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The $15 Food Photography Lighting Set Up

Welcome to my last post of 2011.  This is not a summary of everything that I did in 2011 (that will come January 16th on Taylor Takes a Taste’s second Birthday) but more a post that combines almost everything I am passionate about.


In deciding to start a food blog, one makes it pretty obvious to the world that they are passionate about food. So my love for food should be a no brainer. Another one of my passions is photography. Making pictures, learning about new techniques, and experimenting with different lighting setups are all things that happen in my apartment. In the past year, I have started to teach about food photography. I have taught a few classes and hosted my own set of workshops. These weekends and afternoons have been some of the most rewarding days of the past year. In 2011, I have discovered my passion for sharing what I have learned with others.

This being said, it only makes sense to share with you a tutorial I think you will find very useful. With New Year’s Day being tomorrow, it only makes sense to have a post with black eyed peas as the subject. (those of you who are just here for the food, scroll down for the second half of the post an explanation and recipe for Texas Caviar)

For good or bad, we live in a world where your food is first judged by its picture. Whether it be in a book, on a restaurant’s website or any other two dimensional object, your dish will be judged by its picture. If you can’t be there to smell and taste the dish, a picture is all you have to go off of. Because of this fact, anyone who deals with food and the internet has to become a semi professional food photographer.

As many of you have realized, that is not an easy task. Yes nice cameras and expensive lenses can produce amazing images in the hands of someone who knows how to use them, but LIGHTING is the MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT of your food photography. This same unfortunate world is a world where one’s food photography schedule doesn’t line up with natural light’s schedule.

What does this leave you with? Well you have to try your best and take pictures in your kitchen or other parts of your house using artificial light. Do pictures in your dining room turn out like this?

Or maybe you have found your kitchen works a little bit better? (my kitchen is too messy to take pictures of, Thankfully my girlfriend has an immaculate kitchen complete with pink tea kettle).

That is a little better, but still not what it could be.

A new year is all about setting new goals. I have a new goal for you. If you have found that your schedule only allows you to take pictures when there is no daylight available, make your goal to MAKE GREAT PICTURES WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHT!

You may be saying, sure you can take great pictures with expensive lighting gear. Yes, this is true, but what if I told you that you could make a photo studio for around $15 ?

Yes, it is true. All you need is….

A 500 watt Halogen worklamp that you can get at Lowe’s or Home Depot. I got mine for $6 when I was tailgating in Birmingham. It might be a little more, but all you need is one that is at least 500 watts (the power is important, don’t get a florescent one, THEY AREN’T bright enough)


Halogen lights get extremely hot. I mean it. DO NOT use these with animals or small children around. This little $5 light has no on or off switch, so you will need to plug it into a power strip that has a switch. Also, you must use it on a flat level surface. AGAIN, I can’t stress this enough. The light gets very hot so be very careful and let it cool down before moving and use caution. I am not trying to scare you. They are safe, just pay attention when using and do not leave them on when unattended.

The second item that you need is a diffusion panel. This consists of a PVC pipe square frame. Take 4 equal lengths of PVC pipe and connect them in a square shape using 4 elbow joints of the same diameter as the pipe. To do this, you will need to tape a diffusion material to the PVC pipe square. I used Paper Vellum. It is sold in large rolls and in sheets. Price will vary depending on where and what size you buy, I bought a 5 yard roll. Cut your vellum to the size of your frame and then tape it to the vellum to the frame. You want to pull the vellum so it is tight and makes a flat panel.  You could also use parchment paper. Really, any translucent material that you can make a flat panel out of will work. Different materials will have different effects on the light so play around and see what works best for you.

All you have to do is shine your light through your diffusion frame and use a piece of foam board as a fill card. You can use a box or anything else you like to prop up the panel and your foam board. This set up works with backlighting, as well!

A Halogen worklight is a Tungsten light source, so you will need to change your camera white balance to Tungsten.

While this light and set up does have some drawbacks ( I won’t get into those here) and is by no means perfect, for those of you who want to have a great lighting set up for around $15 it is hard to beat!