Finding Perfect Light With Homemade Light Modifiers

Finding Perfect Light With Homemade Light Modifiers

What is "perfect lighting?" It will differ for every style of photography and every photographer's style. For my food photography, I think the perfect lighting is the soft, beautiful, natural light found from a large window with indirect sun coming through. Unfortunately, most of the locations where I have to go and shoot food don't have this light that I am looking for. In order to get the shoot done, I have to to create the light. What if I could create this "perfect light" and have it for every assignment?

I love the beauty of natural lighting, but it is not always the same. The location and architecture of the building, time of year, time of day, and weather are all factors that will effect the light. If you are constantly on the move at different locations, this can be very frustrating.

With artificial lighting from a strobe or continuous light source, you will generally get a consistent light output every time (yes the brand of flash and age of the bulb can affect a lights consistency). Do you ever try and create a light source that will give you your version of "perfect light" every time? I have been playing around with different concepts and came across one that I like. It might surprise you that you might already have the items around your house. First, here is the result.

From looking at the image, what can you tell about the modifier? Any ideas of its size? Placement? Direction? Would you believe that other than A Clamps, a 580 EX II, and a few light stands, everything else costs between $5 and $10 ?
Here is what the modifier is made out of.

lighting modifier_diagram2
I decided to use things that I had lying around my studio. These included aluminum foil, a clear plastic cup, and deli wax paper. I placed a flat circle of aluminum foil into the bottom of the cup. The wax paper was then wrapped around the outside of the cup. The wrapped cup was then placed on top of the flash. To keep the light falling on my set and not lighting the back of the studio, I placed a foam board V reflector behind the flash. This reflected all of the light towards the subject.

The deli wax paper does diffuse the light slightly, but it is too far away from my subject to provide the diffused type of light that I desire. To create super soft light, I need a large light source close to my subject. I have found that for the price, few things work better than a thin white bed sheet. The bed sheet is placed at an angle over the set.

Here are a few more shots at a variety of angles.

I have found that a strobe fired directly into the sheet has too harsh of a quality. It is better when indirectly fired into the sheet. Firing into the top of the aluminum foil lined cup will give an indirect direction to the light hitting the sheet. You could also, fire the flash into a V reflector and let it bounce back into the sheet. I have tried that in the past, but I like firing into the top of the cup better. What do you think? Is this something you would try? Have you tried any DIY fixes to create your perfect light source?

Want to learn more about food photography? Check out Issues 1-7 of photographing FOOD.

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thanks again for the info! Very informative!

Out of curiosity, a large umbrella wouldn't have worked? could you make an example of your rig VS umbrella to compare?


An umbrella just throws light... the idea behind the sloped sheet (we'd normally use something like toughlux) is that it provides even light *with falloff* from the top of the frame to the bottom. This is a classic concept for product photography.

Thanks for the answer!

This is something that is extremely helpful to me because I live in a place where we do not have a lot of hours of light, much less "ideal" light during the day! This is something that I totally could work with. Thank you for this, Taylor!

I swear you have the most practical write-ups on Fstoppers Taylor. Thanks again, I just bought issue #7 and its great.

awesome post

Interesting! I want to try using windshield shades. I bought new shades for my car; I didn't go for any cute designs, just black on one side and silver/grey on the other. I think either side has possibilities.

Yet another hit Taylor, fantastic way to stay on a budget and learn some basic tips on lighting. Keep it up!

This is cool and all, but I would just use one of my large soft boxes that I already own.

Then this tip isn't really for you, then, is it? not everyone has large soft boxes. (or even small ones ;-) )

I wouldn't go to a client with my bed sheets to take photos at a high end restaurant. If you do this for a living you can afford a softbox.

These tips are clearly directed to those who are doing this as a side?
the situation depicted is clearly not a high end restaurant.

The lighting is nice but you're missing contrast and accents especially around the lower part of the cupcakes. You could simply use hand mirrors or foils to send back some of your key light as fill to fix that. Also, the icing doesn't have any pop drawing attention to it's deliciousness. Having one light source is no excuse for using one point lighting.

I have shot portraits in a similar way with beautiful results. (The sheet makes a backlit backdrop)

Very nice! this looks just like it would do with those super-expensive light boxes behind :p

Nice post! What would happen if you just bounced the flash into the mini v-flat you made and do away with the cup? Might work similarly with just the bounced light?

Hey this post was awesome! I've been trying to figure a cheap way to get that natural window light look. Here's my try at it. I used an old gary fong instead of the cup, but took the top off and used the tin foil like you did. Thanks!