Steal This Dramatic One-Light Studio Lighting Setup for Food Photography

Steal This Dramatic One-Light Studio Lighting Setup for Food Photography

I am going to walk you through how these dramatic food shots were created using only one flash and simple light shapers to imitate light coming through a window frame.

I wanted to create a shoot that felt monochromatic in regard to its styling and lighting, so I chose food ingredients that were either very light or dark in appearance to provide the subject with a high level of distinction. The background was a white textured board that allowed the broadest range of contrast for the scene. My camera was positioned directly overhead to capture a classic flat lay commonly used in food photography.

I used a Canon 5D Mark IV a camera of choice for me along with a 24-70mm lens. I love prime lenses, but the flexibility of this zoom is indispensable when testing and determining how best to crop the image while having the camera overhead. 

On this shoot, I had a heavy-duty Cambo studio stand. However, a Manfotto tripod and an overhead arm with sandbag is a great option as well. Like with any shoot that involves precise shadow placement, I do not advise shooting handheld. I shot everything tethered with Capture One straight to a computer screen.

I decided to start with an image of spoons and spices (as seen above). It is the closest setup of the planned three, and I chose to place a hard light low down to create the long, dark shadows. I used an Elinchrom studio flash with standard 21cm dish and barn doors, which further directed the light and allowed it to pool. I then added two black poly boards on either side to create a prominent shaft of light.

Below, you will see the next image in which I wanted to create a window frame just out of my crop. I increased the gap between two poly boards and added a strip of thick black card between them. Using pins to position the horizontal line was extremely useful, as I was taking shots and repositioning as I found better angles. The scene still needed a vertical window frame element, so I used a wooden batten attached to a heavy wooden box, which allowed easy repositioning to accurately create the shadow I wanted.

The shot of garlic had a similar setup, but I wanted to feather the shadow on the bottom right. To do this, I moved the poly board on the right farther away. This action made the shadow softer, and a little more light was let through to break up the bottom section of the image. 

I hope you enjoyed this lighting walk-through and learned something new today. The results of any lighting setup will look different depending on shooting location, distance of lights, and the flags used. My advice is to experiment and have fun until you get the results you like.  

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12 Comments
Eric Robinson's picture

Love the sketch. People tend to forget what a powerful way of communication a simple sketch can be and the fact that it looks like it’s been done by a 10 year old is really quite endearing. It still does the job.

Kaisa Leinonen's picture

Lol I got my 3- year old to do it 😅

Matt Fitt's picture

A professional photographer is communicating with other serious photographers about the use of specific gear and its precise arrangement and deployment... yet doesn't bother to give us a single photo of that setup? I'm sorry, but that's a FAIL.

Compare this to any of Lindsay Adler's lighting recipes that provide multiple BTS images, along with the specific height, distance, and angle of offset for each light and/or modifier involved. Now, *that* is how you share a lighting setup.

Kaisa Leinonen's picture

Thanks for your feedback. I tend to work with lighting concepts rather than precise placement.

James Dayvis's picture

"Hey Kaisa, thanks for putting this together. A suggestion for next time: could you include some BTS images? It would really help other photographers to understand your setup. Lindsay Adler does a great job of this if you need some inspiration. Thanks! Matt."

g coll's picture

Nailed it!

James Dayvis's picture

It's nice to be nice.

Robert Lynch's picture

After seeing the final images, the crudely drawn sketch is really all you need to set you on the path. It does not specify the exact downward angle of the light, but unless you have the exact same modifier and the exact same size space to work in it will be different for you. Take a picture with a high angle. Take a picture with a low angle. Figure what works with your gear in your space to get the results that you want. Articles like this are about inspiration, not providing engineering blueprints. The extra details the photographers like Linsey Adler provide are usually meaningless fluff that no one is likely to exactly replicate but somehow provide comfort to people who do not know the difference between the important questions and the trivial details that are never the same from setup to setup.

Otto Schlemmer's picture

why do you need it in such detail? kaisa's sketch is absolutely sufficient in order to be able to imagine how to set it up. 5 minutes of trying never hurt somebody.

Matt Wronski's picture

Oh boy!!! The OP would not do well learning from Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk, Felix Kunze or Peter Hurley either. The three of them (and many other fantastic teachers) realize the bulk of ability to create a stunning image doesn’t come from the meters and centimeters where some tool is placed, but through experimentation and development of a feeling one desires.

R Rawnsley's picture

Hear Hear! I like to work intuitively rather than following rigid guidelines, as it has a tendency to hamper my creativity, but everyone works differently!

Fristen Lasten's picture

Thanks Kaisa! Nice photos! Love the sketch too!!