Food Photography at Home, Part 3: Strobes

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Food Photography at Home, Part 3: Strobes

In this third and final part of the Food Photography at Home series, we’re going to be utilizing strobe lights. In Part 1 we tackled natural light and, in Part 2, we used continuous LEDs and practical lights to approximate natural light.

The setups from Part 1 and Part 2
The setups from Part 1 and Part 2

Now, we’re going to mix in the freezing power of a strobe light to capture action that isn’t possible with most continuous light sources. Without diving too deep into the intricacies of strobe photography, this tutorial will focus on a simple setup that will be easy to replicate.

A strobe light
A strobe light

If you’re wondering why continuous light isn’t enough to cover all of your photo needs, it’s because of power. To introduce any kind of frozen motion to an image you need a very powerful light source. If you’re shooting outside on a sunny day, you can increase your shutter speed enough to freeze action, but shooting outside under the sun doesn’t make for a very controlled environment when trying to plan intricate shots that require precise lighting and compositions.

This is where strobes enter the equation. A strobe light can produce an extremely powerful and short burst of light that will render anything moving in front of your lens practically motionless. You also have full control of where this light is placed and how it is modified. I’m using Profoto B10s, but there are many options available for this type of work.

The Setting

For our setup, we’re going to keep it simple, with a single subject to emphasize what the strobes are doing. I’ll also shoot the same image with continuous light as a comparison. For this shot I placed a white espresso cup on a dark piece of wood.

Piece of wood on two tray tables
Piece of wood on two tray tables
Espresso cup w/ spoon placed on surface
Espresso cup w/ spoon placed on surface

For the action we’re going to freeze, I’m going to pour coffee beans down into the cup and capture them frozen in midair. The beans will bounce around, and inside the cup, but they will be sharp, as if time is standing still.  

A jar of coffee beans and a pouring cup
A jar of coffee beans and a pouring cup

The Lighting

If you’ve been following along with the previous parts of this series, then you’ll have a pretty good idea about where to place the lights. The fact that we’re shooting with strobes won’t affect the light placement. They will just be more powerful.

Place your main light off to the side or from slightly behind
Place your main light off to the side or from slightly behind

I’m starting with a large diffused key light coming in from the left side. The light has a grid on it to help with spill on my background. I’ll fill in the shadow side with some bounce and round out the scene with a backlight aimed at the area where the beans will be falling to help separate the dark beans from the dark background. I don’t want the backlight splashing everywhere, so I narrowed its beam with a snoot modifier.

A white bounce board to open up fill-side shadows
A white bounce board to open up fill-side shadows
Backlight with a snoot
Backlight with a snoot

The Continuous Photo

Now that we’re set up, I’m going to turn on the strobes’ modeling lights to mimic how I would photograph a continuous-light setup. This would work just fine for a still life. I could slow my shutter as much as needed and get all the light necessary for a proper exposure. But once I start pouring coffee beans, I’m going to need a much faster shutter speed. Since my continuous lights are only so powerful, and I need a fast shutter speed, I can compensate by opening up my lens aperture and raising my ISO. Let’s try both and see how frozen we can get the beans. Camera settings: 105mm; f/3; 1/320-second; 1000 ISO

Modeling light is continuous light on a strobe
Modeling light is continuous light on a strobe
The beans are blurry.
The beans are blurry.

As you can see, using the lights at their highest setting, I’m not able to freeze the beans in motion completely. They are a blurry mess. Let’s try one more shot with an even higher ISO and shutter speed. Camera settings: 105mm; f/3; 1/200-second; ISO 8000

The beans are almost frozen but the image is full of noise.
The beans are almost frozen but the image is full of noise.

While the beans are almost frozen, the camera settings are extreme. If you want motion blur and a heavy dose of noise in your image, then you’re finished. But if you want those beans nice and crisp with very little noise, we have further work to do.

I’m going to add a strobe trigger to my camera now, so I can communicate with my lights. I’ll need to adjust some settings so the image is not blown out. I can lower my ISO and keep my shutter fixed at 1/200.

Strobe trigger on the camera
Strobe trigger on the camera

Every camera has a unique shutter “sync-speed” that works best with strobe lights. This can be 1/150, 1/200, 1/250, etc. Make sure to check your camera’s sync speed before using strobes.

Now that my ISO and shutter are set, I’m going to set my aperture to f/9 so I get a little more of my image in focus. The only thing left to set is the power of the strobes.

While many photographers might use a light meter at this stage to gauge the power of the strobes, I recommend doing it manually so you can get a feeling of where to set them. The more you do this manually, the closer you’ll get to setting your strobes accurately on the first try.

Take a test shot without the strobes firing. Chances are your photo will be pure black. This is good. That means no continuous or ambient light is leaking into your shot. Now take a shot with your strobes and set the power of your light so the image looks the way you like it. In my case, my key light is set to 5/10 and my backlight is set to 4/10. Each increment of my light is 1 stop of light.

A test image should be black.
A test image should be black.
The power level of the strobe
The power level of the strobe

Another important factor to consider is the flash duration of your strobe or the amount of time the strobe light is active. The faster the flash duration, the more stopping power the light will have. This shouldn’t be confused with intensity, though. Usually, the more you lower the intensity of a strobe, the shorter your flash duration will get and the more you’ll be able to freeze action. Every brand is a little different, so check your equipment out and see what limitations there are.

Now that my image is exposed properly and being lit by the strobe, it’s time to drop the beans. This is the beginning of trial and error. You’re going to want to do this many times for variation. It may be useful to have someone help you do the pouring while you focus on the image taking. If you have to do both, make sure you have a shutter release for your camera that you can reach while you pour.

A camera trigger
A camera trigger
Beans frozen in time
Beans frozen in time
Another attempt to freeze the beans
Another attempt to freeze the beans

Conclusion

You can do this as many times as it takes to get an image you like. For my shots, the beans that are within the focal plane are frozen in place. Beans that are in front or behind the focal plane are still frozen, they are just out of focus. Experiment with falling objects and freezing them. This can also work wonders with liquids, although you’ll need to prepare for a big mess.

Keep in mind that there are many ways to achieve a desired look. This is not the only way. You may not want to use strobes. Perhaps you want to suspend objects with wires and light with continuous light. Try different methods. See what works for you and don’t be afraid to bend the rules.

We hope you enjoyed this series on food photography. Do you have any tips or ideas of your own to share? We'd love to hear them, in the Comments section, below. 

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