Food Photography – A Simple One Light Setup

In this tutorial we’ll run through our entire shooting work flow used to take a food photography shot using a single off camera flash.

Hopefully you’ll learn that by following a simple step by step work flow and applying some basic strobist principles, professional looking food photographs are well within your reach. Here is the finished shot that we’ll run through in this tutorial:

Food Photography One Light Tutorial

1. Lighting Equipment Used

The photo was shot using a single off camera flash, in this case an old Nikon SB-24 fired using some cheap wireless triggers. The light was mounted on a cheap light stand along with a white shoot through umbrella. The whole light set up cost me under $100 so this was by no means  an expensive professional setup.

2. Food Styling & Set Up

Food styling is an art form in itself. Many professional food photographers have their own dedicated stylist to set up and dress the food. As well as cooking stunning food they use many tricks to make and keep it looking nice for hours on end in a hot studio. As well as making the food look good, the addition of a set table, napkins or raw ingredients can enhance the final picture and improve the context of the final photograph.

In this example  however we’re going to keep things simple. We’ll be taking a closely framed shot with a plain background so we won’t have to worry too much about what’s in the background of the shot. Instead we can focus solely on the lighting of the subject.

As mentioned above the setup for this shot was very straight forward. The chillies were simply placed in an old wooden bowl which in turn was placed on a wooden table. The table was of a similar tone and colour as the wooden bowl which meant that there wouldn’t be too much distraction if any was visible in the final shot. The even colours and tones  of the chillies, bowl and table also meant that our exposure will be easier to get right and give us more room for error.

3. Expose for the background

The first ‘on camera’ task when lighting with off camera flash is to dial in your exposure for the background. We do this by switching the camera to manual mode and setting the shutter speed and aperture manually. Note that to do this we are not using any flash at all .

In this shot the dark red chillies against the dark wood bowl and table are going to be giving off the same dark/warm tones. As a result we decided to have the background a little under exposed.

As always, when shooting with off camera flash, we needed to keep our shutter speed lower than our cameras max sync speed (typically 1/200 or 1/250 of a second). In this case we chose 1/100 of a second. Next we played around with the aperture until we got a exposure we were happy with, which turned out to be f5.6.

4.Lighting The Subject

With the background exposed how we wanted (without the use of any flash light) it was time to turn our attention to lighting and exposing the subject in the foreground. In our example this is done entirely with off camera flash.

Because our background is exposed using the shutter speed and flash, all we did to expose the subject was to play around with the power and position of the flash until the subject was exposed well. Note that to do this we simply set the flash to manual mode so we had full control over how much light it throws out.

We were shooting the flash through a regular white shoot through umbrella which was out of shot to the left of the frame. After placing the umbrella about 2 feet from the bowl I started firing some test shots with the flash set to 1/32 power, increasing the power a stop at a time. Gradually when I got up to 1/4 power I was happy with the exposure of the chillies.

5. Dealing with shadows

While the above image is exposed well there are some harsh shadows being cast on the right hand side of the photo. The way to remove or soften these was by using what is referred to as fill light.

Fill light can either be introduced using an additional light source (flash) or by using a reflector. In this case I opted for a reflector to bounce some of the flashes light back onto the right hand side of the bowl. I simply found a piece of old white card and propped it up just out of shot on the right side of the bowl using a few tins of chopped tomato! The white card would reflect some of the flash light back onto the bowl removing some of those harsh shadows.

6. Softening the Light

My next problem  encountered was that I was getting lots of quite harsh reflections coming off the surface of the leathery chillies.

The easiest way to soften light is to increase the relative size of your light source compared to your subject. In this example all I had to do was to move the flash and umbrella closer to the bowl. I ended up moving the umbrella to about 30cm away from the left side of the bowl.

Dry Red Chilli Reflections

With the light now closer I also had to power down the flash one f stop to 1/8 power in order to maintain the correct exposure for the chillies.

So with the background exposed, subject exposed, shadows dealt with and the light softened all that was left was to do was take the shot nice and tight. I’d be doing the final cropping in post production using Lightroom so I didn’t have to worry too much about the exact composition.

Here’s a quick recap of what our setup looked like:

Food Photogrpahy A Simple One Light Set Up


Photographing food can be a little frustrating when starting out. Hopefully in this tutorial you’ve learnt a basic workflow that you can follow in order to put together the various elements that make up a professional looking shot.

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