Food Photography Made Easy: The Lunch Box

Shooting vittles can be as complex as you want to make it. But it is pretty easy to get elegant, well-lit food photographs with almost no money out of pocket.

Hit the jump for a gastronomic update on a Strobist cheapskate classic.

Of the 1,000+ posts on Strobist at this writing, one of the most popular is the $10 Macro Studio -- a cardboard box hack that makes it almost impossible to take a bad shot of a small object.

With a little alteration, that same concept can be used to create classic food photography lighting with a light source as simple as a desk lamp. Of course, a speedlight will work great, too...

Thinking Outside of the Box

The classic direction for lighting food is from the top/back. In typical presentation, food has more width and depth than it does height. So the top/back is a logical position from which light can rake across the food to reveal texture and form.

For this walk-through I raided the fridge for some fresh tomatoes. Not complex, but nice and 3-d for illustrative purposes. Here they are with a bare light hitting them from the classic, top/back position.

This hard light almost makes the 'maters look as if they are made of wood and painted glossy red. You can do a lot to manipulate the visual perception of surface quality with different lighting techniques.

Here is the same shot with a wider lens. The light source is a bare SB-800, but it could just as easily be a desk lamp.

You could easily soften that light with an umbrella if you have one. But if your food or setting is specular, those ribs (Mmm-hmm-hmm-hmm... ribs...) are gonna give you problems.

This is one of those instances where a soft box is much better than a shoot-through. But there is no need to shell out for one if you are not shooting this kind of stuff all of the time.

Instead, you can hack a large cardboard box (quite literally) and essentially turn the soft box inside out.

So, here is the basic box -- use a big one -- cut up and placed back together to give you a sense of where the cuts are. The more of an angle you put on that diagonal cut, the more your light will come from the back. I did this one kinda middle-of-the-road, but you might want to crank it up a notch or two.

And if you use a razor knife like I did, please be careful. Or at least bookmark this page before you start. Just sayin'.

(LIGHTING GEEK NOTE: I had fun doing a quickie shot of the cut-up cardboard box. Click it to see bigger, with notes on the locations of the four flashes involved ...)

That big open square on the top is gonna get some diffusion material, so the window will do its job and improve your harsh light source. Tracing paper is ideal, but tissue paper (big, like from a gift) works great. Stretch it smooth. Wax paper will do in a pinch, too.

I scrounged a little Rosco Tuff Frost, which is tough (duh) and uniform, not to mention color-neutral. That last part is important, if you are using some type of mystery diffusor.

Also, if you are using this with a desk lamp, use an incandescent bulb (no CFLs) and set your camera's white balance to tungsten. Everything will work fine.

Here is the part you keep, and by now it should be getting pretty self explanatory as to how to use it to soften that bare flash or desk lamp. If you are more of a food blogger than a photographer, you can do this all with continuous light and a tripod -- just crank that aperture wayyy down for lots of depth of field.

(Not that this is a foodie blog, but you regulars would be surprised at who passes through here while learning to shoot stuff for their site.)

Okay, so lets stick our box in between the light and the subject and see what happens. Right away, the tomatoes look way better. I am using a sheet of black plexi as a background, to get a clean reflection of the new, slicker light source. (The umbrella would suck for this background, because of the ribs' reflection.)

Here is a pullback, which actually is a pretty cool composition. But looking at this (and the photo just above) our next problem is that the bottoms of the tomatoes are too dark. This is because all of the light is coming from the back/top.

That's an easy fix, and we do not need another light, either. We can get double-duty out of our nice main light by adding a reflector:

Since this is a no-wallet Monday, let's fix this with a folded sheet of printer paper (or, if you are over 50, typing paper...) Just fold it and stand it in front of the tomatoes -- maybe to one side, as shown. (You could stick it right in front, too for a different look.)

As you can now see, that one sheet of paper makes a huge difference.

By default, it will not overpower the main light source, either. It's a reflector, and cannot give out more light than it is receiving.

So, let's try another reflector on the other side. It may be that the second reflected light source ends up being too much. But at two cents a pop, go for it and see what happens.

Here it is close-up, which is the same photo at the top of the post. Maybe you like the extra detail, or maybe the second highlight turns you off. That's up to you -- add salt to taste.

Here is a pullback with two reflectors for clarity's sake. Depending on the topography of what you are shooting, these reflectors do not need to be big, or symmetrical -- or even white. You can illuminate those shadows exactly the way you want by placing as many reflectors -- large and/or small -- wherever you want.

Need more light? Try aluminum foil reflectors. That's what I used for this cake. Crinkle it up, then straighten it back out for a nice, smooth, pebbled reflector surface. You can choose the shiny or matte surface, too, for different looks.

Here it is, from the side angle.

Again, that SB-800 flash could easily be a desk or floor lamp. And the grey backdrop was just to hide the white wall reflection in the initial shot. Once you get the diffusor panel up, that problem solves itself.

Fast Food

So, there you go -- an easy entré into food photography. If this kind of thing floats your boat, you might want to consider a medium-sized soft box, which will of course make this kind of light very easy. And it travels well, too.

If you're a food blogger and you decide to play with it, link in and spread the luv -- and post a comment so we can see what a hotshot food photographer you are now...


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Anonymous The Burnetts said...

thanks for the adaptation of the diy lightbox

June 22, 2009 2:19 AM  
Anonymous Dan Coogan said...

Beautiful David!

June 22, 2009 2:19 AM  
Blogger Mafiu said...

This looks great - thanks for the walkthrough. You didnt explain how you keep bits of dist off the acrylic though...

June 22, 2009 3:43 AM  
Anonymous Lee said...

I shot this a few months ago, just because I was bored:

Tuna pasta

June 22, 2009 3:54 AM  
Anonymous m0rnec said...

Four flashes to light a cardboard box?

Shades of McNally if you ask me.

... but I seem to remember something along the lines of "I've never found a subject I couldn't overlight".

Where was that again ... ?

Not a foodie myself, but there's definitely one pixel-mauler I know who will benefit - and other than food, I can think of more than a handful of subjects this will work well on.

June 22, 2009 5:45 AM  
Blogger barbra said...

Thank you David for the reminder to be careful with the knife. What a story. ahhhhh.

June 22, 2009 7:44 AM  
Blogger John said...

Awesome post! I love the look you got with this simple setup.

I'm a big fan of the $10 macro box and this was a great example of how you could extend the possibilities.

Thanks for the setup shots too!

June 22, 2009 8:38 AM  
Anonymous Joe said...

Great idea. Great site too.

I'm three years late finding this site but has been inspirational and informative to read this last month.

Thanks for sharing!

June 22, 2009 8:39 AM  
Anonymous Pedro Cardoso said...

Great stuff, David! Cheap and very effective.
Everything can be done to that box, but another idea would be to stick a sheet of paper on each side. And you can choose the color of the paper to add a little sparkle on those shadows.

PS - First post here, but a long time reader. Thank you for all this great information. I have learnt a lot.

June 22, 2009 9:07 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Cool, I'm definitely going to try this. Some of my editorial stuff includes food shots for our recipe pages and I love taking pics of cakes I make at home with my son so I'll try this and blog-it-up! Thanks :)

June 22, 2009 9:20 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

That link to the BBC 'how-to' page cracked me right up. Wicked story, especially the last paragraph - O_o

This is a wonderful how-to: quick, cheap, easy and effective. Very strobist. Love it!


June 22, 2009 9:23 AM  
OpenID restaurantouring said...

Awesome! I was wondering what I should do with all the cardboard boxes I saved up for DIY light mods. . . . Thanks, Dave!

June 22, 2009 9:35 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Neat! Zero wallet impact projects are always fun! Will have to try this out for some future ebay shots. How come your flash looks like that in the pull-back shots? Did you puff some baby powder in the air or something to make it show up better?

June 22, 2009 9:46 AM  
Anonymous A Smith said...

On a larger scale, I used to use lighting very similar to this to do catalog jewelry work. It is a pretty flexible set up.

One trick to try is one soft overall "sky" light. (Pretty close to what you are working with here just softer.) Then a point source close to the translucent material low on the horizon that acts like a "Sun" in the "sky". Use your bounce cards in front to define the tones by adjusting how much the subject sees of the "Sun". It is the best way I know to get a diamond or other very reflective subject to have great non-specular tones.

June 22, 2009 9:54 AM  
Blogger thestallion said...

This post was great. Nice and simple. I've been following the site from the start and this type post is where I think this site excels. I send people here all the time and this is exactly what I expect they want to see.

June 22, 2009 10:15 AM  
Blogger Wounded Healer said...

As usual, great post David!
Thanks for sharing.

June 22, 2009 10:35 AM  
Blogger Wiliam R. MacLeod, Jr. said...

California Sunbounce and a few other companies make a human sized box (for large coin..). I'm going to go find me a frige box and build something for headshots!
And, also..
"And if you use a razor knife like I did, please be careful. Or at least bookmark this page before you start. Just sayin'."
VERY important to read and remember... I had my right index finger re-attached after a similar accident... still have to use my middle finger to fire my camera.

June 22, 2009 10:40 AM  
Anonymous marianne said...

I loved it, very useful tips. i am now following you on twitter and hope to learn more tricks to make better photos

June 22, 2009 10:53 AM  
Blogger Jason Anderson said...

That's just too cool! I actually built one out of wood that mounts on the wall and has hinges so I can close it up when done - took a bit more time though. Where was this post 2 years ago! LOL

June 22, 2009 11:13 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Interesting. If you've got a white ceiling, you could do the same thing by just pointing the light up at that, and shooting the reflection. That's the technique used here. Didn't have a setup shot for that, but I have one for another object that uses the same principle here.

June 22, 2009 2:13 PM  
Blogger John said...

New basement workspace? You must be so happy with all the space, and I'll be you've got plenty of leftover cardboard boxes, all sizes!

Been using $10 Macro Studio for small woodworking projects, good fun, thanks for this new adaptation, you're a great teacher.

June 22, 2009 2:39 PM  
Blogger scott said...

Great post. However, you really shouldn't keep tomatoes in the fridge - it kills their flavor.

June 22, 2009 2:40 PM  
Blogger bezel said...

thanks for the tutorial this just came in handy since im actually doing a food assignment for my lighting clas, so im going to try this out.

June 22, 2009 2:59 PM  
Anonymous arun said...

David - your postings are always quite intriguing. That was quite an idea with the slanted box cut as well.

I did a work shop with Food Photog, Lou Manna and came up with fun stuff here -

June 22, 2009 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Walt said...

And what old manual lens did you use with your D3 and this setup. EXIF indicates FO. Fairly hard to obtain. LOL Let me guess... and old 55mm F2.8 Macro.

June 22, 2009 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Karel Kotrba said...

Aahhhh... Do I smell the Assignment #2 ?! :) Anyway, thanks for this instructive post and the entire great web & community, David.

June 22, 2009 5:06 PM  
Blogger markleephotography said...

Outstanding post. . . I feel like I just attended a workshop. Thanks for this.


June 22, 2009 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Myron said...

Don't tell me now that you paid Ten bucks for that cardboard box. I could have got you one for Five! [only joking]

Seriously, I found a cute mutant Strawberry last week that I thought looked like a tooth, so being a Strobist Junkie, I decided to macro the little cutie.

I posted the lighting setup to the Strobist Group [one imagae a day limit] and the other variations [1-5] are up on Flicker.

June 22, 2009 6:19 PM  
Blogger Will Brenner Photography said...

Typing paper? Like Onion Skin?

June 22, 2009 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Marcio Brazão said...

Great post, as always. Perfectly grown tomatoes like those, right out of the fridge. Ok, I'll try hard to believe that, Mr. Hobby!

June 22, 2009 8:05 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

anyone tried using parchment paper for a diffusion material? I have a roll, it's pretty sturdy, translucent, and pretty cheap. Might reduce the light by 2 stops though, kinda thick, but it is on hand.

June 22, 2009 8:57 PM  
Blogger David said...


Parchment paper is gonna add a lot of warmth to your light. If that's what you want, s'ok. But just be aware.


June 22, 2009 9:35 PM  
OpenID restaurantouring said...

do not publish. or not. it doesn't matter much to me.

warning: incoming food-nerd rant.

scott's right about the tomatoes -- there are certain flavor compounds in tomatoes that sort of get "deactivated", if you will, when the temperatures drop. unfortunately, this change is permanent. additionally, there are other flavor compounds in tomatoes that are only alcohol-soluble, so it's a good idea to cook tomatoes with a bit of wine or other complementary spirit. finally, tomatoes are a great example of that elusive fifth taste, umami. a great way to detect this fifth taste is by taking a bite out of a good, fresh, unrefrigerated tomato (which preferably didn't come from either Canada or Mexico, since tomatoes are often grown hydroponically in those regions. Hydroponic tomatoes = no flavor) then, sprinkling some kosher salt onto the bitten portion of the tomato, and taking another bite. the difference in flavor -- the "deliciousness" or "satisfying taste" -- is umami.

umami = glutamate. MSG = artificial umami. Western food with highest concentration of glutamate = parmesan cheese (particularly in the rind of a wheel of aged parm)

June 23, 2009 12:28 AM  
Anonymous firdaushamid said...

nice me lots of information on how to setup cheap diy studio...

June 23, 2009 1:30 AM  
Anonymous Roma said...

The most informative post possible! That too these things can be done in a simple, free of cost manner. Thanks a lot for sharing.

June 23, 2009 1:37 AM  
Blogger Sean McCormack said...

I wonder if this makes you think of my chicken nuggets and noodles shot from ages ago :)

Similar setup, but with a photomart/ezybox softbox.

June 23, 2009 4:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This website rocks! Thanks!

June 23, 2009 2:36 PM  
Blogger Paul Sears said...

David, you're a genius. The more I read, the more I want to read. Can't thank you enough for all the hard work you've done to educate all of us!

June 23, 2009 4:50 PM  
Anonymous iamzaks said...

amazing!A very good adaptation of the lightbox.

June 23, 2009 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Stefan said...

Great side (I´think I mentioned it before)
Thank you for sharing your secrets.
Here is something for reverse ligthing:
The pics were taken for a cooking book. I used only two strobes for the pics and some "little helpers". The first one who sends me a right sketch of the ligthing diagram, will get one copy of the book. And now: have fun!

June 23, 2009 7:36 PM  
Anonymous pictures of cakes said...

Pretty neat tips and thank you for sharing your secrets with us. I've been following your blog for a few months now as I am a college photography student trying to get all the help I can get! I have never thought that fruit or vegetables could look so good in a photograph. Thanks to you I now have something different to include in my portfolio.

June 24, 2009 5:03 AM  
Blogger Doug said...


Thank you for another great post. You did mentioned "no CFLs". Could you explain the reason for this comment? I'm guessing it's because the camera cannot balance this type of light, but I'd like to hear from the lighting Guru yourself.


June 24, 2009 5:33 AM  
Anonymous Boston Photographer-MWynne said...

Thanks for the post, it's always good to see a new way to do the same thing. My favorite part about this site is how cheap that new way usually is!!

June 24, 2009 10:21 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Great idea. I'm going to do this as soon as I can find black plexi. Where would one find that?

June 24, 2009 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Kev M said...

Am I the only one who thinks the specular reflections of the bounce cards are ugly and distracting?

June 25, 2009 7:51 AM  
Blogger James Beissel said...

Thanks for putting this up! I'm new to this site but I'll definitely be back for more. I had fun putting this together last night and learned alot, too.

Here are my tomotoes:

June 25, 2009 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

Please... cut at least one of the tomatoes in half and put them in a more interesting setting... perhaps put them on a plate or chopping board or something...

I shot insalata caprese on a plate in natural light this afternoon. Bare minimum effort and it looks more appetizing than this fancy flash gizmo shot. When it comes to food photography I think the actual food should come first on the list of priorities.

June 25, 2009 6:55 PM  
Blogger David said...

For Pete's sake, Lee, it is not a full food shot but rather a demo of a simple lighting technique.

You'll have a chance to wow everyone on the site with your awesome tomato-cutting, food photographing prowess soon enough.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go cut the cheese for a different assignment I am working on.

June 25, 2009 7:36 PM  
Anonymous Brandon Foster said...

Please don't sue:

DVD of the year (er, last year)!

June 25, 2009 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Jose Aguilo Photography said...

Cool technique!!

June 25, 2009 11:55 PM  
Blogger Wendy said...

Very clever!
Thanks for posting this 'green' solution, time to go rescue a large box from the trash:) I have some tomatoes growing in my garden that will be ripe soon.

June 26, 2009 12:53 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Hey David, see how Joe McNally uses the light box here:

June 26, 2009 6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh damn. NOW I have to find a source for black plexiglass. Great post and very informative. Gotta give it a try for myself.

June 27, 2009 10:45 AM  
OpenID justatheory said...

This is great, thanks! I hacked on together this morning, following your instructions. My first test is right here.


June 28, 2009 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

Sorry! Didn't mean to come across as patronising or insulting.

June 29, 2009 5:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks!! great post as always david!! cheers from mexico!,... i'l be so glad if some day you teach us how to light footwear (like for catalogs , women fashion footwear ) thanks!

June 29, 2009 12:08 PM  
Blogger Pamela Hochschartner Viola said...

Great post! One of these days I hope to have time to try it out. Thanks!

July 01, 2009 10:29 AM  
Blogger Melissa's Cozy Tea Time Readings said...

Can you help me figure out how she is lighting her food?

July 04, 2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger Passport Foodie said...

Awesome shots!

Now if I can only get my shots to look like that in dark restaurants without a strobe. :(

Passport Foodie

July 08, 2009 8:25 PM  
Anonymous kevin said...

great post! i can't wait to try this... i have the same question as Doug - you mentioned not to use CFL's.. what is the reason for this? especially if they are daylight rated?

July 14, 2009 9:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow the results are very good...
I consider buying a cheap flashgun on ebay and then I'll try to build this food box...
As I'm pupil, this cheap softbox is superb for me!
But where did you get the black surface from where the tomatoes are lying on?
(p.s. I'm german ;))

July 16, 2009 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Athartia said...

I build one of these light tents and used it to practice shooting food, and some other things.

The results can be seen here:

Considering my low level of experience and knowledge about photography I think they turned out pretty good.

Very helpful, thanks!

July 18, 2009 4:40 PM  
Blogger Sudeshna said...

great idea

October 09, 2009 11:08 AM  
Blogger Kelley said...

I built one of these little gems and could see instant improvement in my shots, using a Metz flash instead of a lamp. I'm wondering if anyone has any advice on reducing some of the shadows underneath the subject. You can see what I'm talking about if you give my food blog's photos a gander.

March 14, 2010 9:14 PM  
Blogger Arfi Binsted said...

Very helpful post! Thank you.

May 07, 2010 3:14 AM  
Blogger Shelly Slader said...

Wow, I never realized how precise you have to be with food photography!! I figured people just took a normal picture and it came out looking good but it really does take talent.

November 15, 2013 1:40 PM  

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