Sandwich Bread_2

This photo was taken in our basement. I tell you this because actually it wouldn’t have mattered where I took it because it’s so dark outside. WINTER is here in Cleveland. Yes the white stuff has been spotted—I don’t like to use the “S” word until I have to shovel.

Someone recently wrote to me asking what inexpensive lighting they could use in place of professional lights now that taking photos in available light is getting tougher—she asked if some clip on lights from Home Depot would do the trick. Answer: Yes. But you just can’t plug them in and shine them straight on. Controlling the light from them is like the difference between using a sharp knife or a dull knife. Photography is all about light. The more you understand it the easier you are able to improvise.

I bought those silver bowl clip-on lights a long time ago when I was a student. The photos weren’t good, but neither was my understanding of light. If I bought those lights today, I bet I could come close to the photo above. This bread shot had 3 lights, a soft light above to the right and back,  a soft light less strong low to the left front side and a  soft back light  that lit the background loaf and wall. I shot this with my Nikon D200 with a 55mm macro lens at f11 and used Dyna-lite strobes that also have modeling lights that I can add a soft box, grid spots or umbrellas too. They connect to a small 500 watt power back that plugs into the wall. For table-top food photography you don’t need anything stronger. They will set you back about $2,000-$3,000.

Clamp on lights or desk lamps with bendable arms will cost you no more then $20 each, but you’ll have to use a tripod because they give out a much weaker light compared to strobes. A steady tripod is important, and even with that you can create camera shake just by clicking your shutter. If you have a “mirror lock up” on your camera, use it. If you don’t (point and shoot cameras don’t) you don’t have to worry, just be careful when you click the shutter not to jar the camera. I would buy at least 3 or 4 because I would adapt them for different light sources.

With one,  I would simulate a soft box by covering the light with some white semi-transparent material, like white parchment paper.  Poke several holes to vent out the heat of the bulb—we don’t want to start a fire. For another,  try attaching black boards to either side to simulate “Barn Doors” (that’s what we call the lights that have movable flaps so you can narrow the angle of flare), duck tape goes a long way. Close them almost completely and you have what looks like light coming through a blind in the window. Use it as a back light just when you want the light to skim the surface (see previous juicy onion post). This will be a difficult one to make work, but anything you can rig up to control the light can be very useful, even just cutting out different sized holes in black cardboard to place in front of the light to make different size spot lights. And try making a lot of dime sized holes in one board to simulate a “grid spot” that creates a soft round spot light. These  are  all great for back lighting your subjects.

The last light I would leave alone. With this one you can either point it straight up at the ceiling, if it’s a light color, and the light will bounce off making soft over head light—or, point it at a white card to the side of your subject and the light will bounce from the white board onto the subject creating a soft side light. Pieces of foam core that you can get at any art or office supply store are perfect and don’t need to be larger than 16X20 if you’re doing food. You won’t have to use all of these at the same time. Play with one or two add more if you need it. In lighting, as in most creative processes,  less is more and know when to stop.

But—most importantly have fun, and good luck.

Calendar ann #2

Wanted those of you who ordered signed copies of the Calendar to know they are all shipped out. Pakistan wins for distance! Alaska comes in second. They will get there’s next week, everyone else should be receiving in a day or two. Thanks everyone.


22 Wonderful responses to “Creating Inexpensive Indoor Lighting”

  • Zoey4now

    When you use your lights, do you know the effect you are going to get? in layman terms do u know that if light A will produce this and lighing type C will produce this? I am trying to figure out how you got the beam of light over the bacon bundle?

  • Kevin

    I use the Home Depot clips-on and a homemade light box. But the best lights I found were these from Alzo. (Get the 45 watt, the 27’s aren’t bright enough. Also, I use the timer on my camera with a tripod to avoid shake.

  • Mike V @ DadCooksDinner

    Thank you!

    I’m a food blogger in Akron (just south of Cleveland), and the lack of sunlight is really hurting my pictures. I was just going to start looking for this information, to see if there was anything I could do, and what do I see in my reader but this post!

  • carri

    This is exactly what I needed to know, especially now that we’re down to 6 hours (and 23 minutes) of daylight up here in the far north! Maybe I need to drop Santa a hint to bring lights. Thanks, Donna…love your bread photo!

  • Schlake

    I’ve got four 800ws strobes, with grids, and brolly boxes, and parabolic umbrellas, and regular umbrellas, and disks on booms, and even a shovel.

    Usually I take pictures of things using two homemade trees containing sixteen compact fluorescent bulbs balanced at 6400k. A couple of cardboard boxes to control the spill and provide flagging, and away you go.

  • viviane bauquet farre / food & style

    Donna! As always I am very moved by your love of photography and your generous spirit… Thank you for this post which is extremely helpful for those of us who are learning… I’m still using only natural light for my food photography, even though the days are getting shorter and darker – I’m adapting. But after reading your post I might try to use lights… I have resisted so far!

  • MyLastBite

    Love this:
    “Controlling the light from them is like the difference between using a sharp knife or a dull knife.”

    Can’t wait to see your beautiful calendar in my kitchen!

  • Donna

    The beef jerky bundle glows like that because it has a very strong back light on it—see the strong shadow? With digital you can see what you’re getting. If it doesn’t look good in the back of your camera—it’s not going to look any better on your computer.

  • Donna

    Kevin‚ thanks for the info. The ones I used took 60 watt bulbs and I think the higher the watts the better because with the adaptions you’re going to loose some light, especially if you’re bouncing off the ceiling or fill cards.

  • Lynne

    Very informative post. The Lowell Ego is a notch up in price from the Home Depot lights, but works quite well, too. The bread looks great and the texture is perfect. I enjoy reading your blog very much. BTW-this post showed up on a Google alert for food photography.

  • Kevin

    The clip-ons I use are also rated for 60 watts (and for a while I was using 300 watt incandescents in them – very carefully) but the 45 watt Alzo are flourescent, have a color temp of 5500K and put out about 2800 lumens.

  • ...pat.

    Thanks for posting this, Donna.
    I bought a couple of big shiny bowl reflectors, only to find that I was losing what had initially attracted me to doing still lifes, which was the effect of low lighting on food. So now I’ve got new bulbs for the two silly desk-top desk lamps I have with barn doors, and will begin shooting anew. I use the timer on my digital camera to reduce camera shake, and use a long slow shutter speed to compensate for the low light. I did find, when I use the big shiny bowls, that polyester quilt batting, held in place with a couple of wooden clothes pegs, makes a good diffuser!

  • Lisa

    Thank you very much for the instruction. I’m hoping you would be willing to take a photograph of your lighting arrangement when you explain it. Sometimes I get a little lost in the directions (definitely a me not you thing). Thanks again and I love your photographs.

  • Donna Turner Ruhlman

    The next time I shoot, which will be tomorrow in our kitchen, I will take a photo of what we’re doing. It’ll be with my Dyna-lite strobes though, not clip-on lights.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Interesting analogy. I have a set of those quartz work lights that painters and other construction pros have. Very high lumen output. The trick is that when you are painting, you always bounce them otherwise you are working in shadows or bright light that makes everything fade out in the glare. Same as photography, eh?

  • Julie

    Hey Donna- thanks for the tips! Have you tried out the Lowel EGO lights? I’ve heard a few good things from other food bloggers. Just asked for a couple for Christmas. Was wondering if you had any thoughts on them too. Thanks!

  • byrneout

    Blackwrap [black-coated heavy duty foil] was always my favorite solution for directing light without barn doors. It’s very flexible, you can poke holes in it at will, and [assuming you haven’t poked too many holes] it’s reusable. A bit expensive, but a great tool to have around.

  • bamboo

    suppose consider also use the good shelter for providing more lighting and visual effect. from my career, i often advise people to put the lighting with the home decor together.


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