• Jengo

A Minimalist’s Guide to Gear and Lighting — 5 Essential Tools You'll Need for Food Photography

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Talking about gear used to be the most boring and uninteresting photography topic you could ask me to discuss. I never understood why my (mostly male -- the world of portrait photography is primarily male dominant -- a little different than food photography which I find is mostly women dominant) photographer friends were so intrigued by this topic, and what gear I used was often the first thing I was asked. I would vehemently preach that gear is great and helpful, but that it is the artist who creates the art, not the gear. Any camera can be used to create great images, for the principles of photography are the same, which ever gear you have. And, all the great gear in the wold is useless if you don 't know how to use it or can't create good art. A skillful artist can create art with any gear. Therefore upgrade the artist, and the art will naturally upgrade as well. Yadi yada....

So, you can see why it's ironic that I'm writing this post. But more and more I've been receiving questions about gear, how to shoot, camera technicals, and lighting techniques etc. And perhaps I'm finally starting to understand why my male friend's have found gear to be so sexy after all this time. I mean, it's a usually black, sleek, sturdy piece of equipment. It's like working a weapon. And if you work it well it yields masterpieces of art. That's pretty darn sexy I would say.

Some gear is faster, more efficent than others. Some are better performing and will likely come at a higher price tag. Not all gear are created equal for the task at hand. But again, whatever gear you have shouldn't terribly limit what you can do. You should work with what you have and find creative ways to make the most use out of what you do have. Say for instance you want to take a wide shot but you have one lens and it's a narrow one. It'll be more work, sure, but you can take multiple pictures and stitch them together in post. Creative solutions is what I'm hinting at here. So, don't feel limited even if the amount of gear you have is limited.

Photography equipment is not cheap. I myself have 15-20K worth of gear (that's average) and it never feels like enough. There's always more I need, more to buy, more to add to the kit. And I have been collecting for years. One shoot through umbrella and light stand I own has been with me for 10 years.

Anyway, never mind all my babbling. If you're just starting out with gear and food photography I'm actually going to tell you the 5 essential items I recommend you having in your minimal kit for natural light shooting. And also when I recommend to make the switch over to artificial lighting. Scroll down for the nitty gritty.

Sexy ass 50mm L series prime lens (not the nifty 50). This is my baby that I've shot many a pictures with. Theres hardly any distortion with this lens and it stops down a dreamy 1.2 aperture (which I don't find necessary in food portraits, more desired for people portraits). I hardly ever use this beauty for food photography although it's a very popular choice. I use it mostly for shooting people, or when I need wider shots because it yields softer images for food than I prefer. My real beau for food shots is the 100mm macro L series lens. But the 50mm actually cost quite a bit more. Oh, my forgotten love. I'm such a fickle B to it. I didn't photograph my 100mm because I was using it for to take these images.

My 5D Mark IV, once my prized baby as well but it broke on me in May this year and was replaced by a new mirrorless beau -- the EOSR. Before this I also owned the 5D Mark III and that broke as well. And before that I was a Nikon shooter. I also owned a Sony for a day. Well, I'm just a camera slut aren't I?

That little round thing back there is a flash -- the Godox Speedlight GOV1C. I love these for how lightweight and portable they are. Truly a studio on the go. Using them to create a natural look will take a small amount of work, as there will be little bit of a learning curve.


1. Camera

So which camera is the right camera for you ? Well, the one you can afford for one. Having said that I find that one with a swivel screen is highly helpful when shooting food, or anything really. It affords you to get angles high or low without having to get into super uncomfortable positions (stepping onto a stool, getting physically ultra high or ultra low). And being able to turn your monitor around (as in selfie mode) is helpful when you're in the shot and need to see your position and frame. If you don't have that feature, it's ok. There's ways to get around it. Like using your cell phone or iPad as an external screen or trigger and also tethering to your laptop. There are also external monitors you can buy. But, that's more gear and we're trying to keep things to the bare essentials here.

Whether you choose to go with Canon, Nikon, Sony, or another brand is entirely your preference. What I state is my personal experience and opinion which you can disregard if you choose to. I find that Canon renders beautiful color straight out of camera. I won't speak too much to their video capabilities as I'm not a huge video person. Both Canon and Nikon are solid cameras with user friendly interfaces and menus. Sony, although a sexy, trendy, vintage design, I find to be too complex for my simple taste. It has way more features than I will ever need or use and the menus I find are complex to navigate. If you're a techy person who enjoys extra bells, whistles, and options you may gravitate toward Sony (it's kind of like Apple vs Android. If you like Androids, you may also like Sony). I find the colors with Sony are also more muted, less vibrant than both Canon and Nikon. It's not bad, just different. Many photographers swear by Sony as the it brand. You'll need to be your own judge.

2. Lens

My favorite lens for food photography hands down, is the 100mm macro lens. That is because I like my images ultra sharp with cutting details.

If you're not into that, that's ok. As mentioned before the 50mm prime lens is widely popular choice. It's good for small spaces as well.

But perhaps the most versatile all around lens choice would be a zoom lens (ie, canon 24-70mm f2.8 https://www.amazon.com/s?k=canon+24-70mm+f%2F2.8l+ef+l-series+standard+zoom+lens+usm&i=electronics&crid=3IP4HVGVNT7MW&sprefix=canon+zoom+l+lens+%2Celectronics%2C212&ref=nb_sb_ss_I_3_18 ) . You don't have to have a large space to shoot with this lens and you can conveniently stand in one position to zoom closer or farther away -- a great walk around lens). So it's one lens that offers many focal options. It doesn't come cheap however. But you can always look into buying used.

When choosing a focal length it's important to consider how large or small your space is. With a longer/ narrower focal length you'll need to stand farther away to capture wider, more scenic shots. Also each lens will offer a different degree of compression. A 50mm is a nice safe choice.

Choosing between a prime or zoom lens is a personal choice. Although if you are just starting out, I highly recommend using a prime lens as it will teach you to zoom with your feet and force you to move around your subject and surroundings, rather than stand in one position. In my opinion, it's best to learn this way because as photographers, we need to physically explore our subject and environment at different distances, rather than stand in once place and shoot. It's a physically agile task and I'm afraid standing still and shooting from one position initially, might create bad shooting habits. Just my personal opinion.

3. Reflectors & Diffuser

Ugh, you need this. Get one medium sized reflector like the one here on Amazon


Use the white to reflect light back onto your scene, use silver if you want more punchy highlights and gold if you want more golden tones. Black as negative fill to absorb light. And use the diffuser to soften the light

Get a few extra white & black matte foam core boards , maybe 2-3 of each. Be fancy and get them on Amazon or be budget conscious and get them from the dollar store. It doesn't matter. No one is judging. They do the same function.

3. Tripod

You will need this for over head shots, shots that you'll be in, action shots where you'll be performing the action. Also useful for if you need to record cooking tutorials etc. Highly recommend.

I own the Manfrotto 055 ( https://www.amazon.com/Manfrotto-190XPRO-4-Section-Aluminum-MK190XPRO4-BHQ2/dp/B010R4JJG4/ref=sr_1_10?crid=3B8WX5KSFAZZ9&dchild=1&keywords=manfrotto+055+aluminum+3-section+tripod+with+horizontal+column&qid=1604384846&s=electronics&sprefix=manfrotto+055%2Celectronics%2C223&sr=1-10 ) which is a heavy duty tripod recommended by many professionals. It's not a cheap tripod by any means and a safe buying choice that will meet the needs of many. But even still with the narrow lens I like to use I wish I had gone with a taller tripod with a longer horizontal column (overhead arm). I find it's arm to be a little short for my needs. I recommend an arm of 15" or longer. If you like to use a lens with a narrow focal length get a tall tripod, as tall as possible so you can avoid buying a C-stand, at least for a while. Bea Lubas's book "How to Photograph Food" has some great tripod recommendations.

So there you go, the 5 items you'll need in your natural light starter kit: camera, lens, reflector, diffuser, and tripod. These 5 essentials should last you a good long while, potentially years, until you feel the need to expand.

Going Beyond Natural Light -- Exploring the Artificial

Thinking of artificial lights can often be overwhelming. I think the overwhelm is attributed to 3 main things. 1) There are so many options, which ones do you need / buy ? 2) How do you manipulate, shape and modify the artificial lights to yield the looks you want? 3) Logistics - how do you connect and sync it all together so that it works as one system? Trust me, I've been there. It gets easier, one step at a time.

In my opinion, natural is always best. I mean, it's beautiful, it's naturally occurring and provided by the Universe. It's free and available to everyone and living thing. It's truly a life giving force. It feels and looks exquisite in photos.

That said, there are times you need the artificial.

The first reason being maybe you need it out of necessity. Meaning maybe you live in a place that just doesn't have any windows or ideal natural available light. Maybe you have a day job and can only do most of your shooting at night.

The second reason and time to incorporate artificial lights is when you've become very accustomed to shooting, manipulating, and shaping natural light, and you have a solid understanding of light principles. You want to expand and have more control of your light or you're after certain affects that flash will help you achieve. This is when I recommend you investing in some artificial lights. But prior to that, just work with the free, available natural light. Because incorporating or switching to artificial can sometimes be daunting and overwhelming as a natural light shooter. And it will certainly be even more confusing if you haven't learned to work and shape natural light effectively. In my opinion, it'll just add to your load and further state of confusion. So learn how to work natural free light first, buy artificial lights later.

As with anything new you buy, such as a cell phone, you have to spend time to get to know it. So, be ready to dedicate copious amounts of of time when buying lights to get to know your gear and how to work it, what's the best diffusion material to use to create the look you want, how to position your lights etc. With natural light you're probably used to working from 1 main window, regularly changing your subject's position relative to your window. With lights, you can do that as well but most likely you'll have to get used to moving your light source around, as it is mobile and so it should be mobilized.

Because natural light is a continuous / constant source the most natural and easiest transition as an initial investment would be a continuous light. There will still be a little learning curve but it's the easiest transition, say compared to flashes and strobes, which are more complex and different. It can be done. I'm not here to discourage you. So do what makes you happy regardless of what I say.

When choosing a light (I use a continuous LED), I recommend a mid range one ($400+) as a safe choice. A cheap one ($250+ range) in my opinion won't yield the light output and strength you need (speaking from experience here) and I would rather have more strength and dial it down than not enough. My brother always says "buy cheap, buy twice". I find this to the true. As I have not only bought twice, but thrice.

Importantly you need to consider your shooting style. If you enjoy shooting with your camera mounted on a tripod most of the times you can probably get away with some lower priced models of light with medium output, as this affords you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. It only becomes a problem when you're trying to capture fast motion, and what type of fast motion will be a factor.

If you're a nut case hand-held shooter like I am who can't be bothered with tripods (only when absolutely necessary) you'll need a strong light, one that packs a punch. Because of my erratic shooting style, I need to be ready to (I liken myself to a sniper, ready for fast action and mobility at every minute) get high, get low, do all sorts of gymnastics around my scene to get the shot. I find that being on a tripod is added fuss and slows me down and if I need to mount my camera for every shot I would probably never take any pictures. Because of that I need to shoot at fast enough shutter speeds to prevent camera shake. Thus, a strong light is really helpful, as I am able to shoot at fast enough shutter speeds, low enough ISO's and not have to compromise on my style or picture quality much.

Another thing you'll have to watch out for with artificial lighting is sometimes they have a certain tint to them. For instance my Godox VL300 is 5600K (daylight balance) but has a magenta tint to it which throws off my white balance and can be annoying and difficult to correct in post. It's hard to get the whites to look exactly right.

I hear Aputure light brand is very good that may not have a tint problem but that's a light with a $3k price tag. More than I can afford at this time. The right gear is one that you can afford.

LED and constant lights are not very strong. So, perhaps if you want ultimate control and the strongest light of all you may want to consider flashes and strobes. Those lights are so strong they can overpower any ambient nearby, even outdoors. One monolight is equivalent to approximately 10 speed lights. And obviously flashes are great for freezing motion. But the drawback is you'll have to test it by trial and error to get the right exposure setting as you cannot visually see the light until the flash is triggered. You can enlist the help of a device called a light meter to help nail down the settings faster. There's also TTL mode to explore. With continuous light what you see is what you get. So, it's a bit easier in that sense. All in all, consider what type of photography you want to do and what type of light will help you achieve that.

To sum it all up, here are 4 important questions to consider when buying lights and accessories. 1) What type of looks do you want to achieve? 2) What is your shooting style (handheld predmonant or tripod)? 3) How much power do you need for that? 4) What other tools / accessories will support that?

I highly recommend talking to the photography and lighting experts at Adorama or B&H. They can recommend gear based on your needs and price points. And if you get a B&H credit card you can save on taxes and use that money on more gear. On many purchases you can even get free shipping.

So, I know it was long but hopefully you found this article helpful and worth the read. Let me know what you found helpful and if you want to see more content like this. Your comments and feedback are appreciated! :)

Lighting is my passion and I'm working on putting together a light course where I share my lighting techniques, how to manipulate it to create different looks for light, dark, or moody photography, and how to make your images and subjects pop using lighting techniques. I'll explain lighting to you in a simplified way. Often times artificial light seems intimidating because we are thinking of it in more complex ways than we need to, thus over-complicating it and overwhelming ourselves.

If you don't want to wait until the release of my program you can book a 1:1 session with me now. Sessions are catered to your needs on whatever topics you'd like to cover, whether that be camera technicals, angels, composition, style or lighting. Send me a DM over on IG for inquiry.

Thanks again for visiting. :)


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