Food Photography With China Balls

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No doubt for every photographer, food blogger and food photogragher, searching for the right lighting is the challenge that never ends.  Natural light is the perferred light.  But natural light is simply not always available.  Professional photographers whether shooting on site or from their studios learn to sculp with artificial light in the most amazing ways. 

What do I mean by sculpturing light?  


Here's an example of what I call sculpturing artificial light for food photography by one of my favorite photographers, James Gaffney . And here's how he did it:  
"GLASS ACT – Creating just the right mood for this “pour shot” for the New Orleans Advocate, featuring the popular bartender Dre' Glass of Pearl Wine Co., took a little finagling. First, I used my camera settings to shut down virtually all of the available but harsh midday sunlight pouring in through the venue’s huge window wall at my left. Next, I had to manually “build” the lighting+vibe I wanted for the shot (think “midnight at the bodega”). After a little experimentation, I settled on an off-camera Nikon Speedlight @ 1/8 power tucked inside my 50-inch Octabox (camera left) to create a soft left-to-right light plus the Rembrandt shadow on the right side of her face, as well as illuminate the pour stream. Another off-camera Speedlight @1/16 power was placed on the floor and aimed toward the wall to illuminate the bottles in the background. I left the hanging ceiling lamp in frame as a mood accent. Easiest part of the shoot was Dre' who was no stranger to executing a dramatic pour shot while looking amazing doing it. Nikon D800, 50mm 1.4 lens. All in a day’s work."

When desired, I believe that artificial light not only can be accomplished for a dark ambiance or mood but also for a light ambiance.  I'm not quite there in my food photographer's journey but stay tuned.

On discovering the China ball

For me, shooting from my dark apartment, natural light is a luxury not always available. I've come to accept the search for natural light not only as a challenge but also an adventure in the day of a food phtographer.  So when I ran across a couple of articles about using China balls, I thought why not give it a try.  China balls are cheap.  Finally, I found something cheap in photography!  Sort of.

What I Came Up With

I bought a 25" diameter China ball, a 75 watt daylight bulb and light socket kit.  I got really lucky with the light socket kit because a tech assistant at Home Depot put it together for me.  All I had to do was screw in the bulb and plug in the cord to an outlet.  Nice things like that happen when you run across a fellow photographer.  Anyway, the project did get a little expensive when I decided to purchase a boom arm.  Make no mistake, getting the boom arm was a great decision!  It allows me to easily move the light around wherever I need it.

How I made these light soft shots

In the above set up, I'm shooting in the dining nook of my apartment which is right off of the kitchen.  I'm using a two-light set up.  The first light is the China ball about 3.5 feet to the left of the food subject. The second light is a speedlight through a translucent umbrella on a stand and is to the right of the food.  As you can see it's located on a covered porch just outside the window.  I think of it as a way to boost natural light, well what little natural light I get.  All other light from the kitchen and the chandelier are turned off; however, some ambient light does come from the living room through a doorway.

For the images below, I had moved the tripod and camera to the floor and China ball closer to the table.  I'm using a Canon EOS 80D with a 50mm prime lens.

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 The final shot

Recipe @  Easy Roasted Brussel Sprouts And Carrots

Recipe @ Easy Roasted Brussel Sprouts And Carrots

The China ball gives a wonderful soft light while the flash through the umbrella light boosts natural coming from a covered porch, as well as highlight the food subject. 

In Summary

I don't think you'll find a food photographer who would disagree that natural light is the best light for food photographer.  I certainly don't disagree.  But natural daylight isn't always available or sufficiently available.  So the location of speedlight on the porch helps to "carry" natural light onto the food.  (Sorry, I don't quite know photography speak.)

I should add that the 25" diameter China ball was much too large for shooting dark images due to the spill light.  My next experiment will be to build a tent using black boards around the food subject but leave a vista opening to sculp the lighting.  I also plan to try a much smaller China ball.   

The articles I read were "China Balls: The Classic Affordable Lighting Hacks" from B&H Photo which also speaks to getting light spill from China balls. The second article was "Strobist: Cheap, Soft, 360 Degree Light" from Strobist.

What food photography lighting adventure do/have you tried to get that special shot?