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How to use artificial light for photography: the basics

Posted by Mandy Gleason on
How to use artificial light for photography: the basics

If you’ve been following along with my photography how-tos, you already know how to style your scene, create depth in your photos, and shoot in natural light. Natural light is awesome because it's free, but it's also tricky because it changes from hour to hour and from day to day.

If you shoot at night or on dreary days (or you just don't want to think about cloud cover, time of day, the direction your window faces, etc) artificial lighting is your solution! The photos below show you how, by using the same techniques, it doesn't matter whether you light with natural or artificial light. It's just a matter of which method you prefer.

Did your heart speed up a little when I said artificial lighting? Don't worry! I'm not telling you how to light a professional film set or a Vogue shoot here. I'm keeping it crazy simple and focusing on the basics of lighting backdrop-based photos. 

Quick note: I highly recommend reading my natural lighting how-to before reading this one - a lot of the concepts I talk about in it (like the difference between hard and soft light) apply to artificial lighting too.

This photo was taken with natural light.

Same photo but taken with artificial light (specifically, a continuous soft box). There are slight variations in prop positioning and editing technique, but the brightness and shadows are virtually identical..

There are infinite ways to light a scene but in this how-to we’re going to focus on how to achieve soft, even light with minimal shadows. Soft, even light is the type of light most commonly used in food and product photography and is often the only technique you need to create gorgeous photos. 

Doing the opposite of what you learn here will lead to dramatic shadows that land in interesting places. So after mastering the basics of soft, even lighting, I highly encourage you to play around - who knows, you may discover your new style!

Equipment

Lighting equipment is one of the most talked-about topics on the Replica Facebook VIP Community (which you can join here) and for good reason. There's so much equipment out there and it's hard to know how intense to get with a lighting setup when you're starting out. Below we'll talk about two pieces I love (and one that you may want to avoid). I’ll also link to the specific equipment I've used. None of the links are sponsored so don't feel like you should buy that specific piece if something else feels like a better fit!

Soft boxes

Soft boxes are fabric boxes (well, they usually look more like sideways umbrellas) that contain a light bulb. Their purpose is to create soft, even light across your scene (no surprise there). The front of a soft box is covered with translucent fabric and the sides are typically covered in black fabric. The translucent fabric acts as a diffuser to spread the light out (that’s how it softens it and minimizes shadows), while the black fabric prevents the light from escaping the box in the wrong direction. 

The soft, even light created by a soft box is similar to the natural light you get on a cloudy day or from hanging a white sheet in front of a window on a bright, sunny day. If you’re new photography, it probably sounds crazy that a cloudy day is best for soft, even lighting but it really is! That’s because the clouds diffuse and soften the light just like a soft box does!

If you’re ready to try artificial lighting, I highly recommend starting with a continuous soft box. Continuous soft boxes plug into the wall and stay on the whole time they're plugged in. This means you can use them with any DSLR or phone camera. The one above (from LimoStudio) comes with an adjustable stand and is under $50.

Wireless Flashes

Wireless flashes are a great option if you use a DSLR camera and want to go cord-free. Wireless flashes work just like a camera-mounted flash but you can position them anywhere. Wireless flashes (like this one from Yongnuo) are mounted to an adjustable stand, which are often sold separately. 

To create soft, even light, you can either place the flash inside a softbox (here's one from LimoStudio) or hang a white sheet in front of it like we did here. By connecting your camera to the flash, the flash will go off when your shutter opens.

Equipment you may want to avoid: Ring lights

Ring lights are popular in portrait photography because they’re great for lighting curved subjects like faces. Ring lights can be challenging for product and food photography, however, because they’re typically very bright and rarely contain a diffuser. Ring lights therefore create hot spots, which are overexposed areas of a photo. The eye tends to perceive hot spots as "glare" and they’re a massive pain to edit out. That's why I prefer a continuous soft box or wireless flash placed inside a soft box. Bring on that soft, even light! 

If you already own a ring light and want to try softening its light, throw a white pillow case over it. Alternatively, you can hang a white bedsheet or translucent shower curtain in front of it like we did with the wireless flash, above. Get creative with your rig!

Artificial lighting: the specifics

Light direction

When it comes to food and product photography, side lighting (aka placing your artificial light along the left or right side of your setup) is usually your best bet since it allows you to use a two-backdrop setup. Side lighting also lets you use a reflector, which is a key if you’re trying to avoid shadows. The photos of the soft box and wireless flash above both demonstrate side lighting.

Whether you choose to put your artificial light on the right or left will depend on the objects you're photographing and where you want their shadows to land. If your scene includes a tall item on the right and shorter items on the left, you may want to put the artificial light on the left so that shadows land to the right of the tall item rather than on top of the shorter items.

Reflectors

If you want to decrease shadows and create even light across your scene, place a white reflector opposite your artificial light. In the soft box and wireless flash photos above, we’re using the All-White Replica Surface as a reflector. It isn’t attached to anything, it’s just leaned against the other two Surfaces. If you don't have the All-White Surface (or are using it in your shot), a piece of white poster board or a trifold poster board work just as well. Trifold poster boards are great because they stand up on their own and you can find them at most craft stores.

The same photo taken without (first) and with a reflector (second). A continuous soft box was positioned on the right. Notice how the left side of every object (including the Subway Tile Surface) is darker in the shot without a reflector. Pretty amazing what a simple piece of poster board can do!

Editing

No matter how good your camera and lighting are, you need to edit your photos for them to look their best. I recommend editing in Adobe Lightroom because it's incredibly powerful yet user friendly. If you’re new to photo editing, start by adjusting just three settings: Exposure, Contrast, and Highlights until your eye loves what it sees. Those three settings will give you the biggest bang for your editing efforts. Then play with the other sliders and see what happens - does your photo get better or worse? 

When it comes to editing, there’s absolutely no correct combination of settings - it’s allll about what your eye prefers and what mood you’re trying to create with your photo. Once you find a combination of settings you like, Lightroom lets you save it as a preset to use with future photos! Depending on the backdrops you use and exactly how you set up your lights, your next photo may require slight tweaks to your preset settings but at least you’ll have a solid starting point. 

If you still aren't sold on the value of editing, the photo below should help! And I actually took it on an iPhone. Not too shabby, right?

The same photo before (first) and after editing (second). 

The Complete Setup

  1. Set up your scene. If you’re planning to shoot at eye level or at a 45 degree angle, place your props toward the center of your backdrop to create depth. We talk alllll about how to create depth here.
  2. Position your soft box along the left or right side of your scene. Since shadows will appear on the opposite side, try positioning the light on both sides to see which you prefer. One side may be better than the other depending on the height and details of the items you’re photographing. 
  3. Adjust the height of the soft box stand so that the bottom of the box is slightly above your scene and the box is angled downward at a 45 degree angle.
  4. Place a white reflector opposite your soft box to reduce shadows.
  5. Set your camera settings. Click here to learn the camera and camera phone settings that create depth in your photos. 
  6. Take a photo and see what you think. Try adjusting the height of the soft box and angling it at different angles. Watch what happens to the shadows with each change. The BEST way to learn about light is to play around and see what happens!
  7. Edit. Start by adjusting Exposure, Contrast, and Highlights.

    And that's that - the basics of artificial lighting and how to master them! Comment below and let me know if this helped!

    I've got plenty more how-tos coming by the way! Subscribe to emails at the bottom of this page so you don't miss any of THAT goodness! Sending all my love your way until then...


    Mandy Gleason
    Founder of Replica Surfaces, ramen aficionado, and inadvertent killer of all house plants.

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    3 comments

    • Heather on

      This is the most helpful explanation and instruction I’ve seen in a year of searching! Thank you. I’m a total newbie with a sheet, a piece of white poster board, and an iPhone. I’m excited to add Replica Surfaces to my tool kit and practice these instructions.

    • Gabriella on

      Hi Mandy! Thank you so much for this article. I love shooting with natural light but agree that it is not always the most reliable. I have been trying to get into artificial lighting but it has been quite the learning curve. I currently own a little wireless flash which I like, but it doesn’t always light my shot enough/ the way I’d like it to. I’m interested in the LimoStudio continuous soft box that you mentioned. I’m curious what the quality is like if you are shooting in dim/ windowless rooms? Would you happen to have any additional examples?

      Thanks so much! =)

    • Devonne J Higgins on

      I love your articles about lighting and set up. I would love to know where you found the portable white table that the replicas surfaces are set upon in this article.

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