How to Setup a Food Photography Studio: Part 2

How To Setup a Food Photography Studio

In this continuation of part 1, I expand on the photo gear needed to setup a food photography studio.

Tripod

This is the one area that people always cheap-out on so DON’T!  A good tripod will outlast your digital camera and most likely you.  My dad purchased a lightweight aluminum tripod in the 1960’s and guess what? He still pulls it out of the closet every Christmas.

Manfrotto tripods are the industry standard and I use the 055xprob because of its lightweight and durability. I paired it with the Manfrotto 322RC2 grip head, but it’s been problematic.  Over the past year it’s lost all of its tension and I’m likely going to replace it with the 498RC2 ball head.

If you want to go high end, check out Gitzo and Really Right Stuff.

Camera and Lenses

If I had to start a new system from scratch, I wouldn’t choose Nikon or Canon.  A million other food bloggers swear by these full-frame systems, but compact mirrorless systems like the Panasonic GH4 are the future.

In 2014, with the convergence of image quality across all sensor sizes, photographers don’t need the weight or expense of a full-frame system.  The image quality from these various sensors is nearly identical on a computer monitor where 99.9% of work is displayed, so why not choose the superior ergonomics of a compact system camera.  If you need a full-frame DSLR for a job, just rent one.

For the typical food photography studio kit you’ll need 3 lenses: a fast standard zoom, a macro, and a standard prime.  Focal lengths vary across sensor sizes, but in full-frame digital this equates to a 24-70mm f/2.8, a 90mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4.  For the advanced photographer, I would also recommend a lens or an adapter that facilitates tilt/shift movements.

The compact camera systems and the respective lenses I like for a food photography studio are as follows:

Panasonic GH4

Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8
Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4
Panasonic Leica 45mm f/2.8 macro

If you plan to do video along with photography, forget everything else and buy this.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8
Olympus 25mm f/1.8
Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro

This has an amazing in-body 5-axis stabilization system that works with every lens.

Fujifilm X-T1

Fujifilm 18-55mm f/2.8-4
Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4
Fujifilm 60mm f/2.4 macro

This camera loses the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor, adds a unique Bayer color layer, and creates astonishing emulations of Fuji film.

Tilt/Shift

Nikon 85mm pc-e
Kipon Camera Adapters

One other camera to consider is the Sony A7r.  This is a full-frame mirrorless camera that has created a paradigm shift in the industry. It combines the benefits of mirrorless with the superior image quality of a large sensor.   The only problem is that the system lacks lenses.  When the system matures, the A7r should definitely be a consideration.

Lighting for a Food Photography Studio

This is the big one that a lot of people get hung-up on.  If you’re just starting out, natural light is your best bet.  These are a few of the natural light sources I like to use:

Window with indirect light
Open door with indirect light
Window with a sheet of white ripstop nylon to diffuse the light
Open door with a sheet of white ripstop nylon to diffuse the light
Outdoors under the shade of a tree (watch out for the green color cast)
Outdoors under the shade of a tree with a white or silver bounce card

Artificial Light

Some photographers fall in love with the look of natural light and base their careers around it, but I prefer strobes due to their flexibility and value.  Before I outline the ideal strobe kit, here are a few products to avoid:

Lowel Ego Florescent Light –  This has a nice quality of light, but it’s a little small to be a main all purpose light. In addition, it can’t be mounted on a light stand to facilitate maneuverability.

Flashes – Everyone got the strobist religion a few years back, but these are lousy for a food photography studio because they don’t have a modeling light.  It’s best to have a least a 250w modeling light in the strobe so  you can see how the light is hitting the food.

LED panels – These look good on paper, but LED panels don’t provide a full spectrum of light.

Umbrellas – These are cheap and can be used with flashes and strobes, but the light goes everywhere.  To achieve control, a light modifier should have a solid straight edge.

My recommendations:

If you plan to go out and do a lot of video in addition to photography, forget the strobes and buy some Kino Flos along with a few Arri Fresnels.  For strobes, I like the products from Paul C Buff because they’re cheap and durable.  This is my kit:

White Lightning x1600 strobes
Large Photoflex softboxes
Small Photoflex softboxes
Small Mathews Light Stands
Grid Spots

I like this setup because it gives me a soft editorial look with the option to go harder with grid spots.  The White Lightning strobes have a powerful modeling light and the controls are basic analog sliders.

For lighting equipment, I always prefer simple gear that will stand up to abuse.

Final Stuff

To complete a food photography studio, you’ll need a lot of little things like black cards and white cards for additive and subtractive light along with a few small mirrors.  In addition, a light meter like the Sekonic L-758DR always helps as does an 18% grey card to correct the color.

All of this gear may seem extensive, but you don’t have to buy it all at once.  You can take amazing food photos with just window light and a bounce card.  As your skill grows overtime, you can start to experiment with a strobe or two and figure out what you really need.  The wonderful thing about food photography is that it doesn’t depend on gear, just talent.

 

 

 

 

 

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16 Comments

  1. 2

    Thanks for the great food photography pictures and sharing tips on how its done. I help my wife on her baking blog, while she shoots most of her own photos I do the bulk of the setup, all the post processing, and all of the ‘learning and procuring photography stuff’. I spent my whole Saturday afternoon engrossed in your posts and pictures and looking at ‘I Bake’s’ baking. I found your site through your HOW TO SETUP A FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO posts. While we love day light food shooting, living on the coast often produces fog and dismal light so we invested in a set of cheep umbrella lights now we have to figure out how to use them. We also find that often by the time a dish is ready the sun and the day are gone. Now I have ordered gray cards, broke out the tripod, book marked your site and several recommended photographers sites, so now its time to go practice!

  2. 4

    Hi David,

    I just ordered the Olympus PEN E-PL7 it looks like a good ‘little brother’ to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 you recommended that was a bit out of my price range. I plan to use it as my personal camera as well as a secondary camera for my wife’s food blog. As much as I push she does not like the tripod so hopefully the 3 axis stabilization will help with some of her less well lit shots.

    Also, I just busted out my Light Science and Magic book from a view camera/lighting class I took back in ’98. Going to be getting better over here!
    Roger recently posted…Carrot Top Pesto with Honey Roasted CarrotsMy Profile

    • 5

      Cool! I love Olympus and the MFT system. The glass is reasonably sized and insanely sharp. Renowned food photographer Lou Manna has been an Olympus shooter for years.

      I wouldn’t worry about the tripod. The great thing about shooting in 2015 is being able to make technically superb images with small equipment that isn’t anchored to a studio stand. At the end of every setup, I usually take the camera off the tripod and capture a few shots from different angles.

      Light Science and Magic is definitely a classic. I’ve actually never made it through that book, but I have read bits and pieces whenever I needed a specific technique.

  3. 6

    Hello again,

    I was blessed with a faulty new Olympus ELP7 – screen died when adjusting telephoto – so returned it. I did not like the lack of a second control dial and no view finder so I took the opportunity to I pick up the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Wow, what a great camera! All the controls, a ‘super panel’, view finder, built in flash. I have only shot it around the house but its usability is great and reminds me of my old Nikon film cameras from 1979.

    Roger
    Roger recently posted…Breakfast Lavender Berry Crisp and Lavender ChaiMy Profile

    • 7

      I’ve always been a big fan of Olympus and the new OM-D series is really something special. It takes the best features from cameras like the Pentax MX and Nikon FE wraps them into a modern digital body. It also has a crazy great selection of superior glass. If I bought that camera I would go broke buying lenses 🙂 Congrats on the purchase. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the camera

  4. 8

    David – Thanks for this wonderful post. I have been looking at finding another solution to natural light window shooting. Currently I use a window and then have reflectors for the fill. If I am going to start using strobes, how many would I need? Do you use a large strobe for the main and a small strobe for the fill? Then use black/white reflectors as needed? Or would one be fine? Looking for the most flexibility without breaking the bank.

    Thanks!

    -Dan

    • 9

      Hi Dan,

      I would start with one strobe and attempt to mimic the window light. When I photograph an item on a table from a 45 degree angle (restaurant menu photo), I typically bounce a large even light into a wall from behind the subject and use a 20x30in piece of white cardboard for fill. To make the light soft or hard, I move the table closer or further away from the light. When I don’t use bounce light off the wall, I use a Medium Photoflex Octodome in the same position.

      When I need to light an item from the side to show texture on the front of the item, I use a large Photoflex softbox. When I shoot from the top, I also use the large softbox pushed up very close to the table.

      When I shoot at home, I almost always use a single light with a bounce card. When I’m in the studio, I add a second 60 inch Photek Softlighter behind the camera position for on-axis fill.

      • 10

        Thanks David! That’s amazing info and helps out a ton. I’d like to start with one light source to mimic a window and it sounds like if I want to get the most bang for my buck, a large softbox with a strobe will work for “window” light and also overhead light. I can then use reflectors to fill in the light. Sound good?

        One last question if I may….do you use a polarizer? Circular or Linear? I am having issues with glare when my food has a wetness. Thanks for the info.

        • 11

          Yes, that sounds good. Any large soft light source that provides an even light will work. That can include a light panel, soft box, or bounced light. It typically makes sense to start with a large light and make it smaller by pulling the object away from the light. Contrast, wrap ,and specualarity are determined by the size of the light relative to the subject. Of course this is just a starting point. Different types of objects ig. translucent, reflective, textured require different modifiers and lights.

          With regard to polarizers, buy one that is Circular. I like Hoya. I don’t like Tiffen. If you have money to blow and want the absolute best, buy B+W. I rarely use a polarizer and usually alter the angle of refraction by moving the light, but at times they are absolutely necessary. The secret is to still leave some glare on the object so it doesn’t look completely flat.

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    Scalf recently posted…ScalfMy Profile

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