Lighting Tips & Tricks for Bloggers & Photographers

Learn how to take the best photos with both natural and artificial light. Learn what to buy and how to set things up at home.

Ah, blogging in the wintertime. The light fades quickly, and bloggers scramble to take photos before the darkness of evening strikes. But guess what, you guys? You don’t have to worry about lighting any more! Three years ago I decided to invest in some lighting equipment for my Etsy shop so I wouldn’t be shackled to shooting during daylight hours only, and also so the quality and crispness of my photos could improve dramatically. It took me quite a while to figure out what the heck I was doing and what equipment I should buy. So I thought I’d make it easier for someone else starting out in studio lighting to understand what to purchase, how to set up a photo shoot, and how to effectively use lighting equipment to mimic daylight.

Here are a few tips and tricks for lighting your blog and product photos using artificial lighting- plus, tips for utilizing window light if you don’t have the money to put towards a lighting setup just yet.

Learn how to take the best photos with both natural and artificial light. Learn what to buy and how to set things up at home.

The photo above was taken using only artificial lighting from my studio strobe flashes. Because of the brightness of the lights I used in my setup, I was able to take the photo at a higher shutter speed, at a lower ISO, and at a wider aperture, increasing the sharpness and quality of the final image. Without artificial lighting, I’m forced to shoot on sunny days, near a window, and still have to deal with issues like shooting at a high ISO (decreases image quality), using a low f# (found in expensive lenses, and makes it so only one point of the image is in focus), and worrying about camera shake with a low shutter speed. Check out the equipment I use below, and then take a gander at how I set it all up.

 Food blogger photography tips for artificial lighting

Strobes vs. Continuous lighting: Some photographers choose to shoot with continuous lighting, but I don’t because it uses a lot of energy and puts out a lot of heat during a photo shoot. Strobe flashes put out bursts of light only when you take the photo, and then recharge for the next photo. This is more energy efficient, but it also isn’t great for action shots, because if you take a photo too quickly after the previous one, the strobes will not have charged yet, and the subsequent action photos will be dark. So, strobes- great for product photography, not toddler photography. Also, the bright flashes probably aren’t good for babies. But this isn’t portrait photography tips, it’s blog and product photography tips!

Bouncers & Diffusers vs. Light Umbrellas: When I started out on my studio lighting adventure, I bought a lighting kit that came with umbrellas. I wish I hadn’t. I quickly found out that the umbrellas weren’t going to give me the even, diffused lighting quality I desired, so I bought these two big softboxes instead. Well, time went on and I found out through trial and error that even the softboxes weren’t giving me that diffused lighting that one might find in a bright, white, open space. Since I couldn’t afford to rent out a studio space with the openness, big windows, and white walls I wanted, I began to experiment with bouncing my strobe lights off of large white foam boards in my own living room, and loved the look I got. The only problem was bringing home the huge pieces of foam board from the store (I borrowed my parents’ van), and then storing them at home when I wasn’t using them. Finally, I purchased two huge reflector/diffuser rings that collapse for easy storage, and I couldn’t be happier! The light I get from them is pure white, and they’re super easy to use.

Below you’ll find the equipment I use the most with links for buying them on Amazon. They are inexpensive compared to better brands, but they’ve served me well. This is all you really need for a nice studio set up for nighttime blog photo shoots and product photography in your own home. The prices listed below are what I pay with my Amazon Prime membership- the prices may be different for non-members.

  1. TWO STROBE FLASH LIGHTS / $62.48 each
  2. REMOTE TRIGGER + TWO RECEIVERS / $32 for the set
  3. TWO SUPER CLAMPS / $29.99 each
  4. TWO COLLAPSABLE LIGHT DIFFUSER/BOUNCERS / $58.95 each
  5. TWO PAIRS OF LIGHT STANDS WITH CARRYING CASES / $30.96 for a set of two

Strobe light set up for product photographyFood blogger photography tips for artificial lighting

To get started, set up your subject how you want, but I like using a white backdrop (either white paper, mat board, or foam board) and a white “table top” I made for photos. Now set up four light stands, and screw your strobe flashes onto the top of two of them. Attach the remote receivers into the backs of the flashes and set their frequencies to match each other and to match the hot shoe flash trigger (found in the set I linked to above) that you’ve slipped to the top of your camera where an external flash might go. Set one light directly to the left of your photo setup, and point it towards the photo. You can vary the height of the light according to your desires, but I like this side light to be situated lower that the other light. Now, look at the dial on the back of that flash you just set up, and make sure it’s set as low as it can go. Place the second light diagonally in front of the subject you’re shooting. The photo shows this light situated somewhat close to the subject, but in actuality I shoot with it a bit further away, in front and to the side of the subject. Point the light upwards and away from the subject, and set the dial on the back to mid-range.

Now, pop open the two collapsable diffuser/reflector rings. The diffuser/reflector ring that I linked to above is great because it’s actually 5 things in one- it has a gold reflector, a silver reflector, a black “flag,” a white bouncer, and, if you unzip and remove the cover, it reveals a white light diffuser. Put the super clamp on top of your remaining two light stands, and attach the diffuser on onto one stand, and the reflector on the other stand by fitting the straps of the reflector rings into the super clamp. You will use the white light diffuser in front of the side light, just about two feet away from the light, in between the strobe flash and the subject. Position the white reflector/bouncer (these terms are interchangeable for my purposes) in front of the other light, which should be pointed towards the reflector/bouncer and away from the subject. This setup will result in a soft light coming in from the side, and a nice, even light coming in diagonally from the front of the subject. The front/diagonal strobe should cast light that is slightly brighter than the side light, creating natural looking shadows in the final image.

Food blogger photography tips for natural and artificial lighting

When you take photos using this strobe flash light setup, you will need to practice and experiment with the settings on your camera. Because the strobe flashes are way brighter than the lighting in the room, the light meter on your camera won’t help you select your camera settings. You should definitely have your camera on a manual setting, and start with your shutter speed set somewhere between 150 and 200, because that’s the speed that should sync with the speed of your strobe flashes. Use your camera’s manual to see how to change the shutter speed on your camera if you’re unfamiliar with the manual setting. Your f# can be low if you wish (as long as your strobe flashes aren’t too bright), but I like to keep mine around f/2.5-f/3.0, so that there is still a nice depth of field, but more of the photo is in focus than what you would get with a lower f# like f/1.4. Once you have the shutter speed set to around 180, and your f# is where you want it, then take a few photos, adjusting your ISO until you get the lighting just how you want it. Your ISO will probably end up being really low, which will result in some very high quality images.

Don’t be afraid to play around with the positioning and power level of your flashes until you get the shadows just how you want them. I like to move the strobes out further than my setup photo shows, but you might not be able to do that if you’re working in a small space. If you have pure white ceilings, you might try pointing the front light up to the ceiling to bounce the light off the ceiling for a really nice diffused light. Just be aware when bouncing light that if what you use to reflect the light isn’t a neutral white, it will cast its hue onto your subject matter. 

Food blogger photography tips for using natural lightFood blogger photography tips for using natural light

Owning lighting equipment has literally changed my life as a DIY blogger. I can now take photos and work on projects whenever is convenient for me, regardless of the light (or lack thereof) that’s coming through my windows. If I start photographing a subject in the morning, but finish photographing it in the evening, my artificial lighting setup guarantees consistent lighting in all of my photos. But if you can’t afford to acquire this whole setup right away, I would definitely suggest starting out with a light bouncer/diffuser like this. It’s a good size, it’s portable, easy to store, and will give you a perfect neutral light in your photos, unlike the warm white of foam board. All you need is some natural light!

On a typical day, especially in the Summer when the light is brighter, I shoot photos using only the light from the largest window in my house. I set up my subject on our dining room table, which I push close to the window. If the light coming from the window is very harsh and bright, I place a diffuser ring in front of it the offending beam of light. I prop up a white mat board behind my subject and then set up the white bounce side of my other ring reflector opposite of the window, so that all of that beautiful light can bounce back onto the darker side of my image. 

Natural light food and product photography tips

Above you can see three unedited versions same image, taken within minutes of each other using the same exact settings on my camera. The first image uses just the light from my window, which creates a nice image, but uneven lighting from one side of the image to the other. It would do in a pinch, but I prefer a brighter image without such dramatic lighting. So for the second image, you can see how different the same setup looks using the white bounce side of my ring reflector. It seems like I took the photo in a gorgeously lit room, but in actuality the lighting in my dining room is less than ideal, so the ring reflector is my photographer’s life saver!

The third version of this image uses the “black flag” side of my ring reflector, which creates a moodier image. The black flag absorbs light from the left side of the image, resulting in dramatic shadows, a lighting effect known as chiaroscuro. This look is great for use with dark backgrounds and a sumptuous subject matter, like chocolate cake drizzled with ganache and topped with a luscious ripe cherry. Yummm! Chiaroscuro is great for emphasizing drama, but seeing as how I’m probably dramatic enough without dark shadows, I usually prefer brighter images for my photography, so the white bounce gets used most often in my work.

Creating dramatic shadows in food and product photography

Natural light food and product photography tips

I hope this guide has been helpful for any beginning photographers or bloggers who are looking for more flexibility in their work and studio arrangement! This post is the beginning of a photography miniseries on Making Nice in the Midwest which is designed to help bloggers make their work even better. I originally planned this series to be an online class available for purchase, but instead of asking you to pay for the class, I thought I’d make the content available to you for free, but I’m sharing the equipment I use with affiliate links. If you enjoyed my tips and want to purchase your own equipment, doing so by following the links in this post will give me a small percentage of that sale and help pay for more content like this at Making Nice in the Midwest. 

Risking a Blog Relaunch & Selecting a Platform

I had been wanting to do it for over a year, but it took the exciting rush of a creative conference to really get my wheels spinning. Should I actually completely uproot my blog? Would I lose my readership base and my subscribers? Would it really be wise to start over after four years at the same blog? But I was itching for a fresh start. I had outgrown my old blog- its design needed reorganized, my content had shifted drastically, and I was giddy over the chance to revise my blog’s entire image.

Continue reading »

READER REQUEST: Plus-Sized Vintage Shopping

Plus-sized-vintage-1

Any modern girl who loves vintage (and hasn’t worn a girdle) can find it frustrating to shop for vintage. I mean, did they make women differently back then? While staring at the tiny waistline and full bust of a vintage dress, a girl’s gotta wonder what they’re putting in the water these days. Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Even though corsets had been tossed aside, and plastic surgery wasn’t the norm, shapewear could still positively change the way a women’s body was shaped back in the early 20th Century.

And if you’re bigger than the average girl? The headaches can grow much worse. So, I’ve scoured the internet to find some great plus-sized vintage shops that provide a great selection of vintage clothes for bigger girls who don’t wear girdles. Enjoy!

Plus-sized-vintage-2

Cupcake & Cuddlebunny is probably my favorite plus-sized shop find, for its selection, and definitely its presentation. Not only are the items for sale photographed well, but they’re actually on live, human bodies, and you can see how the dress might look on you. Bravo!

M A N D I ‘ S    F A V O R I T E S :  Stripes Forever | Minnie Bow Dress | Scarlet Fever

Plus-sized-vintage-3

Monster Vintage also has a great selection of plus-sized vintage, though you won’t find any real-life models displaying the clothes, and it looks like a lot of the items are pinned to mannequins. So, you might have to use your imagination a little bit more, but at least all of the measurements are listed out, so you can compare the dimensions to something from your own closet to ensure a proper fit!

M A N D I ‘ S    F A V O R I T E S :  Pink Velvet Couture | Garden Lounger | Flower Bloom

Plus-sized-vintage-4

I appreciate Ballyhoo Vintage‘s clean site, easy navigation, and obvious attention to quality when selecting items for their shop. You’ll find more of a 1940s and 1950s selection here, which are usually more difficult to find in plus-sizes- so, what a treat! It is dissapointing that the mannequins used are not plus-sized, and that the clothing appears to be pinned for display, but measurements are listed so you can tell exactly how each garment would fit.

M A N D I ‘ S    F A V O R I T E S :  1960s Dress with Jacket | Silk Blouse | 1940s Polka Dot Dress

Click-for-more

Reader Request: Etsy Shop Packaging

1

This is one of my more popular requests, and rather than just discussing shop tags, I figured you might be interested in seeing the entire packaging process for purchases made at Fine & Dandy Vintage.

I've been selling online for years, and have gone through many different packaging styles and processes. In considering options, I've thought about the branding of my shop and making sure the packaging fits the design aesthetic, but I also carefully considered the expense and time involved in assembling each package. Nobody likes to pay expensive shipping, am I right? And no seller likes to spend more time than necessary preparing for the dreaded post office.

As someone who frequently shops online at places like Etsy, I do appreciate a nice looking package. (It's okay if you giggled at that last sentence. I did too.) The moment when a shopper receives their purchase at home is the last chance a seller has to make a lasting, positive impression. So, let's make it pretty, easy to open, and interesting enough without worrying about lots of frills, shall we?

Shop-tags IMG_9394

In order to save time in the shipping process (it's my least favorite part of selling online), I like to prepare my supplies in advance. In my desk drawer you will find a whole pile of Fine & Dandy tags that have been trimmed to size, hole punched, and have a blank back for personal messages to customers.

I designed my tags with a simple logo, tagline, and web address, and arranged them to fit across a standard size paper. At Hobby Lobby I found (on sale even!) kraft paper in bundles, so I won't run out for quite some time. When printing, I just selected a cardstock weight paper in the printer settings, loaded my printer with this kraft cardstock, and let 'er rip!

IMG_9409

Once they've been printed, I have a cutting marathon with a steel ruler and sharp blade, followed by a finger-numbingly fun time with the hole punch. (I hate that part too.) Now, when I receive an order notification, I just grab one tag, write a note to the customer, and prepare for the next stage. Wrapping!

Wrap IMG_9419

When a customer opens the package, you want what they remove to be still carefully folded and still in its original condition. I fold items and then wrap with a proportionaly sized piece of either baker's twine, rope, hemp, or ribbon. I've noticed a lot of sellers might wrap their folded garments with packaging paper, and/or a clear, plastic bag. I haven't been able to find these in bulk for a good price, so I just stick with folding and tying.

At this point, my button collection really comes in handy. I select a coordinating button and use it to secure the tag to the twine. It actually does serve a purpose to keep the tag in good shape when the package arrives to its destination, but let's be real… it just looks cute, and who doesn't love buttons?!

IMG_9421 IMG_9423

If you are working with a larger, floppy garment, it's a good idea to use something to keep it together while its traveling through the postal service. Chipboard would be ideal for this, but it's not super cheap, so I use the same kraft paper you see in my tags. It fits aesthetically, and kraft cardstock is something I try to always have around. I just begin folding the garment, and then place the piece of cardstock in the center of the top and fold around it. Easy peasy!

Package IMG_9430

The last step (and this can also be prepared in advance) is making a nice looking, inexpensive, and somewhat sturdy shipping bag. For larger purchases, or for shipping breakables, I use kraft boxes. But for everything else, I love whipping together shipping bags made from inexpensive rolls of kraft paper.

All I do is roll off enough paper to fit the contents after the paper is folded into fours (for extra strength), and stitched together (seam allowance). After it's been folded into fours, I stitched around two of the sides, leaving an opening in the center where I will place the purchase.

IMG_9433 IMG_9439

Before placing the purchase into the shopping bag, I stamp the top left corner with my return address. A stamp is a huge time saver and looks much more professional than scrawled handwriting. My personal ink pad preference is a gel inkpad, which inks more evenly and doesn't goop around the edges of the stamp. I like.

Last, fold (if there's enough paper) the opening of the filled bag, and stitch across to seal it shut. I like to use a zig-zag stitch for this, and make sure to double back at each end so when I trim the thread closely to the bag, the stitching won't fall out.

So that's it! I often receive nice feedback commenting on how delightful the package looked when it arrived in the mailbox, and to me, that's motivation enough to continue creating pretty packages for shoppers to enjoy.

IMG_9451 6a00e5500ff567883301543762d3b7970c-800wi

Got any questions? Ask them below and I will answer in the comments section. Want to learn a bit more about running an Etsy shop from home? See my last Reader Request post called Behind the Scenes Selling Online.

Reader Request: Behind the Scenes Selling Online

Behind-the-scenes

Tending an online vintage shop is actually quite grueling work, if you’re gonna do it right. That’s why I don’t really keep up with Fine & Dandy Vintage as much as I would like. It’s turned into more of a as-I-have-the-time thing. I have a lot of respect for people who do shop updates once or more than once a week.

Sourcing vintage clothes is sort of a trade secret for most vintage sellers, but I would love to share with you some behind the scenes necessities I’ve found quite handy in running my Etsy shop from home.

Behind-the-scenes-7The trickiest part of running an online shop from home is controlling the clutter. When I had a basement, this was an easy solution. Now that I’m in an apartment, I’ve found that rolling racks and hidden shelves are my best friends. Everything new that needs to be photographed stays on the rolling rack, and once things are listed, they are folded and placed onto the shelves for compact and out-of-the-way storage. Cotton bins and metal baskets corral smaller accessories.

Behind-the-scenes-6I’ve experimented with using both live models, displaying clothing on hangers, and dress forms/mannequins. Recently I’ve found using dressforms and a mannequin (head) is both convenient for me, and shows better how a garment would hang on a human body than just laying out clothing or displaying on a hanger.

I’ve sourced both my dressform and mannequin head from eBay sellers, but you can also find these things at antique malls or retail store supply outlets.

Behind-the-scenes-5When I first started out selling vintage in 2004, I used a point and shoot camera with a flash. People still bought the clothes I sold, but since then I’ve become much more motivated with giving potential customers a more pleasant shopping experience, from the design of my Etsy banner, to the photography of the goods. (I’ll talk about shipping another day, but that is very important too.)

Years ago I bought my first SLR camera with interchangeable lenses. This helped me with product photography, but I was still bound to shooting in the daytime using natural light. This past year I purchased a legitimate lighting setup that has given me flexibility when shooting times as well as more professional looking product photos.

I chose to purchase strobe lights instead of continuous lighting, because of the uncomfortable warmth generated by continuous lighting. After some practice, it’s easy to figure out how to control shadow placement and light your subject in a professional way. For me, I basically jumped in head first and tried finding forums online to help. I’m still learning, but I think I’ve come a long way!

Behind-the-scenes-4 Behind-the-scenes-3 Behind-the-scenes-2

Follow along in the comments section for questions and answers. Next time I’ll talk about enhancing your customer experience with easy, unique, and inexpensive shipping ideas! I’ve had lots of great feedback with these techniques, so stay tuned, and in the meantime…
Behind-the-scenes-8

Older