Festive Holiday Food Lighting

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When Photoflex asked me to prepare a food lighting lesson for the holidays, I decided to create a lighting plan that is festive yet can be applied to any theme.

This lighting technique uses a two-strobe set up and is designed to emphasize food texture and details. It also uses mini-LED string lights for background effect. The close-focus configuration works for individual items or a full table spread. When you keep the composition simple, the food remains the focus while the lighting creates a celebratory atmosphere.


Initial Set-Up

I will use the group shot of pastries above for this lesson example. Once the lighting configuration is set, only the camera angle and minor exposure changes are needed to shoot different items.

All images in this lesson were shot with a Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II lens. You do not need an expensive lens, but an aperture of f/4 -5.6 ensures you can achieve an out-of-focus background. A fast lens with wider aperture will allow shallow focusing with creative depth of field and better bokeh within close-up shots.

To get started, position the table 3 to 5 feet in front of the background. Place your camera on a tripod and arrange the empty plates in a general composition within the frame. Note where the horizon falls with respect to food that will be added later. Do not place the food in the dishes until you are ready to shoot.

During set up, you don’t want any mishaps with your stand-ins or final samples. Set up can take 30 minutes or longer while testing strobes and setting exposure, so most foods will lose their freshness and appearance when standing that long. For this reason, I typically use other objects of similar size and shape during lighting set up and general exposure.

Mini-LED String Lights

The effect in the background utilizes low wattage mini-LED string lights. I chose Eufy Starlit String Lights which are UL certified, water resistant and rated for indoor and outdoor use. The wire is insulated and the LEDs are safe to touch while in use. There are several companies selling similar lights.

Hang the string lights between the table and background using a boom arm or a pole. When properly exposed, the lights should appear as round dots and the wire will be hidden in darkness. Arranging the lights randomly rather than neatly seems to work best. Experiment with more or fewer lights to suit your composition.

Lighting Configuration

Set up the high back light first to ensure the background will be dark. The goal is to separate the light on the subject without spilling onto the background. Using a boom stand, place the strobe and LiteDome: Medium soft box over the plates and slightly behind them. The soft box should be angled down and forward while positioned close to the subject but out-of-frame so the light catches the top of the subject without spilling onto the background or directly into the lens.

Photoflex LiteDome soft boxes have a lip around the diffuser that makes it easy to align with the back edge of the table. Move the soft box forward if you want the table horizon to be dark, backward if you want the horizon more prominent.

Set the camera manually to 1/200 sec, f/4.5, ISO 100 to start. Then test the output of the back light. The goal is to create highlights on top of the items without overexposing anything in the scene. Test and adjust the output as needed. (In this case, the strobe is 330 Ws and set to 1/16 power.) Check the background to make sure it appears black and that the copper wire does not show.

Next, set up the second strobe with a medium soft box and grid. The soft box should be placed directly to the right of the subject, and the grid prevents light from spilling onto the background.

Crosslight adds dimension and drama, whereas light from the front flattens the subject. Therefore, adjust the position to enhance textures and provide shadow around each subject. Take multiple test shots to set the output level and vary the distance of the soft box to see how the mood shifts. In this case, the strobe is 660 Ws and set to 1/16 power.

Add a white reflector to the left side of the table to bounce light toward the dark side of the subject (I used a foam board). You can also add a white card below the camera lens to help define the front edge of the plates. This fills dark areas with light while keeping natural looking shadows around the food. Take multiple test shots and adjust the distance and position of the lighting. Once you are satisfied, you can start plating and styling the food. Be precise with placement as you adjust the composition. Look for different textures in the food to catch light and detail.

Before commencing with the actual shoot, it is recommended that you check your white balance. The string lights should appear warm white (yellow) in color temperature if you are using the same type specified.

Lastly, adjust your focal point in-camera. Make sure the focus is where you want the eye to go. Paying attention to depth-of-field is very important. This group of pastries was finally shot at f/5.6 to ensure part of each plate was in focus. Whereas, shooting a single item you might shoot wide open with shallow focus to emphasize a certain part of the food. Tethering the camera to a monitor is helpful for previewing the focus and fine tuning exposure. However, trust your instinct as far as what looks and feels the most appealing overall.

Written and photographed by Ames Kanemoto.

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