Mailbag: Budget Lighting Options

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!

  • Cheryl

    Lara, I’m excited about this new series and will try not to pummel you with questions. But mine might make a good follow-up post: I do have a speedlight (430 EXII), but it scares me. It’s got so many buttons and I’m not quite sure how to use it properly. Maybe you can provide a little tutorial for the flash-challenged? If you already have this info on your site, I would love a link, and then I’ll hang my head in shame.

    • L

      Hi Cheryl,

      Pummel away!

      And the speedlight post is a great idea. I don’t have a post on it yet (I really just started using mine about 6 months ago).


  • Kalynskitchen

    Hi Lara,

    I’m all in favor of a question-answer feature on your site. Look forward to it.

    I have the Lowel Ego Light Set, which I love to use when I don’t have enough natural light. But I don’t think it uses standard household light bulbs. At least on the light bulb package it says “Mini-Spiral 27 Watt Compact Fluorescent Photo Lamp.” Am I just clueless about the difference between different types of light bulbs, because the light seems much different with the lowel bulbs? The set uses four bulbs, two inside each of the wrap-around stands that filter the light. It also comes with a stark white background (you can attach colors to it, but I never do) and two bounces that I use all the time, even when I’m not using the bulbs.

    Before I had the two-light set, I bought just the Lowel bulbs and used them inside those round metal reflector light fixtures that clamp on, facing towards the ceiling so the light bounced down, or filtered through a piece of vellum (which I learned about from you way back at BlogHer in Chicago!)

    • L

      Hi Kayln,

      Great point… the Ego lights do use compact fluorescents, but you don’t need special ones from Lowel, who lists their price at $21. You just need the same wattage/voltage and to look for ones that say Full Spectrum, so they are a warmer daylight colored light. You can find them online for about 1/2 the price on Lowel’s site. I use compact fluorescents at home in almost all of our lights that have standard sockets because they are so much more efficient.


  • Kalynskitchen

    Hi Lara,
    Thanks for clarifying that, and good to know! I do have a couple of extra bulbs right now, but I’ll remember this when mine burn out. Thanks!

  • Anita / Married …with Dinner

    I had a Lowell Ego setup, but I sold it; to my eye, the light was unnatural looking and creepy, and it made the food look dead — even more so than other artificial light sources. I know other bloggers who love them, though.

    • L

      Huh, I haven’t seen that really be a problem… maybe unless the whole thing was in a big light box type setup. Just curious – was it a color thing (and how were you setting/correcting your white balance) or more of a shadow thing (and if so, where did you position the light?)

  • david


    I’ve been using a couple of flashes; Nikon and Canon with a Vivitar. The batteries have become a big issue; endurance. Currently, I’m using the Energizer Lithium batteries. They’re double the price of conventional types, but for the flash seems to last all day shooting events.

    The rechargeable in the past had pooped out on me before the job was done. Although, I haven’t given them a chance these days. What sort of mileage are you getting from the NiMh?

    • L

      I doubt you could get a full day with the NiMhs (I do, but I use my flash rather sparingly), but it’s easy and quick enough to have a few sets and to switch out as needed. The 2700s seem to give a better refresh time than when I was using AA, but it’s not a huge difference. The big thing for me was I hated always having to buy more batteries… or, rather having to throw away so many.

  • Mélanie

    Thank you very much for this new series, I look forwarding reading more of your advices!
    I just bought a new camera and lens, so I don’t have any budget for lighting yet. I try to take all my pictures on the week-end, with daylight, but in winter even that is not enough… I know that without any equipment it won’t be perfect, but do you have any advise on how to get the best possible? I know that some lightbulbs have the same color than daylight. are they efficient?
    Thanks a lot

  • Amir


    I am visiting here for the first time, and I thought your more savvy readers could be reminded about Strobist and his L101 series in contexts like this.

    Regarding NiMH batteries, after reading this review, I went and bought a chip-controlled charger (could be any of MAHA’s, La Crosse’s or others’) and a few sets of “hybrid” NiMH batteries (could be any of eneloop, ReCyco+ or others), which are typically rated at only ~2000mAH but last much longer than “regular” NiMH @2700mAH. Do not throw away any old rechargeables, though, because, according to my new charger’s manual, they can be resurrected several times before they absolutely end their lives.


  • Kristina@FormerChef

    I recently got the two lowel ego lights so I could take photos of food at night which is when I do most of my cooking.
    I’m having a problem getting it right. The lighting either looks harsh or with the flash off, too dark. Do you have any tips on which camera settings I should be using or how to position the lights? I have a nikon D40x with a small speedlight flash.

  • Ben

    Lara – My questions for your email bag are:

    1.) How to setup a studio for food photography.
    2.) What equipment your using for 2010.

    Thanks Lara, love your blog(s).

  • david

    @Amir, I like the MAHA charger. The rechargeable batteries are sensitive to improper charging. This sounds like a good investment for portable lighting.

    @kristina. You can look into getting some diffusion materials from the camera store. The trade name is TransLume; comes in large rolls 4′ wide, 40′ long … about $95- It’s used to drape over a c stand, in front of the light source. It will soften up the light, but still deliver the contrast.

  • donna good

    thanks so much for this post on lighting…one thing i still need to explore more fully.

  • Xiaolu

    Hi Lara, I love you blog and photography. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a question, but I’d love if you did a tutorial on the setup for a backlit natural lighting food shot such as this one from your Flickr:

  • Cooking with Kait

    I am so glad I came across your website. Thank you for the lighting tips. I can’t wait to go home and take some pictures by our big window in the living room.

  • Nathan Ciurzynski

    I just did my first food shoot and I used 90% natural light with a reflector. Occasionally I used a Canon 580EX II speedlite off camera with a Paul C Buff radio trigger. Here’s a peek at the set:

  • Corina

    Hi Lara,

    I have a question about Lowell Tota lights: do I need two pieces of it or one it is enough?


    • L

      Hi Corina – That kind of depends on the style of lighting you like to use. I typically only use 1 light, but some people like to use two to even out the shadows.

  • Corina

    Thanks a lot. Taking in account the budget I will start with one if there is no “must use 2”.:)

  • Denver Food Photographer

    I would just say if you’re going to spend that kind of money on lights,…. just get good speedlights, and learn how to use triggers.