Food Photography: Shoot at Night Without Expensive Lighting Equipment

4 Easy Tips For Shooting Food At Night

I think it’s pretty common for us food bloggers to photograph and blog about the meals that we eat on a day to day basis. Unlike a professional food stylist, I don’t make a separate plate JUST for the purposes of photographing it. In the past I’ve tried this very technique, but it never really ends up working out. Besides, now that my teaching job has started again, the only time I have to photograph is at night…so saving an extra plate really didn’t matter much because shooting at night was always so impossible.

Food Photography: Shoot at Night Without Expensive Lighting Equipment

I think many of us run into this problem. One of the most important aspects of food photography is the lighting. Every post you read about improving your food photos will tell you to use natural light, but what if dinner time is the only time you have to cook AND photograph? What then? There are lots of expensive options out there, but as soon as I started researching for my own solution I quickly realized there was a really cheap solution to this problem. The photograph above is a testament that it can be done…this shot was taken at 10:30pm and I only spent about $20 dollars total for the “equipment”. Find out how in the second part of post…

Daylight Balanced Fluorescent Bulbs

Daylight balanced bulbs are the KEY component in this lighting set-up. These bulbs replicate the neutral color quality of daylight so your photos wont have an ugly yellow tint to them. I bought 120w bulbs from Home Depot and also bought two clamp lights. Clamp lights are lighting sockets that have a clamp at the end. This is extremely helpful because the lamp can be clamped to almost anything for perfect placement. Below is a picture of one.

Diffuse The Light

Diffusing the light is really, super important in shooting at night. The direct light from the bulb will create harsh shadows that will look un-natural and harsh.

Never, ever, ever point the light directly at the food! This will create harsh shadows and highlights. Instead, point the light AWAY from the food, but place a piece of white board in front of the light (facing the food). This will then “bounce” the light back toward the food, but in a much softer, glowing manner. You might have to play with the placement of the light and with the placement of the board (a white foam presentation board works great for this). The photo below shows a similar set up, only here its set up as a box…ignore that for now and just concentrate on how the light is pointed away from the object but toward a white wall…again, light will bounce from the wall toward the object.

Place One Light High, and One Light Low

One light should be placed high and slightly to the right of the food…in essence you are trying to recreate the sun. we call this the “main light”. The second light should be placed low and to the left of the food. This light is called “the fill light” because it is meant to “fill” in the shadow areas caused by the main light. The fill light is always slightly dimmer than the main light, so I simply use a lamp with a shade on it as my fill light. The shade diffuses the light and creates a nice, even glow.

Use A Tripod!

This is probably the only “expensive” equipment you need. There really is no way around it. Even with a 120w bulb, the amount of light these bulbs produce is small so large apertures and slow shutter speeds are needed to fully expose the image. A tripod will allow you to shoot with slow shutters without causing blur. A tripod is a must for night time shooting so if you don’t have one you could try this little trick:

Take a gallon size ziploc bag and fill it with sand. Place a chair or stool in front of your food and put the bag of sand on the chair. Next, place your camera on the bag and nestle the camera into the sand. The sand will act as a firm cushion and will hold the camera in place.

There are lots of hacks out there for making your own softbox set-ups but those all seemed way to complicated for me. How do you shoot at night? I’d love to hear about other peoples solutions to this problem!