Here it is! The blog post about artificial lighting for tabletop photography that I’ve been talking about doing for a very long time.
Natural light is beautiful. Finding and manipulating natural light is an extremely important skill for a photographer to have. That being said, I use artificial lighting for most of my still life and food photography photo shoots. I just prefer the control of artificial lighting for tabletop photography. It’s what works for me.
When I first started doing photography I was intimidated by artificial lighting. It seemed very technical and full of numbers. I remember in my college’s Studio Photography 101 class the professor would talk about guide numbers, equations for exposure, measuring the distance to your subject, lighting ratios, and all sorts of other things that made me want to shy away from artificial lighting. I’ve never been great at math.
It turns out that artificial lighting doesn’t have to be approached in a super technical way. I (and most professional photographers I’ve worked with) don’t do calculations and measuring to find the correct exposure of a picture. If you are more comfortable with a very technical approach then by all means, knock yourself out. But for those of you that don’t work that way, I’ve got good news! Lighting can be a very intuitive and creative process. There are just a few steps and guidelines to keep in the back of your mind. In this post I’m going to talk about those guidelines, equipment essentials, and basic steps to making artificial light work.
My approach to explaining lighting is probably going to seem a little different than other blogs out there. I’m going to keep things as untechnical as possible. I learn by doing, not reading. When I read really technical articles about lighting setups my eyes glaze over. This post will appeal to those of you that learn like I do. I’m going to tell you the very basics that you need to know to get you started. I’m not going to go into too much depth about the technology and reasoning behind the setup. If you learn like me, those things will become obvious as you are working.
Note: I’m going to assume you are familiar with some photography basics. If you haven’t read this post, I’d recommend it. I’m also going to assume an understanding of what aperture, iso, and shutter speed are and how they work together.
I’m going to walk through a very simple 2-light setup. Once you’ve mastered this setup you will understand the basics of artificial lighting and be able to start venturing into some super creative lighting.
I’m assuming that most of you don’t want to spend a ton of money on lighting gear. I’m going to be recommending the most affordable equipment that I know of.
- Paul C Buff makes great, affordable lights. They are called AlienBees. For food photography, I’d recommend buying two (to start with) AlienBees™ B800 Flash Units. They cost $280 each.
- Receivers and transmitters. Transmitters and receivers are little boxes that you put on your camera and lights. The transmitter mounts to the hotshoe on top of your camera and the receivers attach to your lights with sync cables. When your camera fires your transmitter sends a signal to your receivers telling your lights to send out a flash. Paul C. Buff makes reliable and affordable transmitters and receivers. You will need one transmitter for your camera and one receiver for each light. Make sure to get the battery powered receivers.
- Softboxes are super important. They give your light a nice diffused look & soft shadows. I love this medium soft box.
- Reflectors. Reflectors fit around the flashtube and modeling lamp on the front faceplate of flash units. When used alone the reflectors throw a beam of undiffused light. You will want one for your fill light.
- Grey card. You will need a grey card to set your white balance. More on this later.
- Light stands. You will need to buy a light stand for every light that you have.
BASIC SETUP STEPS
- I’m going to assume you are on the “find your lighting” step of this post and that you have all the equipment from the equipment list above.
- The first step in setting up your lighting is to settle on a depth of field. In other words, adjust your aperture until you have everything in focus that you want in focus, and everything out of focus that you want out of focus. Use whatever ambient light is available to you for this step. Don’t stress about getting a good exposure at this point- It doesn’t matter right now if the image is over or underexposed. This step is just about finding your f-stop. Hopefully your camera is hooked up to a computer so you can clearly see what is in focus and what is not in focus. (See this post for more info about hooking your camera up to your computer.)
If you aren’t clear on how aperture effects depth of field, here is a good article on it.
I used the ambient light available to find that f6.3 worked for well for this image.
- If it isn’t already, put your camera on manual. Keep the aperture on the f-stop you decided upon in step 2. Set your camera’s ISO to 640 and the shutter speed to 1/200 (generally the fastest the shutter can be when using flash).
- Put your transmitter on the hotshoe mount of your camera. Make note of which channel your transmitter is on (the little wheel on the transmitter will tell you which channel it is set to).
- Attach receivers to your two lights via sync cables. Make sure they are set to the same channel as the transmitter that is on your camera.
- You will want to diffuse the key light with a softbox. Without a softbox the light will be really hard. Hard light produces strong highlights and dark shadows. The quality is more dramatic and controllable, but generally less approachable and appealing than soft light. So, attach a medium softbox to your light. Read the manual that came with your light if you aren’t sure how to attach a softbox. It’s pretty easy.
- Next you will want to determine your angle of light. That’s just a fancy way of saying where you are going to place your key light. Key lights are generally placed at 15 – 90 degree angle from your camera.
For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to use the example of setting your light at a 65 degree angle from your camera. The light is the same height as the table I’m shooting on.
- Plug in your light if you haven’t already done so.
- Set your light to 1/2 power.
- Press the test button on the receiver attached to your light. When you press the button, the light should fire. If it doesn’t, make sure everything is plugged in and the batteries are working. Also, sync cables can go bad. You may have to swap out the sync cable.
- Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. If the key light doesn’t fire, check that both the transmitter and reviver are set to the same channel.
- It’s time to fire your camera! Press the shutter release button.
- How does your image look? Is it under exposed or over exposed? Adjust the intensity of your light until you find an exposure you are happy with. It takes me about 3 test shots to get a good exposure. It might take you 5-7 shots but not too much more than that.
Note: If your light is set to full power but the image is still too dark, increase your ISO to a higher number. If your light is set to minimal power but the image is still too bright, decrease your ISO to a lower number.
I tested with 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/16 power for my key light
- You may notice that your shadows are very dark at this point. Well, now it’s time to put in a fill light. Fill is used to lighten shadows and control contrast.
- Set up your second light at a 45 degree angle on the opposite side of the key light. Put a reflector on your light (read the light’s manual if you aren’t sure how to do this).
- Press the test button on the receiver attached to your fill light. It should fire.
- Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. Both lights should fire. If the fill light doesn’t fire, check that the receiver attached to it is set to the same channel as the the transmitter attached to your camera.
- Set the fill light to 1/2 power.
- Point the light straight up and raise the light stand till it is just several feet below the ceiling. We are bouncing the light off the ceiling to diffuse and spread it.
Note: I’m assuming you are working in an area with a white (or off white) ceiling. If you aren’t, you will want to find something large and white to bounce your fill light off of. Like foam core.
- Fire your camera. How does the image look? Did the fill light overexpose it or is it still too dark? Adjust the intensity of the fill light until you like how bright or dark the shadows are.
I tested 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/6 power for my fill light
- Once you are happy with the exposure, place your greycard in front of the subject you are shooting and fire an image.
- In the software you are using, set your white balance by using the grey card. In Capture One that simply means setting the WB to custom and clicking on the grey card with the eyedropper.
- Take a shot to see if you are happy with the white balance. If you aren’t, use the WB adjustment sliders in your software to tweak it. Don’t be afraid to make the light cooler or warmer to give your image a particular mood.
Here is the final image after warming up the white balance a bit and increasing the contrast.
That’s it! You should have a well-lit image using artificial light. Now you can play around with the placement of the lights to see how they affect the image. Start experimenting. Change the f-stop to see how it effects the image or try putting a filter on your light (a filter is anything that, when placed in front of the light, absorbs, warps, or diffuses part or all of the beam). This is how I learned everything I know about lighting. Practice and experimenting. You can read about lighting all day but it won’t make you any better at it. You just gotta do it! =)
Note: Keep the 5 main attributes of light in your mind as you are experimenting. These 5 attributes can be adjusted to affect the quality of light emitted and the overall lighting-look:
- Hard or Soft (or in between);
- Intensity (the amount of light);
- Direction (in relation to the lens and subject);
- Color (of light emitted, adjust this by adding gels or changing your white balance); and
- Beam pattern (the beam angle, shape, and any shadow patterns).
Play around with these elements to find techniques and looks that you love!
Have you ever taken a painting class? Lighting a photo is like painting. At first it is awkward because you aren’t completely familiar with how the paintbrushes feel in your hands, or you don’t know how the paints will react to different techniques. But as you practice and get comfortable with it, you stop thinking so hard about what you are doing. Suddenly all you see are highlights and shadows and how they work within the total composition. Well, your lights are your paintbrushes. With practice you will stop thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and just start painting with light. It’s an awesome feeling.
Till next time! xx