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will engelmann taking photographs with a ring light

Culinary Photography

How to photograph food with a Ring Light

If you’ve seen any of my behind the scenes shots you might notice that I frequently shoot with a ring light. I like to call my ring light my not so secret secret weapon. When used effectively it’s a handy tool for creating a bright floaty aesthetic that will set your work apart from other food photographers. It’s a handy tool that can immediately shine light anywhere that you need it but learning how to effectively use this tool can be tricky.

The number one reason that I use a ring light is to fill in the shadows. In my own personal work I like dark moody photographs with striking contrast and selective focus. But thats not necessarily the look you want to go for when selling breakfast cereal. Nobody wants their breakfast to be dark and moody, a little depressed and having a bad day. When I did a job for Kellogg's NYC cereal only restaurant I didn’t dare give the food an attitude problem. I did everything I could to make that bowl of cereal look like it was floating on a cloud. And when you’re on a job your clients are going to want you to shoot in a style that more matches their brand as opposed to your own personal aesthetic. While dark and moody might work for some bars or restaurants the majority of clients are going to be interested in a more bright light aesthetic and a ring light can help you to capture that look.
behind the scenes photographing food at Yaso Tangbao
A ring light is a light that circles around the lens of the camera in the shape of a ring. Because it’s coming from almost the same place as the lens it ‘sees’ and shines light to everywhere that the camera ‘sees.’ Because the light goes everywhere that the camera sees it fills in any areas of shadow with nice bright clean light. I typically have my ring light turned down approximately 1 stop below my main light. This is because I want my ring light to be subtle and not overpower what I’m shooting. Too much ring light will flatten out what your shooting and not enough and it will cause it to be dark and moody and finding the right balance can be tricky. This all depends on the aesthetic that you’re going for too. Sometimes you want everything to be flat and even and sometimes you want everything to be dark and moody. But if you want to capture a nice well lit eggs benedict I recommend starting at having your ring light set at 1 stop below the main light and adjusting from there. You’re light level will also vary depending on how far your ring light is away from what you’re shooting. If your plate of food is perfectly lit at a distance of 2ft at 4ft it will only receive half as much light. At 8ft it will receive a quarter as much light and so on.
Where ring lights get tricky is when you’re shooting objects that are reflective. The light from the ring light will bounce off shinny things and can cause unwanted highlights or weird sheens. This is most pronounced when shooting either cocktails or steaks. In these cases I typically will either turn my ring light way down or turn it off completely. Steaks can be an issue because of the oil on the steak will reflect weird funky highlights. But not enough oil or not enough highlights and your steak will look dry and flat. It’s imperative when shooting steaks or any other kind of meat to get an even level of shine and this can be accomplished by carefully positioning your main light so that its not coming from directly behind you or directly in front of you. Ideally it should be off to one side or the other at approximately a 45 degree angle. Subtly is key to a well lit steak and often when photographing food moving your light or your camera an inch to the left or right can result in a dramatically different photograph.
a video of an LED ring light
When shooting cocktails with a ring light the light will reflect in either the liquid or the glass. This can be an undesirable effect for clients who want to see the product that they’re selling as clearly as possible. But fear not. Highlights when used effectively can cause your cocktail to lighted up and shine. I like to refer to this as an electric feel when the reflection is just perfect. I try to take it on a case by case basis and evaluate how the ring light reflection looks in each individual shot. When shooting bartenders making cocktails my main focus is the bartender and lighting them up clearly and evenly and the ring light is effective in this. Typically in this situation I’m shooting quickly and don’t necessarily have time to reevaluate every single shot and will opt to retouch the reflection out if it is an issue in post. If I’m shooting just the cocktail on it’s own I’ll often either turn the ring light off and use more fill cards to illuminate it or I’ll change my angle slightly. When pointed directly at a cocktail glass the ring light reflection will pop off the glass. But typically if you shift about 15 degrees up or down the reflection will either minimize or vanish completely.
nehind the scenes of a photoshoot
I own two different kinds of ring lights. One is an Ikan LED ring light and the other is a Profto strobe ring light. I vary my lighting setups depending on what the needs are for the photoshoot that I’m doing that day and switch between using strobe light and LED. Strobe is great for freezing action shots or when my clients have a project where I think that I’m going to need a lot of light. LED can be great for creating more subtle lighting effects or for when I’m shooting video. Always when shooting with a ring light I recommend using a lens hood to shield your lens from any unwanted glare.
burger and steak photographs from the authentic Italian restaurant Feroce
Whenever I’m interested in trying at a new piece of gear I’ll rent it for the day to get a feel for how it works before I commit to buying it. I always prefer to own my photography gear so that I can develop a relationship with it and get to know it’s individual quirks. Often you can get a deal on renting equipment if it’s a long weekend or a holiday and I would check with your local rental house. If you explain that you’re just trying it out they might even give you a discount for an overnight rental if you bring it back first thing in the morning.
bartender shaking cocktail bartender shaking cocktail eggs benedict glowing with light from sweet chick
In this shot you can see the faintest glow of the ring light in the sauce. This is a good example of having the ring light turned down -1 stops from the main light.
cocktail photographed with an electric feel
This is an example of what I would call an "electric feel." Where the reflection from the ringlight makes the cocktail feel like its glowing from within.
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a portrait of will engelmann behind the camera
Will Engelmann is a Food Photographer in NYC. He has no other talents and has never done anything else in his life. If for some reason people stop needing high qaulity food photography he's so screwed. But at least for now he thinks he's safe.

Check out his Food Photography Website
Thirsty? Cocktail Photography Website