Food bloggers wear a lot of hats. We have to be chefs, prep cooks, food stylists, photographers, photo editors, dish washers, and writers every time we post a something new. I’ve been wanting to do a post on food photography for a while; everyone who has ever emailed me about my photos: this is for you.
Most food bloggers don’t have their own studios, or professional lighting equipment, or access to food stylists. Here’s how you can make your own high-quality food photos at home no matter what equipment you have.
There is a lot that happens before and after I click the shutter that contributes to the final photo. I’m not a professional photographer, and I’m figuring things out along the way with a lot of trial and error. The only prior knowledge I have is some skills that I picked up in a high school photography class several years ago. A lot of the tips online about food photography are for commercial shoots, and therefore don’t contain much specific information for the home food blogger.
Workflows and techniques are very personal, so I’m sure other food bloggers out there achieve fabulous results doing things differently than I do. This is what works for me, and I hope you find it useful.
Above is just one part of my dish collection, and it grows all the time.
The right dish really sets the overall look for the photo. Everytime I’m in a store that sells dishes, I pick up one or two of something I find interesting. You don’t need a full set. Some general tips:
1. White will always, always work.
2. Square dishes always look classy.
3. Smaller is better — small dishes are easier to fill up with food, which prevents your plate from looking bare.
Also look online for fun dishes. I have a friend who works at Beau-Coup Favors, a neat favors business, and he sent me these great little miniature martini glasses I use in a lot of photos in this post. Just goes to show you how the right presentation can make even a boring vegetable salad look gorgeous.
Do as much as you possibly can ahead of time. Food should be photographed as soon as possible after preparing, which means you’ll need a space for photographing ready to go, an uncluttered kitchen, etc. Here’s what I do before I start cooking:
1. Clean up, do all the dishes, clear countertops
2. Pick out dishes
3. Set camera up on tripod, pick out background
4. Clear your photography space
5. Think about the dish: do you need a garnish? Special utensils? Placemat?
Mise en Place
Prepping all your ingredients neatly will keep your kitchen more organized, cut down on cooking time, and allow you to focus on the task at hand. And mise en place photographs make for killer filler photos, as well!
The image to the left was taken with a point-and-shoot (PnS) at night, with only my kitchen light on. Even better is taking your photos during the day with natural light. The colors will be much more true to real life, like this photo, which was also taken with a simple consumer camera.
But if you’re looking to improve not only your photos but also your equipment, here are some tips for you.
If you are interested in investing a little money in your photography, I’d highly recommend getting a “prosumer” digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera and a trusty lens or two. There are a lot of cameras on the market, but most people find themselves deciding between Canon and Nikon. It’s really difficult to say which is better, and the reality is that they’re both great. I happen to shoot Canon, so my recommendations will be for Canon products, since that’s what I know.
Digital SLR Bodies
I started out with a Canon Rebel XTi, aka the EOS 450D. This is the perfect camera to start out with if you want a dSLR, but don’t want to spend too too much, and don’t want a super clunky camera. Granted, the XTi is much larger than a pocket-sized camera, but compared to other SLRs on the market, it’s downright tiny. You’ll be able to use different lenses, change your aperture and shutter speed, set your white balance, shoot RAW–pretty much everything you’ll want to do to take your photography to the next level.
However, I started with the XTi, and quickly upgraded to the EOS 30D. A little too quickly. I should have spent a little more money up front and gone with the 30D to begin with. But it’s bigger, heavier, and more expensive. Think about what you want in a camera, and go to a store and hold different models before you decide what the right camera is for you. The 40D is out now, and the 50D has been announced, so I bet you could get a pretty good deal on a 30D right now.
Whatever camera you get, I suggest you skip over any camera package that includes what they call a “kit” lens. The lenses the cameras are packaged with are usually semi-poor quality “all purpose” lenses that do a bit of everything, but don’t do anything well. By getting the camera body only, and purchasing the lenses you want separately, you’ll not only save money, but also be getting exactly what you want. But that’s another decision you need to make: what lenses are you going to buy?
There are a lot of lenses you can get that will work for food photography. Here are my recommendations, but keep in mind these are definitely not the only options. The lenses here are ones that I 1) own and use myself and 2) make great photos for things other an food photography. If I’m going to spend a few hundred dollars on a lens, I want to use it for more than just food photography!
Canon 50mm 1.8 $80-90ish
If you’re on a budget and can only buy one lens, I’d recommend this one. It’s cheap compared to other lenses, and is a very “fast” lens. A fast lens is one that has a very wide aperture that creates nice depth of field and can be used in low-light situations (more on all that later). The downsides: slow, loud auto-focus, a cheaply built plastic body, and cannot focus very close to your subject. I owned it and it was great for three months. Then it broke. Still, very highly recommended. It is also a great general lens that you’ll love to shoot portraits with as well.
Canon 50mm 1.4 $325
This is the big brother to the 50mm 1.8. It has all the benefits the of the 1.8, but an even faster aperture, a much sturdier body, closer focusing range, quieter and faster auto-focus and a nicer “bokeh.” (More on bokeh later.) It’s much more expensive but will last you longer, and compared to Canon’s other lenses, this is still on the “affordable” side, believe it or not. I use this lens all sorts of photos. (You can spend even more and get the 50mm 1.2 L series lens, but that’s even more expensive than this one.)
Canon 60mm 2.8 Macro, EF-S $400
You might not think there would be a large difference between a 50mm and a 60mm, so why own both? I’ll tell you why–this lens is a macro lens. A macro lens allows you to really get in there and focus closely on your food (or whatever) and get details you’d be hard pressed to get with another lens. It’s also fast lens and doubles nicely as a portrait lens. I’ve shot the majority of my food photos with this lens, and I’d say if you only were to buy one lens for food photography, this lens or another similar macro lens might be your best investment. However, if you ever plan to upgrade your camera to something nicer than a 30/40/50D, be aware that this lens won’t mount onto the more professional Canon cameras like the 5D and 1D. (But if you’re in the market for a 5D or a 1D, you definitely don’t need my advice!)
As I said earlier, there are lots of lenses that can and do work great for food photography. If you’re a food photographer and have a different lens that you use and love, please leave it in the comments!
Simple Setups, Natural Light
You don’t need to invest in lots of studio equipment to get great images. The very best lighting you can get is free, and it’s coming through your windows every day. Here’s a shot of my “studio”:
A table, next to a window. Done! Well, almost. Since I shoot with natural light only, a lot of times it’s slightly too dark to hand-hold my camera and get a clear image. Use a tripod and you’ll be amazed at how much better your photos get, especially with PnS cameras. Even balancing your camera on a can of tomatoes or a pile of books can save a shot. Tripods very drastically in price, but I have a cheap $30 that has done the trick for well over a year now.
Make your own backgrounds
I love these because they’re cheap, easy to make and customize, easy to store, and fairly durable. I once bought this kit that comes with colored paper, but soon realized the paper gets destroyed after a few uses: it tears, it gets ugly creases in it, and if you spill anything on it at all it’s ruined. The big foam-core boards, on the other hand, wipe clean and don’t bend, and if you do ruin them they’re easy to replace.
As you can see in the photo to the left, they’re easy to swap in and out during a shoot. You can try all different colors before picking the right one for the dish you’re photographing.
One tip: buy matte finish spray paint – glossy paint will cause unsightly glares in your photos.
I’ve already mentioned this, but I can’t stress it enough. It’s nearly impossible to reproduce the wonders of natural sunlight artificially. As far as I know, even big-wig professionals have trouble duplicating it. Yes, it means you’ll need to do your food photography during the day, but I promise you the results are worth it. Nothing looks as nice as sunlit food, and fortunately the sun is pretty easy to use (even if it’s unpredictable). Besides, learning how to shoot with natural, varying light will improve your photography across the board.
Using natural light is probably the number one thing you can do to improve your photos. Turning off the flash, since you’re using lovely natural light, is the second best thing.
I find side-lighting to be the most dependable and easist to expose for. Back-lighting can be very nice, but is harder to manage the correct exposure. Full on front-lighting can work well, too, so experiment with everything.
When using natural lighting, don’t place your food in a sunbeam. You want ambient, diffuse light. Things shot directly in the sun usually look too harsh, but again, it can sometimes work depending on the shot. In my opinion, the “safest” set up is diffuse side-lighting coming from nearby window.
For those of you who are interested in artificial lighting, I’m not the best person to turn to for advice, but I can suggest you look into Lowel Ego lights. I bought a set and have used them on one post only, but I managed to get a good result. This shot was lit with Ego lights at night:
For more information on Lowel Ego lights for food photography, check out Jaden of Steamy Kitchen’s fabulous and detailed review of them.
Take a LOT of Photos
I did a photoshoot for this entry to help illustrate the points I wanted to make. What you see above is every single photo from the shoot, all 93 of them. I think I average around 100 photos taken per recipe, and I whittle them down drastically to just a handful for each post. Buy a large memory card for your camera to make sure you have enough space for all those photos!
I always find it funny how one shot can be “meh”, while another shot take from a slightly different angle, or with a slightly different focus, can suddenly become “WOW!” The best way to ensure you get “the shot” is to take lots and lots of them. Taking lots of photos allows you to be very, very picky when you’re editing, ensuring you never have to post a photo you dislike.
Anatomy of a Shoot
I start out photographing the process of the recipe–chopping, special techniques, assembly, etc. Once the dish is done and plated, I’ll take some “basic” shots which help me establish the lighting, background, what props/garnishes are needed, positioning of the food, etc.
I gradually work my way towards a photograph that feels complete to me, making sure to get all different angles. I try overhead, straight on, close up, environment shots, and many different angles. My photographs start out boring and move towards interesting as I shoot. It’s hard to explain how I plate or frame, but it involves a lot of photos and looking at each photo and saying, “Hmm, the image looks too bare” or “I need to figure out how to emphasize this particular quality of the dish.” As I said before, the more photos you take, the better chance you have of getting that perfect shot.
No matter what kind of camera you have, one thing always applies: turn OFF the flash. A flash will at best make your food look flat and at worst wash out all the details and create unappealing shadows.
If you have a PnS camera, look for a setting that is marked with a little flower. This is your macro setting, and it will help your lens use the best of its close-focusing and detail capabilities.
If you have a larger dSLR with more settings to choose from, here’s what I recommend:
ISO: Set to the lowest possible, probably 100. The lower the ISO, the “cleaner” your image will be. Photos shot at higher ISOs have a lot of digital “noise” in them that looks like colorful static. Higher ISOs are used to increase your camera’s sensitivity to light, allowing you to shoot in darker conditions and still maintain a shutter speed that is fast enough to prevent blurry images. But since you’re using a tripod (right?!), and your food isn’t moving (right?!), it’s best to keep this setting as low as possible for the best looking images.
Flash: Keep it off. Always.
RAW or JPG: If you have a choice, shoot RAW. RAW files record lots and lots information about each photo, which allows you to bring the most out of the image in post-processing (editing color, contrast, white balance, etc.). Be aware that you may need special software to process RAW images, however, and there’s more on that below. If RAW isn’t an option, make sure your camera is set to the highest resolution JPG option available.
Shutter Speed and Aperture: In my opinion, shutter speed doesn’t matter so much in food photography; it’s your aperture, or f-stop, that’s most important. So important, it gets its very own section.
When shutter speed would matter is for “freezing” action, or purposeful motion blur. For example, in the photo of the pancakes, I needed a fairly fast shutter speed to “freeze” the pouring syrup. And lets say you wanted a shot that showed the motion of you tossing greens or sauteing vegetables; a slow shutter speed would be required for that. But on the whole, you’ll be more interested in apertures than shutter speeds.
Know your F-Stops
If you’ve ever wondered how photographers get that nice, blurry background with only one thing in focus, now you know. F-stops! The aperture of the camera is the opening that lets the light in, and you can set it to very large (the photo on the left) or very small (the photo on the right).
Think of the aperture on your camera the same way as the pupil in your eye. When it’s dark out, your pupils expand to gather more light. If someone shines a light in your eye, they constrict and get very small to let less light in. Your camera’s aperture is the same. One of the side-effects is what’s called “depth of field.” When the aperture is very wide open, only a small amount of the image will be in focus, just like the photo on the left. If the aperture is very small, much more of the photo will be in focus.
Your eyes are actually the same. Ever squint to read a street sign in the distance? The smaller your pupils get, the more focus you get, so squinting to see a sign more clearly is just like “stopping down” to a smaller aperture to get more things in focus. If you’ve ever wanted to pick out a specific part of an image to draw the viewers eye, a small depth of field is one way to say, “Hey, look at THIS!”
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to apertures, it’s just a matter of taste. I prefer many images that have very large apertures because I really like the dramatic focus. If you’re looking for this in your photos, too, make sure to purchase lenses that have a an aperture of 2.8 or wider (like 1.4). All the lenses I recommended above can provide this effect.
By the way, the technical term for the pretty, smooth and silky blurry parts of an image like this is called “bokeh.”
Of course, none of this is much help if you don’t know how to set your f-stop, or how to get the proper exposure once you do. The best thing do to is learn how to use your camera on the manual setting. It takes a bit of time to get used to it, but once you do you’ll have complete control over your images. This post is already long enough as it is so I won’t go into it here, but I’m sure there are some great resources online for learning how to use your camera on its manual setting.
One possible way around learning to shoot manually is “Aperture Priority” — a setting that is available on my camera and many dSLRs. On a Canon camera, simply set the dial to Av and use the scroll wheel at the top to set your aperture, big or small. The camera will figure out the corresponding shutter speed to give you the proper exposure. Well, that’s the short of it, anyway. If you need more help with that, feel free to email me.
Whatever subject you’re shooting, you’ll hear people talk endlessly about the Rule of Thirds, and for good reason. It just works. If you’ve never heard about it, definitely check out that link. Like all rules of thumb, you can break it and still get a great photo, but it’s a reliable way to dramatically improve the images you make without much fuss.
For food photography, a lot of times people stand above the dish, take a photo, and call it a day. Overhead shots can work, but try taking photos from lower angles, even level with the food itself.
Also, get in close, but not too close! It’s always important to leave some frame of reference for the viewer so they know what they’re looking at, even if it’s just the edge of the plate, or a fork, or the rim of a glass. You tell me, which close-up photo is more appealing?
I use, and highly recommend, a piece of software called Lightroom to edit and organize my photos. It’s not free, but it is fabulous. Since I shoot in RAW, the images that come directly out of the camera are usually pretty “flat” looking. RAW images require some sort of processing, and most people turn them into high-res JPG files, making edits to color, contrast, sharpening, exposure, and white balance along the way. I tend to boost contrast and color saturation, as well as add vignetting (darkened edges), but it really depends on what I’m trying to bring out in the photo. Here’s an example of two images before and after editing in Lightroom:
It’s hard to make such dramatic changes to a photo if it’s not a RAW file. The information a RAW file keeps allows you to make many non-destructive enhancements. RAW files give you lots of control over how your final image looks.
If you camera doesn’t have the option to shoot in RAW, set it to the highest resolution JPG setting available. And if you’re using a mac, you can start with some basic editing in iPhoto. I feel like Lightroom is a nice middle step between the ease of use of iPhoto and the powerful tools of Photoshop. I know a lot of people also like Aperture, but I’ve never used it myself. If you’re on a PC, I have no idea what programs to recommend, but I’m sure other people do!
Whatever software you use to edit your images, check out the settings and make sure your photos are being edited in the sRGB colorspace (which is good for putting photos on the web) and use a calibrated monitor when editing. Both of these things will help ensure your photos look as good as they can on many different monitors.
The very best advice I can give you about food photography is simply do a lot of it. Like anything, the more you do it the better you’ll get. I’ve only been doing food photography for two years or so and I can see a huge difference in the quality of my shots. The more I learn about photography the more I realize how much more there is for me to learn.
I hope this was helpful for you. Happy shooting, and be thankful that no matter how your photos turn out, you can always eat your work after wards! But if you’re going to get really into food photography, be ready to eat a lot of your meals cold.