my photography equipment. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Buying a good light has been on my wish list for awhile now. I’ve been living in an apartment that rarely gets direct sunlight so it definitely would have helped me out a billion times already. Ah, one day!

  8. This is a great post! I have been tinkering with the idea of getting some form of lighting for awhile. I have the same issues with having to take photos when the lighting is just right inside my apartment which is not always the most convenient of times!

    Are you familiar with the Lowel EGO Lights? Just curious as to what you thought about those as well.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!!

  9. Hannah– your photos always look so great– I would love it if you posting more advice on how to take photos. I think that I really need to invest in a light as I’m almost never home during the day…

  10. How timely. I’ve been lucky lately with the long days, but once fall and winer roll around I’ll be back to having dinner made by 3pm so I can photograph it. Sad. I need to learn how to use artificial lighting, but I am so averse to reading manuals or instructions. I learned to use my camera by just pressing buttons and seeing what happened. Probably not the most efficient method, but way less boring that reading the manual. I’d love some posts about lighting technique. I’d gladly read those!

  11. I just wanted to chime in and let you know how much I appreciate your photo tutorial posts. I’ve been working on my food p0rn skills this year and you have a lot of useful information to pass along. Keep on clickin’! :)

  12. Ooo fancy! I should figure out the white balance on my camera. I admire how much you’ve learned about cameras and shooting food. =)

  13. i agree light is pretty much the most important thing.
    im really into photography. [not so much food photography because i make stuff then i want to eat it right away, which results in poor pictures, haha]
    i dont know where im going with this comment but i guess i just wanna tell you keep up the awesome light!
    …and baked goods for that matter….

  14. Hooray for the new strobe light! I am glad it is working well for you and your photography. I am lucky to have a boyfriend who works with video, filming, editing, etc. and has a light he lets me use sometimes. It definitely takes some playing around with, but for those nights when a table lamp just won’t cut it, it is useful! But, it gets really hot!

  15. not only your recipes are delicious, but your pictures are wonderful too :)

    and i’d love you to share your knowledge with us! i certainly need a light; i live in an apartment where i rarely get sunlight, and i always take my pictures using a very low quality ikea lamp (the one i have in my bedroom)! yes i’m cheap. time to upgrade my equipment i think ;)
    however, more than 100 dollars is still a lot of money for me, although i’m sure it’s worth the investment. i now look at my pictures and notice that (except the ones i’ve taken outside) realise that the shadows are just too noticeable…

    anyway, thanks!

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