Tips on Food Photography

Yes! Tips on Food Photography! I have been following her blog for quite a while and I am always very very impressed by all her dessert shots! They look so yummy that I wish I could take them off the screen and have a bite!

You probably would have guessed who I’m referring to. I am very honoured and happy that Helen, the blog owner of Tartelette has put together a very good piece of information with photo illustrations, sharing with us her views and tips in food photography. Or, to be precise, desserts photography.Her photography is amazingly beautiful and elegant; not to mentioned about her baking skills! Please welcome Helen today to share with us her tips in photography desserts!

Leemei asked me to come talk about my food photography at the same time as I was about to do a FAQs for my blog so I took it as a sign I had to sit down and put my answers in writing.

I am not here to tell you what you should do and to only do what I do but rather to tell you what works for me and the things I have learned and integrated in my own photography these past few years. When it comes to food photography work flow is very personal and I only shoot desserts, which is a different beast than shooting savory items but I hope that you will find some useful tips in my experiences.

Remember that nothing is set in stone and all rules can be bent to achieve the result you desire and that what works for me may not work for you. Practice, practice, practice!

Whether you have a Point and Shoot or a DSLR, know that the equipment does not make the photo or the photographer. The reason why I upgraded to a DSLR is primarily because I wanted more mega pixels and higher resolution pictures for prints but also because I felt I had exhausted the use of my point and shoot and was ready to graduate.

I have been food blogging for a little less than 3 years and started with a Canon A610. Last February, I upgraded to a DSLR, a Canon Rebel XTi. I got the body only, forgoing the kit lens that would usually come with it, and bought a couple of prime lenses.

The first one was a Canon 50mm f/1.8 which I absolutely love and is a great investment at around $80. The second one was a Canon 100mm macro f/2.8 which was more expensive but if you keep an eye on photo equipment brokers like KEH and B&H, you can get great deals at great quality. Having a couple of prime lenses is a great investment: quality is high and they often have a wider aperture range and you can treat them as zoom lenses by just moving back and forth close and away from the food as you wish.

Even if I solely shoot with a DSLR now, there are still basics that apply to all cameras whether you shoot film or digital, point and shoot or SLR.

1) Light and Lighting

I shoot solely in natural light. I have nothing against using flashes when it comes to photographing food but it does require a new learning curve and equipment that I do no budget in right now. I also do not use artifical lights like light boxes, nothing against those either but I am very lucky to live in the South where there is a lot of sunshine and the room where I shoot is very well lit.

When I first started shooting, I used the coffee table next to the kitchen, with two large windows to my left. But I like to collect props, backgrounds and combined with the minimum photo equipment that I use, all this was becoming a sore sight for my husband, too tempting for the dogs to chew on and a pain to move when we had visitors. I moved everything to a different room, bought a large piece of plywood that I stained and set it up on 2 saw horses as my photography studio. I use some space in the closets for props and such and I can actually sit down and plan things better.

2) Light-Tools

I do use a couple of tools to enhance the natural light which in returns reduces the amount of editing I do to the pictures before blogging them and can take a plate from flat to “Yum”! piece of thick white cardboard to bounce the light back on the right side.

It brings light all around a dessert and on the side that is not exposed to the light. (See picture below)

I also have a couple of reflectors ($25) that I hold with one hand while pressing the shutter button with the other.

In the diptych picture of the cupcakes, one is shot without the silver reflector which is good but a bit flat. The other one is shot with the reflector positioned to the right and it helps bring more definition and clarity to the item.

Even a subtle enhancement can make a huge difference when you start picking pictures apart. For the pumpkin meringue tartelettes that I shot recently, I only used the foam board as I found the silver reflector was giving the meringue a metallic hue that I did not like. The best time to shoot in winter for me is 8am-2pm, after that it is pushing it a bit. Around 11am though, there is a bright glare coming through so I use a thin white sheet of fabric to diffuse the light.

It helps when there is too much brightness or too much yellow entering the room. During summer, the sun is positioned at a different angle so I don’t use it that much and I can shoot until 4pm and still get good light. There is indeed such a thing as too much brightness sometimes, so, a diffuser (like a simple white bed sheet) helps take away the glare in a room while keeping the light coming through.

3) Set ups- Consistency

After I moved to a different room for my photo shooting, I set up my work table the same way with the light coming from the left. Not that I am too stubborn to learn new things but I “knew” that light, I had been growing with it for over a year with my point and shoot and I was comfortable with it.

Try to find consistency for where you shoot, you will think less about what to do around the food and you will be able to focus more on the food. If you know your photography surrounding, you can actually take time to set up a shoot even if you wish to keep things simple. It is easier if you plan your shot by keeping your photo area clean, clutter-free and ready to be used.

4) Planning

“Planning helps the unexpected happen”. My set ups are not complicated although I take the time to think them through but however you plan it, keep it simple so that the food you made really comes through. What sometimes I think will work when planned in my head, does not once on the table. Take the extra minute if you can to rearrage elements around the dish you are shooting. I am the worst at shooting step by step pictures but I do like to shoot different stages of a dessert making.

For the grouping of tartelettes (picture below) from the just-made stage to the meringue stage, I planned things in my head and took the time to shoot the various stages to illustrate the final image. You can do the same if you like to shoot your mise en place, intermediate step of a recipe, etc, and you can make as little or a lot stylized as you want, it’s up to your own style. Plan your surroundings before you start so you can focus on the dish and not fiddling around the kitchen trying to find a corner to set a cutting board full of veggies, a saucepan with a bubbling sauce, etc…

A tripod is very helpful in that regard. I love my tripod for the obvious reason that I have shaky hands but also because I can set up the camera settings for a tricky shoot, walk away, plate everything up and just set it down and press the shutter button and hop! It’s in the box.

I also need it since one hand is on the camera button and the other is holding and moving either the reflector or foam board. I can also set up a frame, look through the view finder and literally reach the table to position plates and props without losing and angle I like.

Never think of a tripod as a clunky non-moving piece of equipment. Mine travels around the table, gets close or far, head goes up or head goes down….never a dull moment! It is especially helpful when shooting liquids in motion like here when I was pouring hot chocolate in a cup and shooting at the same time or when photographing ice cream.

For the ice cream lollipops below, I had to move quickly because it was very hot that day and I knew the ice cream would be melting in a few minutes, not leaving me much time to play with the camera set ups and shooting angles. I set up the plate with empty cups according to where I wanted the final lollipops to be, set up the tripod and camera settings and when I was ready to shoot, I replaced the empty cups with the real ice cream and shot. Stress free!

5) Props

I have white and dark backgrounds, I have some colored ones too and I start by thinking which ones will put the dish forward, which ones will make it jump to the eye. I usually lay a piece of fabric flat on the table since it is fairly long but I sometimes prop it up to use as a backdrop. The cupcakes for example were shot without a backdrop, just on a piece of cloth whereas the tartelettes here were shot with the sheet propped up by a box behind.

I try not to use too many different fabrics because I tend to forget easily what I have. When I started I went to fabric stores and purchased one yard each of different fabrics I thought would be good as backgrounds. Different whites, different textures, some pinks and red, blues and dark. I also found out that the more prints were on the fabric the more confused and distracted my eye would be when looking at a picture. White is almost foolproof and easy to play up or down with the addition of a colorful plate, napkin or utensil. I like dark backgrounds when I have some desserts that are very vibrant with pinks, fuschias, orange and red.

Crockery: Well, it all depends on your taste. But again, less is more when it comes to props. Let the item speak for itself and enhance the set up with just a few pieces like a fork, a square plate instead of a round, a pretty bowl, a colorful napkin. I like to take one picture of the item by itself and then a few with a couple of props trying to fill the frame or not. Again, let your instinct speak to you. Areas left blank can sometimes bring the eye straight to your point of interest. Sometimes, a well placed spoon or napkin can make your dish stand out. Use your own judgment and remember to have fun.

6) Camera Settings

ISO: No matter the light I shoot at ISO 100, even when it is cloudy. There are far more less digital noises at lower ISO and that allows you to retain a higher quality of your pictures. Granted that higher ISO allow you to retain a fast shutter speed and decrease blurry images. But, since I shoot with a tripod and my food is not moving, I move around it and set the tripod to where I want to shoot from, I can keep a lower ISO and keep on shooting.

If you have a point and shoot camera, you can set up the ISO to a lower setting but you won’t have the possibility to use the light as well as with a DSLR. When I had my point and shoot, I would always make sure I had plenty of light in the room and I would shoot with the aperture program and the macro setting on (the little flower icon).

White balance: I believe that it really matters where you live as I most often shoot with the “daylight” setting on instead of the “automatic white balance” one. But nothing is set in stone so I will try both on one item before I start shooting and decide which one works better for the type of lighting (winter versus summer) that specific day. Again, the best thing to do is to play with all the different setting in you camera to find out the one you like best. The beauty of digital is that you can always erase!

Settings: I shoot with the Aperture setting of my camera. I am really comfortable with it but when I first got the XTi, I put a couple of cupcakes on the table, set up my tripod and shot the same item with 3 different f/stops (open-medium-closed to see the difference) and with all the different program (manual, aperture, shutter speed) to see which one I liked best.

F/stops: The next step is to learn your f stops! When I first started taking pictures for the blog I was captivated with shots of perfect focused plate and blurry background. How did they get such great depth of field? With the 50mm lens I have the widest f stop (=aperture) is 1.8 and with the macro it is 2.8.

The aperture is what lets the light through your lens when you shoot. An open aperture refers to low numbers like f/1.4 or f/1.8 for example and a closed aperture can be f/22 for example and you can set it either way with your camera settings.

If it is confusing to you just remember it like this: an open aperture will let more light go through the lens but will focus on a smaller point in your picture frame, leaving a lot of object in the foreground background blurry creating a shallow depth of field. A closed aperture will bring less light through the less, and more will be in focus in your frame, (less blurry) and with a deep depth of field.

I like to play with both depending on what is in the background. For example in the tartelette picture below, in the picture on the left with the wide aperture it is hard to tell what is in the background? Spoon, plate, napkin? By bringing the aperture to a closer setting, the background becomes more in focus and it is easier to suggest an item.

Having a wide aperture helps bring one specific thing in focus in a grouping. For example, the picture of shot glasses below. Your eye identifies a group but focuses on only one item drawing your attention in at the same time. I stay within the 2.8-5.6 f/stop range which gives me good amount of focus on the food forward and good depth of field in the rest of the frame.

Exposure Compensation: It is my “easy” way to fix light issues. On my Canon it looks like a little button with AV+/- and it allows you to increase the light in the picture even at high aperture. It is my little lifesaver when the skies are cloudy and I “must” shoot something and I don’t have time to play with the shutter speeds and apertures. See pictures below:

7) Picture Editing

I shoot in large format in both RAW and jpeg. Think about raw pictures as negatives: they are not readily usable as pictures but contain all the data you need to create a picture. I do not use Photoshop but I combine use GIMP (GNU Manipulation Program) which is similar to Photoshop (I sometimes use Picasa from Google) to look at the jpeg files and the program that came with my XTi to edit the RAW files and convert them to jpeg to be uploaded on the blog. There is a lot less “lost” in quality (digital noise and pixels) when working from RAW files and it is worth to take the extra time when I see the results in printed materials for example.

My picture editing is pretty minimal: contrast, maybe some boost of light or some shadow, and sometimes a little boost of colors with a little saturation. I like to shoot the same frame at least 3 times, with different f/stops, exposure compensation and/or different white balances to see which one will require the less editing before being blogged.

I hope you were able to gather some tips and info from this and remember that there is no other way to improve than to take the time to practice and read more about photography and that in the end: do what makes you most happy!