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Working with artificial light: first impressions and 9 lessons.

After years of shooting in natural light, I’ve finally taken the plunge. Last week, I bought a flash light, a wireless flash trigger, a mounting bracket and some batteries. I’m repurposing an old, unused soft box. I’m bringing a light stand (also old). But I’m bringing a new attitude. I feel ready. In this post I am sharing my first impressions working with artificial light.

white bread - working-with-artificial-light

Why now?

In the past, I’ve been hesitant to transition to artificial light for my food photography. My excuses have ranged the entire spectrum of “but constraints aid creativity. I can manage fine with natural light” right up to “but artificial light is a huge time/money commitment“. There was even a “but do I really need artificial light for my work ?” somewhere in between. (Notice how they all start with “but“? Who was I arguing with? I don’t know!)

Anyway, last week, I felt ready to explore the world of artificial light. Just like that. No other reason except curiosity and willingness. I like when that happens because then I know that the impulse is natural and is coming from the right place in my head. So I went ahead and committed to a long period of self-learning, making lighting mistakes, and getting inconsistent outcomes with my images – all over again. Just like when I was first learning to shoot with natural light.

Someone once told me that being able to shoot with artificial light is the “right of passage” in a photographer’s journey. Maybe it is. Maybe it is not. It’s too early to tell so ask me again after a year or so. Until then, I’ll keep sharing what I learn, just in case it’s useful to any of you.

[Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post or a product review so I won’t mention brand names. I’ll leave those sorts of things to people that do it well. This post is about my initial experience with choosing and using artificial light. Make of it what you will. As always, I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.]

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” and share your thoughts and comments. (By personal preference I always disable the comments section on this blog).

What type of artificial light to buy?

Like most people buying new gear, I usually consider ease-of-use, space(or size), cost, utility and quality. Unlike most people though, my first concern these days has become “space”. As time goes by, I increasingly prefer a more minimalistic and effort-efficient type of living – that means more empty space and less clutter. So any new purchase has to be “really necessary”, “low maintenance” and “compact“.

Also, since I’m just beginning to test the waters with artificial light, it wouldn’t make sense to spend huge monies before I know what’s what. So I wanted something that is at least somewhat inexpensive if not cheap. As you can see, these two constraints already limit the options.

Next, the tech considerations. I did some research and below is a brief description of the key points I considered.

When it comes to artificial light, there are two major distinctions: Continuous and Flash. Some photographers further classify flash lights as studio strobes and camera flash units, but for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of strobes as more powerful, more complex and more expensive flash lights. And anyways, both give out short, powerful bursts of light when triggered. While flash lights output flashes of light when fired, continuous lights are sources of light that is …well, continuous.

I mostly shoot indoors, in my make-shift home studio, with large windows and plenty of light all round the year. That’s also partly why I enjoyed shooting in natural light all these years. At this point, I don’t do on-site photo shoots, so I don’t have to lug all the equipment around. So portability and ease-of-setup were not my primary considerations. You may have a different set of priorities, based on how you work.

While continuous lighting is great for supplementing the available natural light in your workspace, it also comes with the extra effort of learning how to handle mixed lighting. It could be potentially problematic to manage light coming from different types of sources (artificial and natural) especially at different colour temperatures. In my case, I wasn’t very keen on dealing with these types of problems right away.

You could, of course, avoid this problem by killing all the ambient natural light, and only use continuous light to light your scene. That way, there is just one kind of light to manage. But it also means making your workspace completely dark using dark blinds/screens/curtains. I don’t have a dedicated space for photography, so I cannot (and also do not like to!) cover up the large windows and cut off all the lovely natural light in our home for hours and days. So I decided to go with flash lighting.

Going further down the “flash” path, I learnt that studio strobes while more powerful, are also more complex to understand and manage. They are also more expensive and outside of my current budget.

Considering all of this, I decided to buy a camera flash unit. And as I do with most other gadgets and gear in my life, I went with the mid-range equipment/brand – not much of a compromise on quality, yet not too pricey. Maybe you’d choose differently.

[If you’d like the specifics of the setup I own, feel free to ask me and I’ll send you the details]

Also, checkout the videos I’ve referenced at the bottom of this post if you’d like more information about the different types of artificial light. If you are new to artificial lights, these videos would be a good place to start.

9 lessons I learned from the first few hours photographing with my flash light

Because I am not a big fan of jargon, I’ll do my best to keep this simple.

  1. Flash lights are still lights. All laws of physics/optics governing light in general, will apply to flash lights as well. For example, Shadows will fall behind the object, away from the light source. Sometimes, based on the relative height of the light source, “behind” the object can mean on the ground below (or the backdrop) – just like our own afternoon shadow.
  2. There are two ways to use most flash units: on-camera and off-camera. I am using mine as an off-camera unit. This simply means the flash unit will be off the camera body, away from it – mine’s perched on a light stand. I had to buy a mounting bracket to fix the light on the stand.
  3. And because the flash unit is away from the camera, I’d need a “go-between” unit that would tell the flash to fire when the camera shutter button is pressed. That’s a wireless trigger/transmitter. It sits on the camera body, and when the shutter button is pressed, it will “tell” the flash unit to let out a flash of light. Simplicity itself. Right? ­čÖé (I won’t be discussing the many ways this triggering can be accomplished in this post.)
  4. I am using my flash unit off-camera because I like having the lighting angle separate from the camera angle. (No front lighting). I also like to be able to light the scene from any direction/distance I want, without affecting the camera settings or the overall composition. It gives me finer control to set it up this way. Also, since I mainly photograph food and still life, my scenes are pre-planned and don’t move unless I make them move, so it makes a lot of sense to set up this way for more control.
  5. Since the flash light drowns out all the ambient natural light, I don’t have to worry about ambient light from my windows at all. This makes it faster to set up the scene – I just do the same set as I would for natural light, take a few shots first, then set up the flash unit and shoot again with artificial light. Two for the price of one!
  6. Shadows, oh the shadows. Flash light is meant to be used close to the scene (there is a definite limit to how far away they can be positioned to light the scene). Also, the light has a definite direction. So, the shadows are harsher, sharper, darker (Especially if you are using just one unit, like me). This is not a problem per se. It’s just something to think about before the shoot. Also the shadows will be invisible until after the shot is taken. What you see before the flash/camera goes off, is very different from what you see in the flash-lit shot. So if you don’t want the shadows where and how they are, you’ll have to modify the light in the usual way – diffusers, reflectors or fill cards. Or even more flash units.
  7. Compose with the shadows. When you pre-visualize the scene, you’ll have to take into account each shadow cast by each element – every cup, spoon and fabric. This will have a strong bearing on where you position each element in our frame. You’ll have to look for overlapping of shadows, merging of shadows and also loss of definition/shape/texture because of shadows from other elements in the frame – unless you plan to always diffuse the flash light and make it soft and uniform. In which case the process will be the nearly the same as composing with natural light.
  8. Colours and textures show up differently in harsh lighting. If you want to make use of the shadows stylistically and for a specific effect, you’ll have to be mindful of the colour and texture of the backdrops so they don’t get lost in them. For example, a dark/black backdrop will not show the shadows at all, nor will backdrops with too much texture. There is no right or wrong way, these are just some things to consider beforehand so you can get the photographic mood and effect you are going for. Otherwise the outcomes will be unexpected and inconsistent.
  9. Play with different angles and intensity and distances. There is no better way to understand artificial light than to actually work with it and see what happens. In the beginning, it’s best to choose a single subject and minimal composition and build from there.

That’s all I have for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far. As I learn more, I’ll be sure to make improvements/corrections in my understanding and share those as well.

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” or use the contact form. By personal preference, I disable the comments here on the blog.

Extra info & references:

I found the videos below very good places to start. There is a lot of information out there, but like me, if you get exhausted reading or watching lots of things before hitting the mark, just start with these. They cover all the basics to get you started without the overwhelm. You can always build more understanding as you go.

What artificial light is the best for food photography? (Joanie Simon)

Flash Vs Strobe Vs Continuous light (Skyler)


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How to get started with image editing (post processing)


Prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

Choose material for (a film or radio or television programme) and arrange it to form a coherent whole.

Remove unnecessary or inappropriate material from a text, film, or radio or television programme.

All of these definitions also apply to image post processing. But in this post, I will be looking primarily into the “form a coherent whole” part of the editing process. I’ll explain why.

Correction is so subjective. It can mean totally different things to different photographers, based on their style, end goal and audience. If you are a photographer whose style is muted/desaturated colours, then for you, “correction” for would mean taking the RAW image towards that specific goal. If you are the kind that prefers organic and natural feel to your scenes, you would likely prefer a feather touch with the editing tools. To you altering colours or erasing may even feel “wrong“. Of course there is really no right or wrong in editing. It all totally depends on your style and preference besides what your client or project expects and needs.

So for my use, I’ll redefine image editing in this way:

Post-processing or editing is the process of modifying various aspects and overall mood of your image so it matches your style, preference and intended use.

If you are in the earlier stages of your photographic journey, it’s possible that you are still struggling to find your style/preference. Your ideas are likely dictated by popular trends and/or your favourite photographers. That’s okay. You may be having a hard time figuring out what kind of editing style would work best for your project or subject. That’s okay too. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get you started. By no means are these going to give you all the answers you need, but at least this exercise will give you a set of goals to which you can align your editing process.

Who is the client for this image? (yourself? an agent? a paying client?)

I usually start here because it informs me of the level of creative freedom I have and the approach I need to take for the post processing of any image. If the image is for personal use, I would think further on whether it is for a fun personal project or for a formal portfolio representing my work. If it is just for fun, then sky is the limit. Do whatever floats your boat. Have fun and learn a lot with it. Make multiple copies, edit each copy differently, compare and contrast. This is a great way to learn and keep in touch with tech/tools and also to review how you’ve changed over time. (Don’t be surprised if you totally surprise yourself with that last one!)

If the image is for a portfolio, then I’d recommend you first take a look at what’s already on your portfolio. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my portfolio accurately reflect and represent my current experience/preference/style and photography skills? If not, what can I do to close the gaps?
  2. What is the overall tone of the portfolio gallery? What sort of images do I not see in the gallery? What might I like to include?
  3. What kind of audience/client am I interested in attracting? Are my current images likely to be of interest to them?

And if it is for a paying client, then obviously their preference and the overall requirement of the project will determine the type of editing you have to do.

In the above Venn diagram, at the intersection of three key considerations lies the clue to the creative choices you need to make while editing. As you can see, there is more to editing than just twiddling a few sliders in Lightroom to adjust the contrast, sharpness or hue.

What are the no-go areas for this image?

Once there is some general idea on how to manage the edit, it’s useful to set some limits or constraints. Some constraints may already be imposed by the project/client (orientation, cropping, mood etc.,) and some may be self-imposed driven by your own style and preference (high-contrast/low-contrast, vibrant/muted, soft/sharp and so on). Setting these limits will help determine what your framework for editing would be.

You could even get started with those constraints first – so you don’t forget about them. Once you have a boundary for further edits, it’s easier to play around with the tools and fine tune the adjustments to achieve the best look and feel possible for your image.

What is the vision for this image?

What does vision even mean in practical terms? This was the question that stumped me for very long in the earlier stages of my journey. I think it is the most intangible and changeable aspect of creative learning. But to make it less vague and offer a more practical way get you started, I’ll write down some questions here that help me clarify my “vision” for my own work. Remember that these terms are just what I use for my own clarity of purpose and may not necessarily be “industry standard” classifications of images.

  1. What is the overall feel I want in this image? (clean/crisp, organic/natural, fine art, surreal, stylized and so on)
  2. What is the overall intent of this image? (illustrative, journalistic/narrative, stand-alone art, brand, social media, advertising, snapshot, portraiture and so on)
  3. What is the overall mood/emotion I want to achieve in this image? (Dark/sombre, bright/cheery, thought-provoking, fantasy, and so on)

As you can see, after you answer these questions, you can think about your tool-specific choices more easily and naturally.

It’s funny how we tend to do the opposite in the early stages of our creative journey. In the beginning we tend to jump into the editing software and start tweaking any and every value without thinking of the image as a “whole”. It’s important to realize that the software can only help us achieve our vision if we have one in the first place. Otherwise it will be a whole bunch of inconsistent edits which won’t take our image to its maximum impact potential.

I hope to write more on my experience with each adjustment tool and what specific effect each of them has on the overall vision for an image – hopefully really soon. But for now, I’ll leave you with a fun screen capture of my own editing process for one of my images. I hope it gives you some idea about the many little iterations of adjustments that go into post processing an image to achieve the desired look and feel. And if you’d like to share your own process or add to this discussion, feel free to email me via the simple contact form here.

A brand new workshop here at Boiledbeanstudio!


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How to use Gestalt principle of similarity to create strong compositions in food photography

I like to think of Gestalt principles of visual perception as conclusions based on collective understanding of how we humans perceive things around us. That’s why I don’t treat them as “rules” to be enforced in image compositions but more like tools to help me choose my subjects and what features/attributes I give them while styling and how I arrange them. As I understand more and practice their application in my work, Gestalt principles begin to make more sense and feel more natural. I try to be mindful of visual perception as I make creative choices related to props, colour palettes, lighting and camera angles. These are big subjects and there are many topics to discuss and understand but here in this post, I’ll only be looking into how we could use the Gestalt principle of similarity to strengthen our food images.

What is perceived as similarity?

Let’s look at what registers as similarity to our eyes and brain.

  1. In a pile of fresh citrus fruit, all the oranges will look similar, so your eyes will easily pick them out as belonging together.
  2. In a bunch of mixed flowers, your eyes will easily distinguish the roses from the tulips. And in a bunch of tulips, your eyes will easily pick out the white ones from the orange tulips.
  3. In a group of people, your eyes will easily pick out those that are tall. And in a group of tall people(say while watching a basketball match), your eyes will just as easily pick out those wearing same coloured jerseys as belonging to one team.

Why does this happen?

Similarity of visual features registers as “connection” to us. We tend to naturally connect things that look similar, in our attempt to recognize, classify, understand and make sense of the visual inputs from the world around us.

The analogies above also inform us that things don’t need to be exactly identical in order to be grouped together as similar. Even a few shared key features can look and feel similar to us. Also, the degree of similarity depends on how many of those visual features are shared. Mandarins look more similar to each other than they do to clementines or tangerine oranges. Oranges will look more similar to each other than they do to other citrus fruit like lemons, limes or pomelos. Citrus fruit look more similar to each other than they do to other fruit like apples, banana or pineapples.

Some visual features (like colours) have a stronger ability to connect than some others (like shapes). For example, in the image below, the little sauce bowl containing a bright red chilli sauce gets unified with the bright red pepper, even though they are not the same shape. And because of that, even though there are only four red peppers here, the fifth red element creates the same effect as another red pepper would have and attracts eyes to the focal point of the middle pepper. Notice that even though one of the peppers has a different orientation, we hardly register that fact – the shared bright red colour dominates the other visual features here.

[This was me trying to implement the compositional rule of odds with an even number of red peppers with the help of principles of perception ­čÖé This now feels like 5 red elements rather than 4 peppers and one bowl – so think about this the next time you have limited resources during a photo shoot!]


Let’s see how we can use this understanding to make better images with the help of more examples.

How to use the principle of similarity to create a sense of stability, motion, direction or height

If you’ve studied photographic composition, you already have some basic tools you can use to convey meaning through your image: lines to convey direction or create motion, repetitions/patterns to convey structure or rhythm, and visually balance to create cohesive compositions. And you may also know how to use cropping guides such as golden ratio, triangle, golden spiral, diagonal etc., to arrange your subject(s) along the strong lines/areas of interest so that your image has more impact. There are many ways to implement these composition tools and rules in your image, but let’s look at how the similarity principle can help with this.

In the image below, I’ve used a simple method. The asparagus stalks are already very “line-like” and similar in colour. I’ve trimmed them to create similarity of size and then arranged them to create similarity of orientation to create repeated vertical lines that feel like they are directed upward.


In the image set below, I’ve used the same principle to create lines of different types. The first image(left) creates horizontal lines. Your eyes would likely pick out two sets of lines – one created by cucumber and another by the dark spaces in between. Food subject is used to convey the natural characteristics of stability and solid structure offered by horizontal lines.

The second image(middle) creates slightly curvy, somewhat-vertical lines by the use of similar mini-pretzels. They convey motion and flow – just as naturally occurring curved lines tend to do. They help eye movement because of how they are arranged and their similarity to one another.

The third image(right) creates diagonal lines using asparagus heads which are similar in shape and size. And because strong diagonal lines tend to create a sense of dynamism and motion, this composition feels that way as well.

How to use the principle of similarity to achieve repetition, pattern or rhythm.

Let’s look at how similarity can achieve repetition and rhythm in a composition. In the example below, all the spices are of different colours, sizes, and texture. They are even in jars of different heights and shapes. But because I shot them from overhead, they are unified by the circular mouths of the their containers (even though varied in their sizes). In this way, because of the similarity of shape, they all look similar, even if they are not.


In the next image, the ground spices are all different in colour and texture. But because I’ve created little mounds of similar shape and size, they create a sense of repetition.


How to use the principle of similarity to create strong compositional shapes or curves

In the first image below (left), I’ve arranged identical pumpkin shaped rolls in an S-curve. At the top edge, the actual pumpkin visually connects with the rolls below because of similar shape and colour. And because of the shared visual features, this is now perceived as a single S-curve creating flow in the frame. If I had only used the four rolls, the S-curve may not have been as effective.

The second image also creates an S-curve but this time in multiple ways. The first one is created by the round plates and the second via the triangular yellow wedges on the plates.

The third image creates a triangle of avocado because they are similar.

Interestingly, the fourth image(extreme right) creates two triangles. Can you see why?


How to use the principle of similarity to create visual balance.

In the image below, I’ve created diagonal lines on opposite edges using similar branches. This creates visual balance and also guides attention to what’s in between.

Fresh mango Gestalt principle of similarity

In the image below, the pouring action creates a red line which achieves continuity and connection with other similar red liquids even though they are in glasses of different shapes and sized, making a stronger U-shape composition [or a lazy-C if you see it that way ­čÖé].

Juice in various glasses Gestalt principle of similarity

Our eyes tend to unite and connect the vertical elements together. So the red line created by the pouring action balances the tall branch on the right side of the frame. If you can imagine the image without one or the other of the vertical elements, you’ll see what I mean. Now, besides visual balance, we also get a sense of height. The two vertical elements framing the composition seem visually connected.

In the first image below (left), even though the blood orange on the left is much bigger, because of clear similarity of colour, shape, texture and size, the two smaller halves on the right visually balance this composition, which would have otherwise looked a bit lopsided.

In the second image, the bright red tomatoes near the diagonally opposite edges balance the visual attention.

In the third composition, I’ve created a second triangle arrangement by using similar colour and they balance the coffee triangle in the front. Without this second arrangement, the compostiion had too much white space at the back and not much to guide our eyes.

How to use the principle of similarity in multiple ways to create more interest in compositions

Lastly, let’s look at a composition where I’ve used similarity of colours to create continuity, curves/flow, lines/directions. All at the same time.

How do you see this image below: as a C-shaped grouping of fresh produce? Or a green S-curve, sweeping your eyes from the bottom to the top edge? Do you see this as an incomplete circle? Also, can you see how the carrots help navigate your eyes across the frame? the visual connection created by the colour purple – onions, radicchio, dry kidney beans all bordering the C-curve and strengthening it?

I’ve attempted to strengthen this composition by using multiple levels of similarity. I hope you will find it a good illustration for using the principle of similarity in multiple layers.

multi-coloured fresh vegetables|boiledbeanstudio food photographer berlin

I’ll leave you with this image (below) which I created a couple of years ago. At the time I knew even less about the rules of composition or laws of perception. I was happy to play & produce images in a hit-and-miss manner rather than applying solid foundational tools of composition.

When I look at this image now, I see a bit of imbalance in the composition. The visual weight of the green lettuce seems to make the entire image top-heavy. The bright red pepper on the left feels a bit lopsided too. There is nothing to balance it on the right side). There is also not much to guide the eyes around the image so the viewer sees whatever interests them. Probably they’ll just look at the red pepper, the green lettuce and move on. Maybe this is just me picking apart my own past work like most of us all tend to do. Maybe you’ll find more things wrong with it. Or maybe you’ll see nothing wrong with it. That’s okay.

The idea is to observe what happens when the principle of similarity comes into play in an unintentional, unplanned way. Feel free to make your own observations and conclusions on whether or not the perception of similarity created unconsciously works for the composition or against it.

Fresh vegetables Gestalt principle of similarity

Until next time, stay well and keep practising.

For lots of intentional practice with smartly designed constraints for your food (or still-life/product) photography, head to our free app Photocue and practice to your heart’s content.

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Photocue – online Photography practice app by Boiledbeanstudio

Concept, video creation and editing by Jay at Created with Canva.

Over 1500 unique set of constraints for you to practice!! And it’s free.

Try our free online app Photocue today. A constraint-based intentional practice tool designed with love at Boiledbeanstudio. For photographers like you.