Tales from the Assist – Cake vs Auto Exposure

Alternately titled “When bad camera settings happen to good cakes

It wasn’t a pretty sight, such a tasty dessert under such unpleasant gymnasium lighting. One of the perks of playing around with ideas exploring concepts as an assistant allows me moments to peruse photographic studies of ambient lighting, off-camera illumination, and the posting of my comparisons thereof.

Wedding Cake Lighting Tutorial lit full
The finished image with 2 off-camera lights – no additional editing!

For illustration purposes I’m going to keep this “how-to / before & after” clean and post the images straight out of camera, or #SOOC.

Wedding Cake Lighting Tutorial gym lighting
Can’t you feel the ambiance of amorĂ©? Ack! The Hoosiers wouldn’t have played in this lighting.

The first of these “available light only” style photographs was taken without any flash or DJ lighting. That green exit sign sure is setting the mood for romance, no?

Wedding Cake under gym lighting
Wedding cake under vapor bulb lighting. This will all end in tiers.

A little closer in, the “ambient light only” photography gets some warm lighting loving from the floating candles, an improvement on the wide angle gymnasium overhead lighting photo above. I’m a few lens caps’ thickness shy of 6 feet tall, this is my “guest angle” holding the camera at eye level while standing a few feet from the table, where your bouncers should be to keep guests and the little ones away from dessert.

Note anything distracting you from the cake? Shiny power outlet on the wall with extension cord sticking out of it? Baseboard line leading your eye out of the frame? Napkins, plates and utensils on the table.

Tech specs: Nikon D700 FX body at ISO800, 1/50 second shutter, 24mm f/2.8 lens wide open at f/2.8

FREE TIP: change your perspective before changing any camera settings! Get closer, cut out distracting backgrounds, line up your shot before worrying about lighting up your shot.

Wedding Cake Lighting Tutorial one light off camera
One off-camera light lights the cake. Your photographer -does- have at least one, right?

On to the off-camera lighting. Using one cheap, manual flash pointed into a shoot-through umbrella camera left. (How you fire the flash is up to you – sync cord, optical slave trigger, Creative Lighting System style in-camera control, radio remote… the list goes on. Those are for another post.)

I dropped to table level to get a straight-on perspective with the same lens as above.

Wedding reception cake lighting tutorial

Here’s the wide shot I first showed but with the off camera lighting instead of ambient gymnasium wedding reception lighting.

Technical settings: Nikon D700 FX body at ISO800, 1/250 second shutter, 24mm f/2.8 prime lens at f/6.3 aperture

Wait, did I speed up the shutter speed in low light? Setting it to the fastest it can go to sync with the flash cuts out that background color shift I didn’t care for on my dessert. This idea took me a minute to wrap my brain around when I started using off-camera lighting. If the existing light doesn’t compliment the look you want, eliminate it as best you can.

Wedding Cake Lighting Tutorial lit full

Taking a knee and changing focal length makes a good difference in perspective. (Note the flare flying in from the top right side. Pan away from the light source to cut that out, or toward for more JJ Abrams type flare effect.)

These are the basics of taking photos in a warehouse of wonder and walking out with not just usable, but distinct detail shots that your clients and you will thank yourself for making. A little extra effort for a whole different, and dare I add better, look.


Vintage School LetteringGot your camera out and can’t get the shot you want? Wonder what those buttons and menus on your camera do? Tired of reading screens and manuals and just want to go shoot? Book a one-on-one tutorial session with me on topics you choose, Q&A, and demonstrations.

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