Continuous CFL Bulbs Lighting or Off Camera Flash for food/product photography

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by hoi_kwong, Dec 13, 2012.

  1. I'm learning food and product photography. Over the weekend, I used two off camera speedlights SB800 and soft boxes to shoot Mexican dishes picture in my friend's restaurant. The picture were accepted by my friend. However, it took me almost 30 minutes to setup and test lighting from different distance, angles, ISO, aperture and speed, before the first shooting. It made me looked stupid in front of my friend's restaurant workers. Next week, I will have another natural product shooting (most of them are hand cream. body lotion). I know there are 4-head CFL adapter with softbox on lightstand set available. Each 4-head adapter can hold up to 4 115w CFL bulbs in 5600K that may provide sufficient lighting for food and product photography. I also read articles debating CFL continuous lighting and strobe flash, about color temp, freezing subjects...etc.
    It seems to me that CFL bulbs continuous lighting will save my setup time and offer me a "real time" result? I even found two sets of them including eight 115w CFL bulbs are even cheaper than one SB800 speedlight and Pocket Wizard wireless flash trigger set. Is my understanding correct or wrong ?
  2. I would argue that it didn't make you look stupid. It made you look careful and methodical and like a very professional photographer who takes food photography very seriously. Hopefully it showed the restaurant staff that food photography is a highly skilled profession and art that is nothing like taking a snapshot.

    I would run, not way, away from CFL for food photography. The CFL lights theoreticaly are 5600K the same as flash and daylight. But they are notorious for having an incomplete color spectrum that makes colors go haywire no matter what WB setting you use, and to do so on an unpredictable basis -- one shot is fine and the next is some sickly shade. Not what you want when you're trying to make food look appetizing.

    Some people love CFL, some don't. Just food for thought. :)
  3. Just realize your shoot next week is hand cream, not food. But cosmetics are another area where flawless color is critical.
  4. Keep in mind, as you are learning you are likely to fumble, as you lack the previous experience to assist you in knowing
    exactly how to achieve what you want. The only way to avoid fumbling, is to keep fumbling until you don't. Me, I'm a
    fumbler. Just when I thought I was really figuring out lighting, I now have to struggle to get my speed lights low enough to
    match very dim Christmas tree lights, while still giving a natural look to the overall lighting of the room. I fumbled, looked
    like I didn't know what I was doing. Next time, I'll fumble a little less, but I'll still be practicing.
  5. CFLs are too dim and, as Craig said, do not have the full color spectrum.
    The problem you experienced is common when you are shooting with speed lights. You can't see the light that they emit until after the shot is taken. And their power is low so you have to resort to high ISO, such as 800 ISO and DOF that is too shallow for the point of view that you chose in your shot.
    You need studio strobes, either a pack and head system which I prefer or mono lights that are powerful enough to give you any f/stop that you need even when used with diffusion, soft boxes, Fresnel spots, grids etc. And they need to have modeling lamps that are bright enough to see above the ambient light conditions.
    And you should be shooting tethered to a computer, laptop or desktop, that allows you to see critical focus, styling details, color balance and lighting.
    I often take either a laptop or a 24" iMac on location to restaurants when I'm shooting their food.
  6. Here's another shot at f/13 using an 85m tilt shift lens for control of DOF
  7. Oops, here's the image...
  8. @ Brooks, thanks for the beautiful food picture to show me how the expensive tilt shift lens works on perfectly on food. Unfortunately, I can't afford a tilt shift lens while my shooting doesn't make me money. I'm just a serious hobbyist shooting in weekend for fun. What I would like to learn is seeking advice on continuous CFL lighting vs off camera flashes in food or product photography from all experts in this forum like you, to advance my levels.
  9. OK, the shrimp salad shot was not taken with a tilt shift lens and the Salsa burger was. My point was that they were both taken with electronic flash, that did have modeling lights so the lighting could easily be seen and controlled.
  10. Brooks is right, studio strobes are the way to go, as I mentioned in my other post to you in the beginner forum. He's also
    right that you should shoot tethered, which I always do as well. It's the only way to really see and evaluate your shots.
    CFLs are definitely not something you want to try to shoot with, for the reasons already mentioned.
    That having been said, I think you did a really decent job with what you had!
    And Brooks, I love your work, especially the shrimp salad shot!
  11. Thank you Devon. I do recall seeing some of your work here on PhotoNet in the past and remember being very impressed.
  12. "Brooks is right, studio strobes are the way to go... "
    OK, if this is the case, what studio strobe flash will work on my project ? I would like to know how much ws to go, to avoid under power or overkill.
  13. Brooks, I think I posted two photos from an Ireland trip about eight years ago, but haven't posted anything since...I should try to
    remember how to do that and post some food pics!
    Hoi, you could use anything from the Buff line. I use White Lightnings, but I hear the Einsteins are amazing. I have two 660ws lights,
    which is way more than I need for food photos, but I got them for their versatility so that I can use them for other projects if I choose to. I
    also have small and medium/large softboxes, grids, a boom stand for the occasional overhead shot (although I rarely do overhead), and
    Cybersync remotes. Oh, and white and silver reflectors made from a simple foam core board.
  14. If you're shooting just a single plate of food, you don't need a particularly large strobe since the lights are going to be close to the subject. Anything from 150WS, maybe 200WS on up would be fine.
    But I don't think you necessarily need studio strobes. Yes a modeling light makes it easier to see what you're getting as you move the lights around. But you can almost as easily check but making a shot and looking at the LCD. If you were shooting every day it would be worth the expense, but not if you're just doing a little here and there.
  15. Hoi,
    First of all, really good food photography can take either minutes or hours for a single image. Each image demands careful study and styling including choice of props of the product (often a test plate that will be replaced by the final "hero" plate), determination of camera position, what kind of lighting modifier (on flash almost always), the placement of often several small reflectors to create highlights or to fill shadow to whatever degree needed,, and several test shots before placing the final fresh hero plate and making the shot.

    If you succeeded in half an hour, you are one fast worker. Would say that I probably average four images per day, and with a really difficult set maybe one or two per day. I think the most I was able to produce with good quality was eight in one long day, but that was because they were largely interchangeable products with little change in styling or lighting.
    I often schedule food shoot for days when a restaurant is closed, or even after hours because it just takes too long to do this correctly and to avoid disrupting the business schedule.
    If you are going to do much of this, you might try to find a copy of "Food Photography and Styling" by John Carafoli. While it deals little with lighting, it does give a great education about what artistic food photography is all about.
  16. Has anyone ever actually witnessed any CFL artifacts from photo-grade CFLs such as the ones sold for Wescott Spiderlites? I think continuous lighting is fine for static subjects (especially for tabletop photography), and can serve as an excellent teaching tool. I was actually about to invest in a Spiderlite TD6 for the sake of convenience (this wouldn't be my only light--I also own AC monolights and a bunch of Speedlights).
  17. For God's sake listen to Brooks. Anyone even dabbling in product/table-top photography usually wants to make images like a pro, so consider listening to one when they advise you.
    Before retiring to do just photography, I was an Ad Agency Art Director and Creative Director ... amongst others, one of my accounts was Unilever Food Division. One other was a company that makes the containers for cosmetics, and other liquids. I've been on more product and/or table top shoots than most will ever see in a lifetime. Almost every Pro photographer used strobes. The rare exception was a few food shooters that used very expensive kit like Dedolights coupled with powerful Arri Fresnel floods over-all ... but they only shot in studios that way, where all ambient light could be completely shut off.
    There are many reasons to use strobes. If on location at a restaurant, you can determine how much of the ambient will play a role ... in some cases because of mixed ambient color temperatures, no role at all ... which requires higher levels of consistent color temp strobe light. Can't do that easily with most continuous light sources because they are to weak. Strobes are heavily used by Pros because of three key reasons ... control, control, control : -)
    Some stuff can be done with speed-lights, most cannot without stuffing 4 flashes into one modifier and all the complexity of set-up that triggers ... which still falls short when using a very large modifier and diffusers to light larger items or group shots of smaller items like an arrangement of bottles etc. ... or when placing the light at more of a distance.
    Modifiers and diffusers, scrims or bounce sources eat light and distance does to ... light needed to gain enough DOF without jacking up the ISO and dissipating the dynamic range and color fidelity that you get when shooting at base ISO of any given digital camera.
    If you do not have a Tilt-Shift lens, then DOF must be gained by stopping down, especially for close-up work ... sometimes to the de-fraction limit of any given lens ... that requires light and lots of it!
    The good news its that strobes are far more affordable now days. Paul C Buff makes very nice gear for very reasonable prices. Used stuff from other dabblers is often very affordable.
    For example, one of the toughest products I have to light and shoot are chrome wheels ... which I do for a General Motors collateral agency each year. Often 6 wheels a session, and no two wheels using the same lighting set-up due to their different designs/shapes. I usually have the prototypes for only one day.
    For their actual size, these require very large diffused light sources and large bounce walls because they reflect everything in the studio. You would be amazed how much light is required to do these ... I've used up to a 2400W/s generator to power a modified key light and scrim covered ring-light under the plex shooting table for bottom light ... plus two 500W/s Monos for accent or bounce ... all to shoot at base ISO 50 or 100 and f/8 or 11. I'd need 40 speed-lights to equal that : -)
  18. Marc, that is one challenging wheel to light! Nice job!
  19. Thanks Brooks. It's funny, I get each of these in a big box, and when I open them I rejoice if they are those brushed titanium or darker sport wheels, and my heart sinks when they are all chrome plated. Still, it is fun to figure out how to make the shapes work.
  20. Thank you Marc for your sharing. I learned so much from you guys and this forum too.
    Day back to film picture, I know how to set my camera aperature, speed, ISO (or ASA ? ) to work with my Metz 45 CT1 flash. In the digital era, I just fire and adjust according to what I see on LCD screen. Just wondering if there is equation to work out my camera setup when applying strobes in different power ? The reason I ask is I am going to take group picture for an Award ceremony event in hotel function room next month. It will be a typical theater setup with 200+ people sitting in the room. At the end of event, 20-30+ people will line up in 1-2 rows on stage for official group picture. I'm not allow to setup lighting with softboxes/reflectors near the front stage as this will block the view of 200 audience in the room. I have to shoot from the back, 20-30 feet from stage. If I go renting some strobes for this purpose, how much power(ws) will I need ? Or any equation will help in setup my camera for best result ?
  21. I'm not arguing strobes vs. CFLs--each has their use. I was just wondering if the bulbs for the Spiderlites exhibited these artifacts. I actually prefer to use continuous lights for things that don't require the output of strobes.
  22. As others have mentioned, certainly strobes are preferred for high-output lighting requirements, but I also think that a CFL-filled Spiderlite could be a valuable teaching tool. Below is a strobe-fired shot I took when testing my D800E using a single 400Ws strobe through a 30" x 40" softbox, placed just above the table. But I could've just as easily lit it with continuous light instead, using a tripod-mounted camera.
  23. Here's a shot don on location at a restaurant using studio flash, in this case 2 800ws Speedotron power packs and 2 flash heads. With a 3'x4' soft box overhead and a 7" gridded reflector from the rear, right side of the set and a foil board reflector camera left.
    DOF looks pretty shallow yet this image was exposed at f/16 to ensure good focus through the front slider. An 85mm tilt/shift lens was used to precisely control the focus fall off down the right side of the plate.
    That's why I use studio flash. I need the ability to choose any f/stop that I might I need for creative purposes. It's not just about having enough light, it's about having the right amount of light. Studio flashes provide more than enough light and allow me to eliminate the influence of any ambient light in the room.
  24. Ralph, if you place the camera on a tripod the purpose would be to lengthen the shutter speed to make up for less light from the continuous lighting source compared to strobes.
    This is commonly known as "dragging the shutter", and results in recording more of the ambient light.
    Your tomato shot with flash above was done ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/250 ... using an aperture of f/11 to keep the front tomatoes reasonably in focus and crisp looking. I seriously doubt that any ambient played much of a role in that photo when using those settings
    Using continuous light with the same type modifier, at the same distance, using f/11 would require a much longer shutter exposure ... so any ambient would then also be recorded. This may be okay if shooting in a pitch dark studio, but when on location like the OP was discussing, or Brooks was doing with the slider shot above, ambient can then creep in and contaminate product colors or cause mixed color temperatures.
    In most cases, strobe light is so brief that shutter speed has no effect because the duration of the strobe is shorter than the fastest shutter speed sync. Again, the net effect is control. The photographer can control the exact degree of ambient exposure from less to more by means of the shutter speed ... all while having little to no effect on the strobe lighting on the subject.
    In fact, I personally use cameras with leaf shutter lenses that sync at 1/800 or 1/1000 instead of 1/200 or 1/250 from focal plane cameras like the D800. This gives me even more control over the ambient ...
  25. "I am going to take group picture for an Award ceremony event in hotel function room next month. It will be a typical theater setup with 200+ people sitting in the room. At the end of event, 20-30+ people will line up in 1-2 rows on stage for official group picture. I'm not allow to setup lighting with softboxes/reflectors near the front stage as this will block the view of 200 audience in the room. I have to shoot from the back, 20-30 feet from stage. If I go renting some strobes for this purpose, how much power(ws) will I need ? Or any equation will help in setup my camera for best result ?"
    This is a totally different lighting problem from table top or product work.
    At 30' distance to subject don't bother with modifiers or umbrellas, they will just rob light , and will still be a small specular light source ... rent a pair of at least 500W/s monos and the magnum type reflectors designed to increase light output from strobe heads ... put them on very tall stands so the light is angled downward on the subjects to drop the shadows behind them, rather than on the person's face behind them ... the objective is to get faces clear of shadows.
    Because you will be back so far, you will need some form of medium telephoto lens which means the need for a smaller f-stop to assure enough DOF ... to accomplish this you can use a combination of higher ISO (depending on the camera), and dragging the shutter like at 1/80 instead of 1/250. You'll get some ambient contamination so use a manual WB setting to mitigate that, then further correct it in post. People shots can stand a more warm ambient cast than color correct product shots can.
    Sometimes when I do these alone with no assistants, I use one 1200 W/s battery driven strobe light in a strip light modifier turned horizontally without any diffusers set right behind me up high pointed down on the group, and one strip light down behind them to light the background. However, I've the advantage of a strobe system that allows me to adjust levels of separate lights without moving from the camera position ... so if you can rent a Profoto D1 AIR Mono kit with Profoto AIR transmitter, you can do the same thing.
  26. Here's some links to some food photography lit by fluorescent lights and the place to buy them...
    Search the page using the word "Fluorescent" to find the photo.
  27. Marc said:
    Using continuous light with the same type modifier . . . any ambient would then also be recorded. This may be okay if shooting in a pitch dark studio, but when on location like the OP was discussing, or Brooks was doing with the slider shot above, ambient can then creep in and contaminate product colors or cause mixed color temperatures.​
    Yes, you are absolutely correct! I forgot that one of the chief advantages of using strobes on location (where you don't necessarily have control over ambient light sources of varying color temps) is as exactly as you stated. I would not recommend CFLs for the OP's assignments; however, I do think in a home studio, a CFL softbox is a fun light to experiment with.

    Also, the floors in some locations aren't that stable, and a passing truck, or service staff could cause enough camera shake through the floor to ruin a long time-exposure.
  28. Hi Hoi Kwong,
    The choice between continuous lighting bulbs and flash lights is completely yours. Whatever you use, you will be able to generate good results provided you know how to use them. As per my opinion, continuous fluorescent light bulbs generate light whose color temperature is same as that of the natural light. This means, that CFL will give a natural look to your photographs. However, setting them up will require some time. I guess you are new and therefore, you needed more time. With some practice, you will be able to do the settings much quickly. Anyways don’t bother about the setup time as that’s required to click a flawless picture in one shot. Flash light also will give you natural looking pictures provided you use a diffuser to diffuse the harshness. But using this needs some practice and precision. Flash photography is very quick but as of now don’t be dependent on it.
  29. Thank you Garry for your advice.
    Being a serious hobbyist, I'm still struggling on spending more to get new strobe for professional result despite I need more learning and practice or spending $3-400 for two sets of 4-heads CFL lighting set for occasionally still picture and video sample shooting. I totally understand and agree with experts' advise - flash strobe is the ultimate goal but I do need to justify my need and want when talking about tight budget.
  30. I shoot food on my worldwide travels with only one Nikon sb-800 flash. I would like to get the results as seen in Brooks' photo of a fancy hamburger where the background is out of focus and overexposed by a stop or two. This is a typical type food style that one sees in magazines and newspapers all the time, in my opinion. As of now, my food pix sell every day on microstock but I would like to get jobs with food magazines and newspapers and the style with overexposed backgrounds seems to be the most common food image I see in periodicals.
    Any suggestions as to how to get a result like that with only one flash off camera? (I travel light and don't want to travel with an extra speedlight.) Expose for the subject (the food) and overexpose the background by dragging the shutter? Usually I use my flash ttl off camera body wireless. Perhaps off camera set to aperture of a meter reading of food with body set on manual with shutter dragged. Would that overexpose the background but not the food? My food photography can be seen on my website by searching my name: rj lerich.
    Thanks for any ideas/suggestions/input.

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