Wednesday, October 19, 2005

[Photography] After Dark

The weather's turning in these parts and I'm really struggling to get decent pictures without natural light. Any quick and dirty tips on taking successful photos after dark?

I've tried overhead light and things turn out yellow. With a flash things are just scary. Any ideas from the pros out there?

This post was written by Jennifer from Taste Everything Once


Anonymous said...

One thing I've found that can work is that if I have to use a flash, instead of taking a macro shot I stand back and use my zoom. That way the light from the flash is not so harsh.

Alternatively, I go ahead and shoot in natural light and then use my editing software to "add flash". With my software I can "add flash" in small increments until I achieve the level I like. This often will brighten the photo enough yet keep it looking fairly natural.

Jennifer Maiser said...

I agree with what culinary fool says about using the zoom instead of a macro if you *must* use a flash.

Personally, I really don't like using flash when I can at all avoid it.

Other ideas:

1) find a lamp or area in your house that works. my space right now is on the stove, using the bright stove light.

2) brace your camera against something, or place it on a table and use a much longer shutter speed.

3) use your editing software to adjust the light a bit. I use photoshop elements and there is a function under the "enhance" menu --> adjust color --> color cast. it allows you to turn the yellow cast into a white and adjust the shot accordingly. most software has something equivalent.

Sam said...

I have been known to be so desperate that I have taken pictures actually in the fridge

err... plate up a spare portion and wait til the morning to photograph it? I think erhhmm, I might have tried that too on occasion, not that I will admit it?

or how about only cook food for your blog during daylight at the weekends? That's the safest bet if you dont want to invest in some ligting aparatus.

Jennifer said...

*laugh* Sam you crack me up!

Next time I'll try the flash and zoom tricks. Thanks guys!

Anonymous said...

Depending on your camera, it may have a 'white balance' setting, to adjust for tungsten (regular light bulb) or flourescents.

I've got 2 clip-on reflectors lights (the cheap ones with regular bulbs) and with a big plastic white cutting board as soft reflector, it works as a real quick, down and dirty temporary studio.

Something to brace the camera helps, i would set up a tripod everytime, but I got lazy, so close ups are shot with the camera sitting on a coffee cup or something similar.

I love the 'in the fridge' idea Sam! I'm going to try that. The white walls would act as a soft light box, and you might capture extra steam from hot food.

Rachael Narins said...

Like Sam, I have gone to some strange extremes to get a purdy shot...namely, putting the plated food in the bathtub. Unlike Sam, I don't know how to link to that picture...LOL.

emma said...

Kill your flash! Go manual all the way, and as Jennifer says, use a lamp of some kind. I've also found that shooting on a non-white surface (like my wooden table) helps dampen harsh light.
You can also set up a tripod (though I agree it's a hassle), and definitely use white balance if your camera has it - it's invaluable.
Also, the more "manual" your function (camera function, I mean) the more control you have over the end result - sometimes a longer shutter speed in lower light is all you need. Or photoshop.
emma (moderngirlskitchen.blogspot)

Kevin said...

Aside from a couple of hours a day a couple of months a year I don't have a good spot in my house to take photos using daylight. Almost all my shots use artificial light.

So I bought a couple of cheap clip-on flood fixtures and some 300w bulbs and jury-rigged a lighting setup.

Jennifer said...

Wow! Now I know why you guys always have such fantastic photos!

I'm more of a point and click kind of girl. My tourist grade camera isn't nearly as sophisticated. No fancy lenses, tripods, or lights.

I actually tried the fridge tip and the photos weren't too bad!

Thanks for all the advice.

Alyce said...

I just don't know about you guys...who in the world has enough room in the fridge to take pictures!?!!? Although emptying it every time I wanted to take a picture for the blog might force me to cull through the 11 kinds of mustards and half dozen hot sauces in there, right?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jennifer,

If you do try using your flash, another thought would be to adjust the intensity of the flash - some cameras allow to do it, other not.

I've just started experimenting with it and it seems to be a pretty good way to better control how much additional light you need [from the flash].

The white balance of course needs to be adjusted as well.

Guy said...

Using your on camera flash can be dicey at best. Put a layer or two of white napkins over it to douse it a bit, that will soften the glare. Use a few reflectors next to your subject to highlight other portions of the subject, as though there might be other light sources.

What I use for lighting are UV Balanced incandescent photo bulbs. They look like your standard light bulb, but they're blue in color and can mimick the color temperature of daylight. I have a few 250 watt ones and a 500 watt rig.
Not only will this allow you to use your standard WB setting, but if you need some extra light when the sun is up? You can mix lighting without ruining your WB! This is usually a no no.
Here's a shot I did last sunday. The background light and to the right is the sun. The light coming from the left is the UV balanced 250 watt bulb. Almost no work in PS was done except for resizing.
These bulbs should be available at any decent camera store.


Kevin said...


And for reflectors I've used both white posterboard and a white sheet with good results.

kitchenmage said...

up here in the pacific northwet, lighting is an ongoing problem... and i am not much of a morning person so that makes it harder... must go find little lights and mirrors...

speaking of lighting: biggles, i was just looking for your post with the picture of your son standing in the sink--i need to link to it for something--but am coming up blank... help!

Guy said...

Hey Kevin,

Those and I've got something called a Litedisc. It's this REALLY cool fold out cloth disc that ends up being 4' across and it either reflects light or diffuses it. I also use on a regular basis those plastic cutting sheets. They aren't that big, but diffuse light and even reflect a little, very handy when you're in the kitchen.


Silly. That was the show yer kitchen entry,


Guy said...


No it wasn't. What a goob, it was the Vegan entry!

Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

You mean you don't come home for lunch to take pictures of your leftovers?

*cough* did I say that out loud?

Sarah (the headhunter) said...

LMAO! I'm so glad I'm not the only one who goes to extremes to take pictures.

I do what Dr. Biggles does. All of the bulbs in my house, including the ones in the fridge and over the stove, are of the "natural" light variety. Phillips, I think. They are blue instead of white and give enough of a facsimile of daylight that taking pictures at night isn't such a problem any more. Of course, I still get the odd heavy yellow cast now and then, but Photoshop has a lighting effect under Filter>Render>Lighting Effects called Paralell Directional that I use to correct it. I don't use my flash at all. The couple of times I've tried it with my digital camera the pictures have been washed out, no matter if I take a macro picture or I zoom. Flash and I are not friends.

I also use my white marble cutting board as a background quite a bit. This morning I even used my white recipe binder as one because the marble was in the sink waiting to be cleaned. =)

And I've never come home at lunch time to take pictures of leftovers. Or photographed any of my hot food while it was cold.

Guy said...

Hey Sarah,

Yeah, almost. While I do have those fancy lightbulbs, too. Those aren't the ones I'm talking about. These are photography specific bulbs and are probably between 5 and 8 dollars a piece and are only good for maybe 3 hours of burn time. I use them nearly every time in the kitchen, day or night. It's way too handy.


Sarah (the headhunter) said...

Hi Biggles,

Ah, you have actual photographic equipment. Alas, I have not gone down that road yet. Though I have given it some very hard consideration. I seem to have fans of my food photos; my kids. I, uh, kinda want to impress them. =)

Thanks for giving me some insight into the lighting.


kitchenmage said...

Thanks Biggles, I'd thought it was the kitchen post too. Then it wasn't and I couldn't find it. I've got the blue "natural" lights in my whole house too, mostly because my house is heavily saturated colors, largely red, and it looks ucky with regular light. Came in handy when I got to the food photography. I think my next thing is going to be setting up a tabletop mini-studio in my sewing/guest room. But lots of my photos are "process" stuff and I am NOT hauling the vat of whatever down the hall for a picture!

Guy said...

Hey KitchenMage,

Yeah, I considered setting up a small studio type thing in the garage. But I had second thoughts about it. I thought maybe it'd be too confining with regards to creativity. Too much thinking inside a box, so to speak. About half the time I use my portable dishwasher. While it's far nicer to have a built in one, it makes a GREAT mobile platform for shooting on. I can wheel it over here or over there. Plus one of my lights is of the clamp-on variety. This means I can clamp on to my kitchen cabinet doors and swing them about over the dishwasher. Kinda handy. My next lighting project is going to be a permanent fixture on the OUTSIDE window frame. This way, I can put my 500 watt light outside, shining in, like the sun does when it's up! Plus, I won't be tripping over it when shooting, very nice. I have a very small kitchen and when you add 1 tripod, 1 light and one red bearded hillbilly, it's full.


Guy said...

Hey Sarah,

Look in to it, go hang out at the local camera store and put some numbers together. Many times the store will have a nice little KIT you can buy for less than 150 bux that'll get you a few light stands, a few lights with reflectors and maybe a few other little goodies, such as "barn doors" to diffuse the light a little. NEW TOYS !!!

cookiecrumb said...

Aren't we all a little -- a LOT -- sicko!!??
In the fridge! Thanks Sam. Nutso, but I get it.
Do we even eat the food we're shooting?

Shauna said...

I'm obsessed with the topic of this post now. I live in Seattle. The light is fading fast in the early evenings.

Here are some of my solutions:

--I take dozens and dozens of photographs during the weekend. This is helpful, because it's usually when I'm buying lots of groceries as well.

--I sneak leftovers into work, then take photos of cold food on my desk between conferences with students. Clearly, I'm losing my mind.

--I'm contemplating buying some of those natural light bulbs. Soon.

Or I may just take pictures in my refrigerator soon.

Actually, I wrote an entire post about this a couple of weeks ago:

Kalyn Denny said...

I've only had a digital camera for a few weeks, so I don't even understand much of what people have written here. I chose a camera which has the option of manual or using pre-set shooting modes, and of course I got one with "food mode".(Casio EX-Z57) At the risk of showing my total ignorance about photography, here's what I am confused about. My photos that I take with food mode are coming out ok, not great compared to some of you pros, but not terrible, and yet the "food mode" setting automatically uses a flash. If I manually de-select the flash, the picture looks terrible. I'm guessing that the camera mode automatically sets all the variables so variables that make food look good are selected but I don't even know what those variables are. (I'm taking a class through the camera store but it hasn't started yet.) I do have bright white counter tops which seems like it is going to be an advantage when it gets darker and darker, judging form what others have written. Anyway, even though I'm kind of in first grade on this topic, I appreciate so much being able to learn from the rest of you.

Anonymous said...

We are all crazy. Na na na na na.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Tons of comments here.

I'll just add this: we often take pictures in very dark rooms at restaurants and just use a mini-tripod. We just take very long exposures (2-5 seconds) and are careful not to bump the table!


Guy said...

Hey Kaylen,

Well at least you're trying all the functions to see what they do. Your manual 'may' be of some help, try that. I usually shoot in full manual mode or at least the Aperture Priority mode. I'm sure everyone here is tired of me saying it, but make sure you're using a tripod. Not only will your pictures come out sharper, but it causes you to slow down and think more about your set up. It also allows you to play without having to hold and/or set down the camera. The best thing you can do is to take your camera with you everywhere and take pictures. Spend time with the images and decide what you like and don't like, take notes on how you would do it better next time.


Yup, you've lost it. Cool though. Keep up the good work!


Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

Mini-tripod?! I'm still too embarasses to bring my camera into the restaurant let alone set it up on a tripod too!

I did the zoom with flash trick for my SHF13 entry, and it worked smashingly. Excellent trick.

I really get a kick out of using photoshop to bump up the color temperatures. Sometimes you really can fake that long sought after morning light.

Also, I have a soft box that I bought off of eBay for taking pictures of my ceramics (damn shiny things that they are). This too works well for popping food into when its dark outside. My softbox looks like a little white tent. It fits on a table and collapses easily. It then filters the light coming through to offer a more diffused glow. Just search for soft box or tent cube.

Guy said...

Sing HEY for the softbox. I would like to get one with a large strobe in it in place of the flood lights. I've also got a little one that fits on my flash head, Very nice.

Shiny objects & photography have always been at odds. If you're lucky enough to have a polarizing filter for your lens, you're doing well. But sometimes for whatever reason, no luck. I've used my sun glasses just holding over the front of the lens, that seems to work well. But it depends on your glasses, too. Worth a try, fer sure.


Anonymous said...

oh wow, great advice here, i was just going to ask at my camera's user's forum if anyone had advice -- but this is so much better since it comes from foodies (more than half the people at the forum don't seem to understand my obsession with photographing food)! i'm taking lots of notes -- thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Somebody must have already said this in this thread but I couldn't find it....the easiest way to get soft light from a flash is to bounce it off the ceiling or other reflective surface. I never liked or used flash until I learned how to do I'm addicted to it.

To do it you you need a camera that accepts an external flash unit (most SLR's do) and the flash unit. Ideally you'll get a flash unit that's 'dedicated' to your camera, which means it has compatible electronics, and one that supports "TTL" mode, which meant Through The Lens. TTL is a seemingly magical system whereby the camera automatically senses the amount of light coming in the lens and turns the flash unit off when it has enough for the shot.

If you get a compatible TTL cable that allows you to remove the flash unit from the camera and still operate in TTL mode you can vary the direction that the light comes from in the shot, so that all your shots don't look the same, lighting-wise.

For even more natural-looking lighting, eliminate the dark backgrounds in your flash pix by experimenting with the shutter speed and aperture in manual mode...opening the lens wider and longer on a flash shot will allow the dimmer background to come through in the shot, while the TTL function contols the proper amount of light falling on the subject.

Almost all of the pix on my site were made this way with a Nikon D-100 SLR, a 24 - 80 AF zoom lens and a Nikon SB-50 DX flash unit with remote cable.