Back in the good old days of 2007 I started a post series called Mailbag where I posted and tried to answer questions that I get from readers. It was a good idea, because I find myself quite frequently answering the same kinds of questions over and over. But, I never quite got around to making that into a regular series... two doesn't quite sound like a series does it?
For 2010, I'm going to start it up again, beginning with this question from a reader about a budget lighting:
I am an amateur photographer and enjoy taking pictures of food. Currently I’m trying to put together a family recipe book with photos. The lighting in my kitchen is not very good. I found your blog and I read the blog post about food photography gear from 2006. My question is about lighting gear. Do you still recommend the Tota-Pak or V-Light Pak? $200 would be about tops for my budget. Any recommendations would be appreciated.
My first recommendation, if your kitchen doesn't have good light, would be to find a different room in your house with a window. You only need one good sized window, and a table set to its side. My kitchen doesn't get good light either. My studio is upstairs, with windows on the south and west sides. On sunny days, cover the window with a very sheer curtain or some tissue or vellum to soften the light or it will be too harsh.
But of course, there are still times that sunlight just won't work, like when you are trying to shoot your dinner (or, in Seattle sometimes in dead of winter, your late lunch). So, having a nice, compact lighting set is nice to have.
The Lowell Tota's are good lights. They worked very well for me getting started... the bulbs last a long time, they give nice soft light when used with the umbrellas, and they are pretty compact. One thing to be aware of is that these lights do get very, very hot and are somewhat easy to knock over, so be very cautious running them around small kids or pets.
The other option, which is a bit less expensive, is the Lowell Ego light system which uses standard household lightbulbs (Update: they use compact florescent, which everyone should be using now anyway! See the comments for more on the replacement bulbs). These are super easy to use, and work quite well for tabletop work. As long as that is all you are doing, I'd probably say go that way. The Tota's are more flexible though if you want to get wider shots, like people cooking in the kitchen.
I still use natural light 85% of the time, but I've moved to an off camera speedlight kit (with pocket wizards) which is super compact for taking on location, and battery powered so I don't have to worry about finding electrical outlets near where I'm shooting (something you will have to think about with either of the Lowell lights mentioned above). You can get a very simple speedlight kit for about $249. I use rechargeable Nimh batteries because they do chew through the batteries pretty quickly.
Do you have questions? Send them my way!