Introduction: How to Build a Food Photography Light Stand

About: Eric J. Wilhelm is the founder of Instructables. He has a Ph.D. from MIT in Mechanical Engineering. Eric believes in making technology accessible through understanding, and strives to inspire others to learn …

Food photography is challenging because food touches so many emotions. I've been steadily improving my technique, and here I show a light stand I built to aid in taking better pictures.

All images were taken with a Nikon Coolpix L4 (in fact, the same camera we gave away in a previous contest here). The Nikon is a low to medium range digital camera and can probably be found for around $100. I choose to use it to demonstrate the quality of pictures possible with an affordable camera using my setup.

Undoubtedly, the pictures could have been better through the use of different equipment, different lights, or a more experienced photographer -- consider this an introduction for you to improve on.

Step 1: Motivation, Parts, and Estimated Cost

My previous attempts at food pornography involved a mishmash of desk lights, a set of 500-watt halogen task lights (that double as lights for our dinning room!), and a light tent. The pictures' colors were always too hot, and lacked the dinner table context you see in a food magazine or William-Sonoma catalog. So, with this setup I am trying to get better color-balance from a portable set of lights I can set on the dinner table. Having the light fit around my light tent is a bonus.

scrap wood from a dumpster - free
12 x 24 inch light tent - $35 or make your own bigger, better, and cheaper one here or here.
tripod - $30
5 clamp-on lights - $6 each at Home Depot, but you know you've got at least two sitting around somewhere
5 compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) - $10+ depending on rebates, energy star discounts, and whatever governmental price discounts are available. I've paid as low as $1 per CFL at times!
extension cords - $5

Including my purchased tripod and light tent, I spent around $100 in addition to the camera for this setup. If you built your own light tent and used a bunch of milkcrates and chairs as a tripod, this could easily be a $25 project consisting of a few new lamps and CFLs.

Step 2: Build a Frame

I used 2x4s and some plywood to reinforce the joints. It is all held together with 2 and 3 inch wood screws. The inside of the arch measures approximately 50 inches by 25 inches.

Step 3: Clip on Lights

Clip on all the lights and tie the power cords out of the way. If you measured just right, your light tent will fit snugly between the lights.

Step 4: Arrange Bulbs and Power It Up

I have three types of light bulbs in it right now: 1 60-watt incandescent, 2 14-watt day-light CFLs, and 2 14-watt bright-white CFLs. There were also soft white CFLs available. To my eye, it appears that day-light = more blue, bright-white = white, soft-white = more red/yellow, incandescent = yellow, halogen = very red and yellow.

On this first pass, I aimed more for the white / blue end of the spectrum knowing my halogen-lit pictures always turn out too red/yellow and have to be color corrected before they get posted to Instructables.

Step 5: Take Pictures

I love to use the sun's light when I can, but we rarely get dinner together before sunset.

Each of the following steps shows the same plate of fruit under a different configuration of lights. The five clamp lights are always on and the camera is always held in a tripod, to keep it from wiggling, while I cycle the halogen task lights and camera flash on and off. The camera was in automatic mode and the only thing I adjusted was whether I allowed the flash or not. If you're not using a true tripod, set your camera for delayed shutter, press the shutter button and take your hands off to achieve wiggle-free pictures.

Step 6: Light Tent, No Flash, No Halogen

Step 7: Light Tent, Flash, No Halogen

Step 8: Light Tent, No Flash, Halogen

Step 9: No Flash, Halogen

Step 10: No Flash, No Halogen

Step 11: Flash, No Halogen

Step 12: Conclusions / Get Laughed At

I prefer the images taken outside the light tent using only the CFLs (no flash, no halogen).

We almost always have guests over for dinner, and my food photography antics, especially the tension between getting the perfect shot and eating dinner before it gets cold, are a source constant amusement. A giant crane-looking thing that sits over my dinner and points lights at it only takes this amusement to the next level.