Tips for using Artificial Light in Food Photography

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If you’ve been a photographer long enough, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a debate of some sort between using artificial light and using natural light. And while both of them have their shares of pros and cons, each will have its own fit for every photographer.

I started out in wedding photography and the contrast between being a “natural light” photographer vs. a “flash photographer” was well apparent. I noticed the same, if not similar, thing happen in food photography. A given photographer or food blogger would shoot with either flash or with natural light.

Simply put, the main reason artificial light is favored and arguably the best route to go with your food photography is because of the control and flexibility it gives you. If you’re a natural light food photographer, the times you would photograph something would be very limited and heavily dependent on the time of day and the direction of sun at that given time.

But if you had the ability to recreate that “natural” looking light at any time of day, your rate at producing photos would increase much more than you would if you just shot with natural light.

The next thing to ask is then,

“How do I re-create natural light with flash without it looking too…flashy?”

In this article, I’m going to share with you some tips on using artificial light for your food photography

Your Basics

  1. Start with one light - Some of the best photographs of food I’ve seen have been with using just one light. And this is a great place to start simply because you’ll get to practice how to manage light direction and quality of light rather than managing multiple. Once you’ve learned how to manage one light source effectively and efficiently, you may start adding lights to your setups allowing you to have more creative freedom for your food and product images.

  2. Learn to balance ambient light with your flash - if there is any tip you take away from this article, let it be this one. The key with using flash is learning how to properly harmonize your camera settings with your flash settings to suit your desired look of an image. To put it simply, the darker your ambient light and more powerful your flash, the more you’ll be able to control the light in your image. Conversely, the more ambient light you keep in and less power you output on your flash, the more “natural” your image will look. In this case, your flash would be used to fill in any desired light that is lacking otherwise without it.

  3. Modify, modify, modify - Using flash can be a lot like using a hose. The water just… comes out. You don’t really have much control over it. But I’m sure you’ve done the trick where you can place your thumb over the hose to control the rate at which the water is coming out. It’s a similar concept with flash. If you fire a flash bare bulb that light will spill everywhere, but if you say, add a softbox or umbrella or even a grid, you can have better control on how you’d want to output that light, yielding better results.

Think of these tips as steps. Once you have your flash, practice balancing ambient light and artificial light using that flash with your camera and your current surroundings AND THEN modify your light to achieve the desired effect.

How do you modify a light source?

Modifying your light

All it means to modify your light is to simply change the quality (or the way it looks on the subject). You can do this by intersecting the path of the light from the source to the subject using some type of layer that light can penetrate and these layers can take many forms and serve multiple functions. Let’s take a look at a few:

  • Diffusion - This type of layer usually creates a “soft” quality to your light. Essentially what it does is it creates a more subtle gradation from your highlights to your shadows. Contrast that with “harsh” or hard light, which yields a very sudden transition from your highlights to your shadows.

  • GOBOS - This has different variations of what it stands for, but for lighting purposes, this stands for “goes between objects”. Your light goes through this layer and creates shapes and unique textures on your subject by the shapes and texture that the gobo has. If you’ve ever seen a window with those checkered frames and the sunlight that goes through it, you’ve seen a gobo in action. Done right, it can yield some interesting results.

  • Bounce Cards or Reflectors - These are typically just white foam core or poster boards used to broaden your light source. Just think about it this way: the larger your light source, the softer your light will be. And these reflectors can help you do that. They’re cheap too! One application would be to fire your flash directly into one of these reflectors and that reflector essentially can become its own key light source. This is useful if you don’t have a large softbox or octobox.

  • Fill Cards - So these are similar if not the same as bounce cards and/or reflectors, they just serve a different function. Fill cards essentially help you even out your exposure by lifting your shadows and other dark areas of your image. But doing this, you leave much more room in post to do any adjustments if needed.

It’s important to note that knowing these little details about which modifiers to use or what flashes to buy don’t matter more so than understanding through practice how light works in multiple circumstances. Look at it this way. If you were to open a book on mechanics (basic physics), you can get overwhelmed very easily with the math that’s involved. Equations and applications everywhere. But if you really look into understanding how stuff works, you’ll notice how everything boils down to just a few simple laws. Like,

F=ma (the famous formula for Force)


p=m/V (the formula for Density)


E=F/q (Electric Field Intensity)

From these laws you can derive a slew of equations that may look chaotic but actually work in harmony and derive itself from these simple equations.

Understanding and working with artificial light in food photography is the same way. If you understand just a few principles of light, you can figure out how to modify and why, or how to intensify it and why. The crazy thing to realize is that it can be so simple, yet so fascinatingly intricate because the simplicity and the power of such basic fundamentals can allow you to create more intricate and elaborate uses of light applications. In other words, from a few rules to understand, you can create any type of light and not have to be stuck with natural light.

Hope this helps. If you’d like to learn more, check out my Patreon where I document pretty much everything I’m learning in food photography.