Food Photography – How to Shoot A Beverage With Only Two Lights

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The wonderful thing about food photography is that you can easily turn your apartment, home, or garage into a studio. This image was shot for a local ice cream franchise that offers a different spin on the traditional root beer float. The set was constructed on a coffee table with common household items, and was lit with just two lights.

Final image with real ice cream

Final image

You might be thinking that the featured photo does not look like your normal, every-day root beer float, and you would be right. The ice cream pellets in the float were created by flash freezing ice cream mixed with liquid nitrogen.

Because the ice cream was made up of these small pellets, it melted quickly, leaving little time to get the “money shot”. To solve this problem, I created a stand-in cup that was filled with soda and mini marshmallows. This stand-in allowed me to tweak my lights while the ice cream was safely stored in an ice chest filled with dry ice.

Marshmallow stand-in

Marshmallows used as stand-in for ice cream, during set up phase.

Two pieces of white poster board were used to construct the set. One for the floor and one for the background. The background piece was attached to sections of PVC tubing, which were re-purposed from homemade DIY light panel frames. Small one pound dumbbells were placed on top of the PVC frame to secure it and keep it from moving around.

Whenever you photograph beverages, it is important to backlight them in order to show the transparency of the container and/or liquid. That is what makes soda, iced tea and beer ads look so delicious.

For this shot, I decided to achieve the effect by creating a really tiny pseudo-softbox behind the glass of root beer. I started by cutting a rectangular hole in the back of the poster board. Careful attention was taken to insure that the hole was large enough to cover the entire lower portion of the glass, while still being hidden from the camera’s view.

A small off-camera flash fitted with a radio trigger was then placed behind the background. Since the hole and glass were tall and narrow, the strobe was placed on its side, to match.

View from behind background

View of PVC frame and hotshoe flash with radio receiver. Notice how flash is placed on its side, vertically.

Next, a small sheet of frosted stencil paper purchased from a local hobby store was placed in front of the hole, to evenly diffuse the light across the opening. The translucent properties of the paper also created a soft falloff to the background, as if it were being lit from the front instead of the back.

frosted stencil paper

Frosted stencil paper was butted against the background, behind the glass, to evenly diffuse the light shining through the hole in the poster board. The sheet was moved so that the edges, logo and holes were not seen from the camera’s angle of view.

backlit root beer

First backlight test, before marshmallows were added.

Now that the liquid was backlit, we needed to add a light to illuminate the ice cream. To do this, a large piece of diffusion fabric attached to a PVC frame was placed just out of frame, towards camera left. A strobe light was then placed behind the panel. The diffusion fabric created a large source of illumination, which created a very soft transition from the highlights to the shadows.

float without backlight

Light shining through diffusion panel with back light turned off

Finally, an acrylic mirror was attached to a light stand and placed just out of frame, towards camera right. The mirror reflected and bounced some of the light from the large panel back into the shadows.

Before and After of Mirror Fill

Mirror fill: Before and After

setup view

View of entire setup.

The final image was shot using a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens. The camera was set to f/14 at ISO 100.

Final image with real ice cream

Final image using real ice cream.

With a little imagination and ingenuity you too can create professional looking food images on a budget, with minimal equipment. In fact, here are a few cheaper alternatives that could have been used to create the image above:

CFL or LED Light Bulbs

The wonderful thing about still photography is that your subject is “still”. This means you can use regular household bulbs to light your scene if you do not have the money for strobes. All you have to do is lower and adjust the shutter speed of your camera, since the bulbs do not emit as much light as a strobe or off-camera flash. Experiment with different bulb wattages, or try alternating the amount of bulbs to create different lighting ratios. Just make sure you have the bulbs placed behind some source of diffusion. By diffusing the lights, you will create a single large light source; otherwise, you will create multiple shadows and weird reflections from the various sources of light.

White Twin Bed Sheet

A white bed sheet is an inexpensive and great form of diffusion. You can attach it to a PVC frame or stretch it between two light stands using spring clamps. The sheets are also great for portrait work. Need a GIANT softbox? Try a king size sheet!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Joel Dryer is a professional commercial photographer and cinematographer, living in Texas.

  • Dawn DeMeo Photography

    It can even be done with a single light through a softbox (or bed sheet, if you prefer) with a reflector opposite and plexiglas underneath. Okay, there’s a bunch of Christmas lights in the background, but I swear they weren’t much help with the exposure. 😉

  • Pete M

    Sometimes you just get lucky sitting at a bar: Natural light from window to right, backlight from bar itself…

  • Michael Owens

    That’s a beautiful shot.

  • Michael Owens

    I’d like to try my hand at product photography at sometime in the future, that’s for sure.
    Is it an easy field to get in to? I have a home studio, and would love to try this with my own products lol

    What are the pitfalls of sharing these images on Flickr for instance, does anyone know? Am I likely to get sued at all? I know it may sound like a stupid question but I want to be safe lol

  • Nice shot Dawn! Love the Christmas lights and plexiglass!

  • Hey Michael! I am of the mindset that it is always better to be safe than sorry. When posting photos of products with copyrighted or trademarked logos, I like to have permission from the company/client. For instance, Dippn’ Dots was very gracious, and gave permission to publish the images above. Take care!

  • Nice bokeh!

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you.

  • Michael Owens

    Thank you for the tips, much appreciated Joel.

  • Kathy Sandlin

    Me playing around

  • Dawn DeMeo Photography

    Thanks!

  • You are most welcome! Take care!!!

  • Jim Singler

    One of our businesses is a bar, so I have lots of opportunities to shoot products (after sampling, of course!)

  • What a great article. Thanks, Joel!

  • Good to see what the real photo takers do, I like to take pictures as they happen which often means with a phone. Food and drink feature a lot in my snaps. Here is 1 I took of a glass of Port wine dining alfresco. I took it with and without the flash and liked the red hue without the flash imparted by the heating lamps. Sony Xperia Z

  • this is really well done!

  • mcversa

    nice!

  • Jinnawat Suphalakorn

    great

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