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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)