Many years ago (1996 I think) on a trip to Washington DC with our kids and my mom we walked by a vendor selling picture postcards. He called out over and over “Eight postcards for a dollar – ALL DIFFERENT!” It was one of those moments we all remember and often paraphrase that line today; for example, at Thanksgiving “Eight side dishes – ALL DIFFERENT!”. Well this project required 120 pictures – ALL THE SAME. That’s right I took 120 pictures of exactly the same scene in order to find the best light modifier for my cooking pictures.
Most of the food blog sites I visit have beautiful pictures: great composition, beautiful backgrounds, and perfect lighting. Those pictures are often what get me interested in cooking this or that dish. But, I don’t think that is how the cooks really cook – and that is okay. My cooking pictures are more along the line of “here’s what it is really like making this dish.” Not that I’m trying to blow anyone’s cover; it’s that my style is more reporting based than art based. Oh, I do want to take the best possible pictures of what I’m doing. I’ve played around with backgrounds, composition, and lighting myself. Over the years I’ve improved my photography lighting and get good results using two off-camera flashes mounted in reflective umbrellas. That results in a lot of clutter in the kitchen and we often have people over and the setup gets in the way and takes the attention away from company and the food itself. I need some additional lighting for my food pictures; the normal lighting is a mishmash of natural light, fluorescent under counter lights, and incandescent (or LED) can lights. The result is shadows and uneven lighting. So, I embarked on a project to get the best lighting I can out of my Sony A6600 camera with a small Good TT350s camera mounted flash.
I knew that pointing the flash directly at the subject would result with unpleasing direct light, 2o, I’d need to use a diffuser or other modifier. I had a couple of various flash modifiers laying around and added to the list with a few cheap ones from Amazon. Three weeks ago I started with a few diffusers and my camera set up in Aperture mode and no settings overrides. Unfortunately, the camera settled on an ISO of 5000 resulting in some well lit but very noisy photos. But I learned a lot from that round so I moved forward with a more informed set of choices.
- Aperture Priority Mode
- f/Stop: 8.0 to get a decent depth of field
- ISO: 400 and 800
- Shutter Speed: Determined by camera. It ended up being 1/60th of a second for most pictures.
- White Balance: Auto
- Flash Mode: TTL (Through The Lens)
- Flash Compensation: 0.0 ==> 3.0 in ⅓ step increments. (The flash goes from -3.0 to +3.0 but I knew that lower than 0.0 would be too dark)
I picked an available set of food and food packages on my kitchen counter where I normally take my prep pictures. I then mounted the camera on a tripod zoomed in slightly to include everything. Once set up, I mounted a modifier and set the ISO to 400 and the Flash Compensation to 0.0. I then shot a series of 10 photos incrementing the Flash Compensation by ⅓ of a step: starting with 0.0. I knew lower flash power would result in too dark of a picture.
FC: 0.0 ==> 0.3 ==> 0.7 ==> 1.0 ==> 1.3 ==> 1.7 ==> 2.0 ==> 2.3 ==> 2.7 ==> 3.0
Six diffusers x 10 f/stops x 2 ISO settings = 120 pictures.
I got a wide range of lighting. From very dark (FC = 0.0 / ISO 400)
to very bright (FC 3.0 / ISO 800)
Get used to that scene; you’ll see more!
I imported the photos into LightRoom Classic made a few edits
- Set the White balance.
The card on the left is a WhiBal reference card. It is a certified neutral gray and you can use the Lightroom Classic white balance dropper to identify the right amount. I also included a neutral gray cloth I had picked up somewhere in the scene. It set the White Balance a couple of hundred points warmer.
- Cropped: I cropped one photo then copied that crop to all the others. The two images above are pre-crop.
- Used the “Auto” button in LightRoom Classic to set the tone.
- Made further minor tweaks to white balance as needed. Our brown granite countertop is a tough background to shoot on.
I quickly determined that I did not need to up the ISO to 800 so I eliminated that whole set. Lower ISO means less noise. Then I played Goldilocks. Flash Compensation of 0.0 was too dark, 3.0 was too bright, what was just right? I spent a long time using the LightRoom Classic X/Y view to pick the best. It came down to FC of 1.0 and 1.3. For some reason the higher FC had less glare on the blueberry syrup bottle. Here are the “best” shots using each light modifier. I’m including at least two pictures for each product below; the first shows the modifier, the second the picture I decided is the scene at Flash Compensation 1.3.
Newer Flash Diffuser Silver/White Reflector
This is a large card with an elastic strap that connects around the flash head. I only used the white side. It is the cheapest of the modifiers I used ($11).
Look closely at the blueberry syrup bottle and you can see how a FC of 1.0 ends up with a tad bit more glare that 1.3. That is counter-intuitive; I’d have thought the brighter flash would cause more glare.
The rest of the pictures will only include the FC 1.3 setting
FStoppers Flash Disc Portable Speedlight Softbox
This modifier is more of a diffuser than reflector; it is made of two sheets with a little pouch that slides over the flash head. I bought this light modifier a few years ago and at the time of writing this, it is not available on Amazon; but there are some knockoffs. It’s nice and big to allow plenty of diffusion.
This created a noticeable hot spot over the “GO” in the “GORDO” bean package.
Rogue FlashBender 3 Small Softbox Kit – Reflector only
I have a larger Rogue FlashBender for my large flashes so bought this smaller one to try. The reflector is constructed so it can be bent to create the shape desired. You can even roll it up and use it as a snoot (spot light). I used it flat.
Rogue FlashBender 3 Small Reflector. ISO: 400; Flash Compensation 1.3
The hot spot over the “GO” on the bean package is much less of an issue; but the beans on the very top of the bag are a bit washed out.
Rogue FlashBender 3 Small Softbox Kit – Reflector with Softbox
The kit I bought from Adorama a includes a Softbox panel to turn it into a diffuser rather than just a reflector.
This setup did an excellent job. Notice the top of the bean bag. Most of the light modifiers left a big shiny patch. This still has the reflection over the “GO” in GORDO; but you can clearly see the beans at the very top of the bag.
Newer Universal Soft Mini Flash Bounce Diffuser Cap.
This is just a little “sock” that slides over the flash head. It is so small I didn’t have high hopes for it. I think I got it as part of a bundle a few years ago and stashed it at the bottom of my flash kit drawer.
I am pleasantly surprised by the performance of this little light modifier. The blueberry syrup bottle doesn’t have a lot of glare, you can see that top layer of beans in the bag and it has even less glare over the “GO” in GORDO than does the Rogue FlashBender with reflector. The white balance is a little warm, but that can be easily corrected.
I got this setup a few years ago when it was part of a KickStarter project. It’s quite expensive. You need at least two pieces to start: first is the MagMod MagGrip which is a big silicone rubber band that stretches over the flash head. It has two powerful magnets to which you connect your desired light modifier. The starter kit – which costs $100 – has the MagGrip, a MagGrid which manages light spill, and the MagSphere – a large silicone bulb that sits atop the MagGrip – which is different than the one I used. My explanation is tedious, if you are interested go to their website linked in the title. But be forewarned – they don’t have much in stock,.
This does a nice job, but it is expensive and very bulky. It can be a great setup for a big flash but is too cumbersome for my little Sony A6600 and Good TT350s flash.
- The shiny bottles reflected each light modifier. Zoom into the pictures and you can see the shape of the modifier used. I don’t take my pictures in a perfectly lit studio and knew this would be the case going in. It is a downside I accept given the parameters of the project. Heck, I get the bright spots even using reflective umbrellas.
- I had to look closely to determine which diffuser was the “best”. My top choices are…. (drumroll)
- Rogue FlashBender v3 with soft box. Using just the reflector produced more glare than I like on the package of beans.
- Newer Reflector (Large Card). It’s a close runner up. Its very easy to set up and is one of the lower priced modifiers I used.
- Newer Universal Soft Mini Flash Bounce Diffuser Cap. To be honest, it is so small, I just want to discount it, but the results are actually okay.
- Flash Compensation has to be set on the camera, not the flash. I don’t know if that is a problem with the Godox TT350s flash itself or if I have a bent connector. Changing the flash power on the flash has no effect on the lighting. It took me a couple of hours of playing around prior to this project to learn that limitation.
I’ve set up one of the memory slots in my camera to hold the settings:
- Camera: Sony A6600
- Lens: Sony 18-135mm (SEL18135)
- Mode: Aperture Priority
- Aperture: 8.0 (Will adjust as needed throughout a project)
- ISO: 400
- Shutter Speed: Automatic – set by camera.
- White Balance: Auto (Adjust in post processing)
- Flash Mode: TTL (Through The Lens)
- Flash Compensation: 1.3
Of course, I don’t recommend you just grab your camera, put the settings like this and shoot away. Different brands and different models will be different. I hope this exercise gives you an idea of how you might do a lighting project like this for yourself.
Note: I am not an Amazon affiliate and don’t get any reimbursement from the links in any of my posts. I’m just a hobbyist combining photography with other things I like to do.