Food Photography With One Speed Light

On a limited budget, this post is about how I had come to photograph food with one speed light, such as the image below.  It was shot with one speed light with a grid from the left and a white foam board to bounce the light.  

I'm a self-taught food photographer and have read many, many articles and blogs, watched just as many videos that praise how natural light is the best light for shooting food.  I don't disagree.  And so I chased the natural light that came through the window of my "studio" space

The fact is we're not all blessed to have space filled with that wonderful natural light.  Relying on natural light, at least for me, limits the time when I can shoot food, sometimes even the angles from which I can shoot.  Worse yet, if I had to stop to correct a problem with the food during the shooting, the sun moves, and the light changes.  At which times I find myself resenting such limitations when relying on natural light.  

Does every professional photographer really rely on natural light to shoot food?  Of course not.  The answer to that question finally freed me from thinking I just had to have natural light.  So I went in search how better to light food--preferably without having to rely on natural light.


My First Mistake:

At the advice of a sales associate at a local camera store, I bought a 24" square soft box that included four daylight florescent lamps, color temperature 5000-5500K each.  This purchase was against all the research I had done but the associate assured me, assured me that the 24" square was sufficient for food photography!  

Problem:  The 24" square light stops, yes, stops at the corners and boxes the light in the food area! I could clearly see where the light stopped.

So I could only use the 24" square soft box for back and/or overhead lighting while relying on natural light as key light.  Over time, the heat from the four florescent lamps discolored the translucent diffuser fabric on the soft box.  This resulted in a yellow cast of light on images.  

For the record, I rarely go to that store now.  Living in a small beach town, I shop online with places like B&H Photo Video and Adorama where I can get expert advice.  More than once one of their associates saved me from making the wrong purchase!

Lighting Solutions 1-3:

My first purchase was a speed light kit with an internal transceiver and an external transmitter.  The transmitter attaches to the camera.  The day the speed light kit arrived, I played around with it that night and I could feel the love rushing over me!  

How did I do?


LOL! The philodendron plant served as my grid to control the light spill.  Yes, there are other set-ups to light just the liquid.  For example, some photographers cutout the shape of the glass or bottle using dark or light paper.  Then they position the bottle or glass in front of the cutout and flash the light through the cut out and thus through the liquid in the bottle or glass.  I was just too impatient for that since I was only playing around.

Anyway, my second purchase was one MagMod grid for the speed light.  This gave me 40 degrees of light coming from the speed light, thereby reducing light spillage.  (Now, I'm lusting after a second grid to get 20 degrees of light.  Stay tuned for the images created with that acquisition.)  

My third purchase was a 43" Apollo Orb Octobox.  Why an Octobox?  Light from it spills out in all directions.  In essence, similar to natural light, it wraps around the subject, light doesn't fall off in the immediate area and also results in softer light and shadows around the hero, the food:

Flash only without a grid, left of hero, no post processing:


Octobox on left, no post processing:

Sometimes I want the light from the flash to be a little more pronounced, such as the light and shadows in the first image of this post.  Other times, I want to create a soft, dreamy light like that in the bowl of lemons. But my trials didn't end there.  Does it ever?

I tried to salvage the use of that 24" square softbox by positioning it to the right side about 7' from the hero.  Use the Octobox as the backlight or would then move it to the left front as a key light.  Every image was a disaster.  And I found myself continuing to cry out "I need more light" yet I have no more money in my budget for now!  

Solution Number 4:

This lighting solution depends on what I'm shooting and want to achieve.  For you novices like me, my simple explanation is my one speed light is located inside the Octobox.  It's my key light source and is positioned on the left of the hero.  I was back to using natural light but as a backlight--not just my main light source.  

This is how my set up looks when I'm lighting plated foods, beverages and ingredients.    Note that the reflector is held up in front of the food to reflect the natural light. Positioning the softbox varies a little from left side to left-front side but it's always the key light.  

015 MSL Shrimps Argentine-8872.jpg


Natural light is wonderful for food photography lighting.  But it's not always available where or when it's needed.  My search for getting a better lighting set up evolved over several months, especially due to budget constraints.  With my one speed light, I do feel I have more freedom to plan, cook, style and photograph food than when I relied solely on natural light.  

Am I completely satisfied?  Of course not.  I want a second speed light. An Einstein studio flash perhaps?

What success have you had with one-light food photography?