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Lights–what do I need?

Rose Duncan , Apr 05, 2011; 07:06 p.m.

I just started at a smallish, wholesale snack food company as art director/graphic designer. I have to become as good as I can at shooting our products for new packaging and web.
We have a Nikon D40X and Sigma 50 mm 1:2.8 DS macro lens. Before I got here, marketing was taking photos and they were really pretty good compositions and staging, but the lighting was poor. There are two lamps with aluminum reflectors and EIKO 500W bulbs and another small soft box (I didn't see what it was).
We shoot in an small alcove that has been painted white for reflection, but with three lights I still can't get "enough light." Unfortunately, there is nowhere to shoot in natural light or I wouldn't have a problem.
SO to the actual question. I have been reading and a lot of people say to shoot with strobes, like Alien Bees. Is this the best way to go for dry food shots? How much more light will I be getting? How many strobes do I need in a dark room? (Cost is a consideration.)
Thanks for helping out an extreme noobie!

Responses

Matt Laur , Apr 05, 2011; 07:21 p.m.

I'd recommend going with studio flash to do it right ... but your "enough light" problem is very simple to solve: get a good tripod and a remote release. Without having to worry about motion blur from a hand-held camera, you can use a nice clean low ISO setting, whatever aperture produces the depth of field you want to see, and as long a shutter speed as you need to pull in as much light as you need for a decent exposure. Don't get a cheesy tripod.

If you go with flash: you'll be getting many, many times the light, and getting it instantaneously. The number (and power) of lights depends on the modifiers you'll be using, the distances from which they'll be used, and most importantly, the look you're after.

You really, really need to read (and obey!) this book: Light: Science and Magic. It will get you thinking about all of the issues in play, here, and how to make the most of your food textures, reflective packaging, etc.

Tim Ludwig , Apr 05, 2011; 08:32 p.m.

Rose, You might also drop down a few more posts in the lighting heading to one titled "emulating food photography" and read some of the responses there.

You are embarking on a very challenging series of images (even with snack foods [as opposed to plated meals], maybe more so because they don't look as appetizing as a good steak would).

Food is a sub category of commercial photography and perhaps the most difficult of all to do really well. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like the bean counters at your company have fallen into the usual trap of trying the "do it yourself to save a buck" route on the most important of all possible parts of the corporate presentation, the visual marketing. The failure that is inherent in this approach is that the bad images that are used always create negative sales that eclipse by far what would have been the comparatively minimal costs of hiring a professional to create eye catching and mouth watering images to begin with. Just walk the aisles at any grocery store and compare the stunning images on really good packaging to the crappy ones and maybe ask the managers for sales comparisons between the types of images of similar products.

You can do this, but you are starting with next to no knowledge or exposure to what kind of equipment and how to both create and modify the lighting to achieve what you need. All I can say is good luck.

To do it well, you need high powered professional studio electronic flash systems with many types of modifiers including large soft boxes, barn doors, light grids, reflectors, flags (for creating shadows), mirrors, stands, clips, possibly dental and surgical tools, and the list is continuous and much longer.

Then there is the concept of shooting this in a small alcove. Good grief, to do what you need, a space of no less than ten to fifteen feet on every side of the shooting stage might be enough to arrange the set and then place the lights and stands and camera for the best visual advantage, not to mention, room for you to move around in and tweak the light units as needed.

Also, to be working in this small of a white space is backwards in my way of working. Dark walls allow you to see exactly what the lighting is doing instead of the highly reflective white walls polluting the lighting (as opposed to light) on the product or set by bouncing light everywhere including where it should not be. With dark walls, or just the large open space, you can then see exactly where a reflector might be needed, or two or three, but you can also see how shadows are part of the tools to draw attention to your product in very creative ways.

Just to clarify my separation between the words light and lighting. Light is just illumination, it allows you to see whatever is in front of you. Crappy illumination from an overhead flourescent is light, but not lightning! Lighting is the very creative placement of light units and modifiers in order to produce the psychology of the image (just like lighting a scene in a movie for the desired mood). In this case, that psychology is to generate hunger for your product by the very careful and talented placement of one or a dozen (if needed) lights to draw the eye to the product and produce that desired hunger reaction that induces sales.

Enough sermonizing. You have a huge challenge and the best solution is to hire a professional food photographer and food stylist to execute your needs.......IF you can get beyond the mind set of the MBAs and the CPAs who are standing in their own way.

My best wishes on meeting that challenge.

Tim

Matthew Muskovac , Apr 05, 2011; 10:03 p.m.

Lighting effectively is not something that can be learned overnight. The book the other Matt recommended is an excellent start.

In some businesses, the quality of the images is of upmost importance. The images sell the product. If this is your case, you should follow Tim's advice.

In other businesses, the quality of the image may be less important. The customer already knows the product by reputation and the picture is a backup. If I go online to buy toothpaste, I already know what I want. The picture just needs to be good enough so I feel confident that I am getting what I expect.

The number of lights you need is not about how much light, it is about how much control you need. For a straight documentation type shot, one large softbox and white foamcore reflectors might suffice. Other objects may need additional lights for rim lighting or some other effect to look interesting. If you require a pure white background, separate lights for the background might be needed.

Allen Friday , Apr 05, 2011; 10:04 p.m.

+1 on recommendation for Light Science and Magic. The only lighting book you will ever need.

Craig Shearman , Apr 06, 2011; 10:54 a.m.

Is there an ongoing need for new photos or is this a one-time thing? Depending on how many pictures are needed, it might be reasonably affordable to simply hire a photographer, especially if it's one-time. As for enough light, the units you have shoot be plenty for shooting something like a candy bar or bag of chips. You do need to have the camera on a tripod since you're using hot lights rather than flash. Are you using a lighting tent or product box? That's very standard for shooting small items. Also, you say your company is a wholesaler. Can't you get product shots from your manufacturer, or are you also manufacturing?

Alan Peed , Apr 06, 2011; 04:54 p.m.

Here's another good book that will give you some good 'behind the scenes' help on product lighting. Its full of full-size, full color product photos and very helpful charts, diagrams, and explanations that reveal how each photo was set up and executed.

http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Studio-Still-Life-Photography/dp/0817458980

Rose Duncan , Apr 08, 2011; 07:45 p.m.

Thanks so much for everyone's help. The book arrived today and I'm going to start it this weekend!

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