Let’s get creative. The global situation sucks, and I’m stuck inside when I want to be making photos. This is a little project you can do at home on the dining table with the kit you have…

Table top photography is invariably about styling a stationary subject, putting it in interesting light and finding the right angle to photograph it from. Up above is the final shot, but below you’ll find some more shots to help you see how I got the result with one off-camera light, no light stands, or what you would call a light modifier.

Styling a bowl of fruit is hardly my specialty, and there are a whole lot of people whole just moved on to another webpage after seeing that shot above. Stay aboard and let me help you out with the setup.

What you see is a wooden chopping board from the kitchen balanced on a book on my dining room table. There’s a few black cards, the middle of some photo mounts I cut, and a sheet of translucent material clipped in amongst the black cards. Lighting is a Speedlite balanced on a coffee mug.

Please note that for the setup shot, I used another camera and flash with the light bounced from the ceiling to evenly illuminate the whole setup.

EOS 7D Mark II has a built in flash that will control remote Speedlite flashes wirelessly with pulses of light from the camera flash. I selected E-TTL automatic flash, but you can do it in manual too.

Pretty much the only essential is an off-camera flash and a way to trigger it from your camera.

I used a 100mm macro lens, but as the object is not that small it just meant I could narrow the field of view. Other lenses work fine if you don’t have a macro lens. Zoom your lens in and move the camera back. A 70-200mm lens will be fine, but use what you have.

Relative light size and direction

For a soft gentle light on your subject, you need a relatively large light. By keeping my subject small, a large light needs only to be 10cm x 20cm or 4 x 8 inches.

In my setup I used a piece of opaque plastic material called Translum, which you can get online from photo dealers. However in the spirit of use what you have, any kind of paper that lets light through will be ok. Kitchen parchment paper will add warmth, tracing paper or a single layer of tissue is fine. The aim is to illuminate that sheet of material / paper / plastic so that it presents a relatively large light source to the small subject. For my setup I have a 10cm /4-inch wide gap between two bits of black card. That means my light on the fruit and bowl is about 10cm wide and 20cm, 8-inches, tall.

I want the light to come from one side, to create shadow and highlight, so I ensure the Speedlite is pointing in from the side to illuminate my Translum. You can also see that I’ve tilted the Speedlite head up a little to try and make the top of the light brighter than the lower section. I did this to since I wanted the light on the fruit to be slightly from above, as if they were sat on a window sill lit with sunlight. That should be another reminder, that if you have no flash you can do this with window light too…

The wrong direction of light

Off-camera flash is hard – actually not – so you might just cheat and point the on-camera flash straight at the subject… I did that and it looks less good as you can see below.

If you think , “I’ll bounce the light off the ceiling, it will be large and soft”. You’re right, but it is coming from the wrong direction and is so even it doesn’t help. The ceiling is quite a long way from the subject, meaning you have little fall off in the intensity of the light from the top of the strawberries to the blueberries around the bowl, as you see below.

Adding some fill light

Initially I took some shots without the white “reflector” on the right of the scene. It means you get deep shadows on the right of your subject, and I wanted them a bit less dark. Quick break out another light, in the form of a white sheet of paper or card, and have it return some of the light in to the shadows.

Without the fill card on the right, the shadows were just too dark. If you hadn’t had the black cards on the right of the setup, then you might have got fill from the room or complete darkness. I thought about fill, and tried it initially from about 45 degrees to the right side, but it wan’t working for me, so I moved it fully to the right, directly opposite my Translum light.

I hope that this gives you a bit of inspiration to try something for yourself. I’d love to see your results. I’m planning to do more table top setups whilst in isolation, I clearly have much to learn about styling the scene.

Camera recipe

  • A camera, helps if it can control a flash off-camera or use a remote trigger / cable / optical slave.
  • Lens – 70-200 or macro is ideal, but an 18-135mm or 24-105mm is ok too.
  • Speedlite that can be fired off-camera
  • Set manual exposure on the camera, I used 1/250s (sync speed), f/8 and ISO 200 this will pretty much eliminate the daylight from the scene.
  • One AF point and position it where you need or use manual focus. Live view might help you focus precisely

What can you learn from this kind of exercise?

  • How to control your Speedlite off-camera – if you’re stuck please ask
  • How to modify the light from your Speedlite without commercial modifiers
  • How to create sets out of stuff you have at home
  • How a few bits of white and black card can be used to control light

About the author

Full-time photo tutor and photographer. I love to share my knowledge and skills to make photos, videos and teach others. I write books and articles for photo magazines and I always have at least one Speedlite flash in my camera bag