How I improved my Food Photography and you can too!

by David Offutt

in Blog, DIY

Post image for How I improved my Food Photography and you can too!

I’ve been blogging about food since June of 2010. While working hard on recipes and presenting them, I felt the content was good but it missed the visual punch of some of the more “professional” cooking blogs or magazines. So a little research and very little investment and I am confident I’ve upped my game.  You may be surprised how simple it is to drastically improve your pictures. Some of you may not need this advice, if that is the case – go have a refreshing beverage.

In the last few years I’ve gone from a picture such as the one above, to this:

How? Let’s start at the beginning and look at each component. I’m going to keep the discussion to digital cameras as that is what I know and they are ubiquitous by now. I don’t think many bloggers shoot on film.

Camera

First the camera. While I yearn for a digital SLR with macro lens, I’ve used the same camera the entire time. A Sony DSC-H7 (New in 2007 was probably about $350).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has a pretty good lens and a serviceable but not great macro setting. My major complaint is it has rather limited depth of field settings. My advice for whatever camera you have is two-fold: learn to use it, and practice. Read the manual so you know what all those icons mean in the display. Digital pictures cost nothing so take a bunch, look at them and critique, then adjust what you are doing.

Lighting

First, always be sure to adjust (if possible) the white balance on you camera to the actual lighting source you are using. It makes a big difference.

Never use any built in flash. It makes the lighting harsh and glaring. See the first picture above. Built in flash also tends to flatten the image, filling in any natural shadows, and the images appear washed out.

Natural sunlight either in morning or late afternoon is really lovely and most desirable but, is hard to control and you need to be able to shoot when you are ready, not when the lighting is perfect. That said if your dish is ready and the natural light is there use it!

As I often shoot in the evening after work, and ambient room light is often not bright enough,I require some extra light. Now, I could go with some fancy tripod system with lights and umbrellas but I found a $20 solution.

A couple inexpensive clamping shop work lights mounted with CFL’s produce a nice white light. It’s not the warmest light, but it is a big improvement. Just be sure you adjust the white balance on your camera for fluorescent. I use two of different wattage – one is 100 and the other is 75. The clamps allow you to position lights using a tripod, the back of a chair, the edge of a table – just about anything.

I usually use one on either side, and place them much closer to the subject that you might think.

If you can’t afford two, use one. This picture was taken using only one light on the left.

There is some trial and error involved in getting the placement of the light where you want it, but once you do it is easy to replicate.

Props

Props can help take your pictures from a shot of a plate of food, to a picture that inspires or elicits a “Oh, I want that!” response.

Props may be as simple as colored poster board in white and black to create neutral non-distracting backgrounds.  I purchased a roll of white paper so if it gets a bit stained, it is no problem to tear off a new sheet.

A simple black background forces the view to concentrate on the image. It really makes the colors pop!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides backgrounds, I also focused on fabrics. Shopping at thrift or second hand stores, as well as keeping an eye open for sales has allowed me to collect some interesting colors and textures to use as backdrops to the food. Here are some place-mats that evoke different moods or cuisines. Even stereotypes help the viewer place the dish in the right context. For example the red and white checked cloth says “Italian” and the bamboo says “Asian.” I believe simple associations improve pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The warm colors really help bring out the best in my pictures.

Other than backdrops and place-mats, I’ve also started collecting interesting plates and bowls as well as tableware. I think it helps set the stage. Additionally, I like placing some of the ingredients into the frame with the finished dish. See the third picture in the post. Subtle, but effective.

Composition

I don’t think straight overhead shots are the most interesting or appealing. While you do get the whole plate it isn’t always interesting to look at. Side prospectives with a macro focus can highlight a particular item and be very attractive.

I suggest getting more in the frame than what you need. You can always edit.

Again with digital it is easy to shoot a lot of pictures until you find the one you want to use. For every picture that shows up on the blog, I probably take 3 or 4. And that number is low when I talk to more experienced photographers.

Editing

Guess what? I don’t use Photoshop. Don’t even own a copy. I don’t begrudge those who have the capability to manipulate their images but I don’t have time to mess around with changing colors or hues or intensities or whatever. In fact I’m sure there are some of you who are already put off by the effort I go through to stage pictures. But the picture I post, is the picture I took.

The only editing I do is cropping and resizing. I shoot at 3 meg so that the pictures are big enough that when I crop them, they are still big enough to re-size them into a viewable size.  I am resizing them smaller – usually to about 465 x 700 pixels maximum. Cropping hides a lot of sins!  To edit pictures I use the most basic editor that came with my computer. While it can do more than what I ask it to, I don’t bother.

Other tips

A couple final tips. Wet looks better than dry, the shine or shimmer of makes food more attractive. And while it might seem odd, have some Red in your shot. Maybe not every shot, but I find the pictures that viewers respond to most, often have red in them.

Putting it all together

So let’s take an example: We will take pictures of some oranges.

Here they are on a plate on the counter with no flash and just ambient room light and no cropping. Not very appealing (no pun intended!)

With the camera flash – pretty harsh isn’t it? It’s a little better but still not very good.

 

Now we’ve moved to a table with some props.  See the setup of the lights? Simple isn’t it? I suppose you’ve noticed the little skeleton. As I am very much into Halloween, this fellow watches over my sun room. But I don’t really need him in the finished pictures!

Here is a pretty good image. The lighting is not bad, the props warm up the shot considerably but there is still a lot of “noise” that does nothing to contribute to the final product.

And finally a cropped shot, it is the same base picture as the one above but just tightened up. Those oranges look delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it. For a simple way to instantly upgrade your food pictures, add some remote light, have some props, fabrics, places settings etc, take big enough pictures that you can crop it down to size and set’em free!

What tips do you have?

Until next time, Keep Digging and Eat Well. (And take lots of pictures!)

 

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancie December 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Great advise…thanks for sharing. I am definitely going to invest in those lights. I’ve never thought about adding a “pop” of red. Well try that as well!

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David Offutt December 16, 2012 at 7:16 am

The lights are inexpensive and available in almost any hardware, big box home improvement or DIY store. Let me know how it works out!

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Leigh December 15, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Learned some good pointers reading this. What a good idea using just the black as a background. I think you get a lot of drama out of that. And collecting cheap placemats is brilliant.

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David Offutt December 16, 2012 at 7:15 am

Thank you! The black posterboard makes a strong statement with good subject matter. Drama is a good word for it.

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Mark Willis December 16, 2012 at 1:58 am

VERY interesting. You’re giving away all your magic! Like you, I find that lighting is the key factor – and very hard to get right. I’m getting an external flash unit for my camera for Christmas, so we’ll see what difference that makes.Natural daylight is in short supply just now! BTW, what does “CFL” mean? I’m trying to visualise what the lights you describe would be called in the UK.

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David Offutt December 16, 2012 at 6:59 am

“Tis the season” to be giving Mark. CFL is compact florescent light. They fit in standard light socket but are not incandescent.

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Mark Willis December 16, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Thanks David. I’ll know what to look for now…

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ChgoJohn December 17, 2012 at 7:43 am

What a great post, David! Poor lighting is the bane of my blog, especially now that Winter is here. You’ve offered some helpful suggestions to help us get around it and I’m very thankful. You’re also right about getting to know your camera. A few minutes reading the manual can make a big difference in the quality of one’s photos.

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David Offutt December 17, 2012 at 8:23 am

Happy to pass along what I learned John! Your dishes are so beautiful, there is no reason not to tart them up a bit!

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taylor nelsen December 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm

great tips! picasa is a great photo editing program. i just started using it, very handy. thanks for adding me to your blog roll, too!

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David Offutt December 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Thanks Taylor! I’ve used Picasa in years past…. I remember it worked pretty well!

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Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen December 20, 2012 at 12:43 am

This was really interesting and helpful to read. I’ve got the same poor natural light problem here, especially as we head toward the Winter Solstice! I’ve just got to pick up a couple of lights like yours, it would make all the difference!

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David Offutt December 20, 2012 at 6:16 am

I dunno Smidge, seems your pictures are pretty darn good!

And the lights don’t have to be the same kind – that is CFL – one could try a full spectrum incandescent as well. Bulbs are relatively inexpensive.

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Linda December 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm

David, this is soo informative for me. I’m struggling A LOT with my photo taking. I loved my natural light in Florida but no longer have it. I need to study your post and see about the lighting tip. Thanks for sharing this. Happy holidays!

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David Offutt December 22, 2012 at 8:33 am

Thanks and Happy Holidays to you too Linda!

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Eva December 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I prefer to use actual daylight and I often bounce the light from a piece of what paper. It’s dark so soon these days in my parts so your lighting advice comes with perfect timing.

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David Offutt December 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm

I dunno Eva, Your pictures are really lovely!

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