Is it just me, or are the days starting to get a lot shorter? I’m not sure how it is for you where you live, but here in Norway we’re entering what I’ve so loving come to call “the dark times.” Sounds ominous, right? Well, in terms of food photography, it kind of is. As you probably already know, the best lighting for food photos is natural lighting. That’s great here in the summer where we only have 2 hours of darkness during the longest days (yipee!). But during the shortest days of winter, it’s the opposite. Yes, that really does mean just 2 hours of glorious, direct sunlight. And, of course, most of those precious daylight hours fall in the middle of the day where many of us are at work. Booooo! For those of you working on your food photography, you’ve probably quickly realized that night photography is a-whole-nother ball game when compared to daylight photography. I certainly know I’ve struggled with it!
Take a look at the photos above. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were taken at night, right? They’ve got that characteristic yellow tint to them and shadows from poor overhead lighting. Not great. Certainly not what I want to be uploading to my blog (which isn’t to say I haven’t upload all of these at one time or another… No, don’t go find them). Now look at the photos below. Which ones were taken at night and which ones were taken in the day?
Was it a little harder to tell the difference? Hopefully it was (for those of you that want an answer, the top left and bottom right were taken at night while the top right and bottom left were taken during the day in natural light). We want our photos to have consistent, good lighting, and for it to be difficult to tell whether we took the photos during the day or at night with artificial lighting. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of night photography!
The Set Up
Everybody’s a little different, so I’m not going to tell you that this is the best way EVER to take photographs at night. Rather, I’m going to tell you what works for me, and hopefully give you a place to start in setting things up to take food photos at night. My set up has 3 important components: an external flash, a light diffuser, and a reflector.
The External Flash
My external flash is the DigiFlash 3000 by Sunpak for Canons. Keep in mind what you use will likely depend on the brand of camera you use (the camera I most often use is a Canon EOS Rebel T3i, and yes, I know the one in the previous picture is a Sony) but Sunpak makes external flashes for most of the big camera brands. This was by far the most expensive piece of my set up, and cost me just uner $100 at Walmart. Since we’re not going to be using this flash on top of the camera, you’ll also need to pick up a transmitter of some sort (this can be a pc sync cable or a wireless transmitter) to synchronize your camera’s actions (i.e. taking the picture) with your flash’s actions (i.e. setting off the flash). Again, what you use may depend on your camera and the flash, but I personally use the Pawn Wireless Flash Trigger by Pixel Enterprises Limited for Canon. I picked it up on Amazon for about $10.
The Light Diffuser
There are a lot of commercial options out there for photography light diffusers, but I made my own using a large picture frame and some white fabric. To make it, I simply removed everything from the frame (glass and all) and rolled the fabric under the metal pieces meant to hold the glass and picture in place. All in all, I think the entire thing cost me about $10-15.
Like the light diffuser, there are plenty of commercial options available for reflectors for photography, but honestly, you can very easily make your own at home as long as it meets two criteria: it has a reflective surface and it can stand on its own. I’ve heard foam board with a shiny finish is a great option, but I often just use a box lid or two with tin foil taped to the top. Since I just use stuff already lying around at home, I don’t really have a cost for this item, but I’d guess a few dollars if I had to.
Other Helpful Items
Putting Your Set Up Together
So now that you have all the pieces, it’s time to set it all up. There are lots of different ways to do this, and I highly recommend checking out Pinch of Yum and Photographing Food issue #3 for some other options, but I like to set mine up so I have my flash on one side (doesn’t really matter which), followed by my diffuser, whatever I’m photographing, and then the reflector. Because this flash doesn’t have anyway to adjust the power of the flash, I do it by physically moving it farther away or closer to my diffuser and what I’m photographing.
Not surprisingly, night photography also requires some special settings on your camera. Although you’ll likely have to take some practice pictures and make adjustments to get it perfect for each shot, I recommend starting with an ISO of 100-200, a shutter speed of 1/125-1/200 (over 200 is often too fast for the flash and will result in dark spots), and an aperture from 3-10. Here are some examples with the settings I used for each:
Wow! You made it to the end and you’re still reading! Yay! I know it’s a lot of information to take in, but hopefully it helps get you pointed in the right direction to take some fantastic night food photos! If you’re still hungry for more food photography information, check out these other posts on:
Have you been working on your night photography and found something that works great for you? Share your thoughts on night photography in the comments below!