Do you ever wonder what you're doing with your life? I mean really? Do you ever wake up thinking 'Gosh I think I'd like to be a farmer so I can grow lots of blueberries and make goat's cheese'? I do all the time! Though funnily enough, photography was never one of those things.
My Dad gave me my first camera - an old Olympus OM10 when I was 16. You can find the camera body on eBay for under $100 now but just to give you a rough idea of just how old it was, he bought it before I was born. When I was 20, I took a course in black and white print processing at community college then ran away to Europe for 3 months and lugged the damned thing with me, all the way.
I bought a Canon EOS 450D and have since swapped the 18-55mm kit lens with a EF 50mm f1.2L which I use almost exclusively. It's a lens that I think works exceptionally well for portraiture and intimate food shots. It's outrageously fast which is handy for when I'm out and want to take action shots. When I open the aperture right up it gives beautiful bokeh too.
Not one to do things in halves, I signed up for a few photography classes at ACP in Paddington earlier in the year which have really helped me to become aware of the basics in digital photography that I've been trying to learn by myself all along. I've also learned that if you want to take good photos, it is imperative to know your camera and its functions. Also, it probably doesn't hurt if you're lucky enough to watch professional photographers shooting in a restaurant for a certain celebrity chef's new cookbook!
It's no fun learning if I can't share my knowledge so I've compiled a small list of things that I think are really important. If you're a beginner DSLR user you might find something useful to help you improve your photography too.
Aperture vs shutter speed:
Opening up the aperture (eg. changing from f22 to f1.8) lets more light into the camera, which means you can use a faster shutter speed and makes it possible to freeze movement. It also impacts the 'depth of field' or the area in focus. If you've ever wondered how to blur out the background and keep the front in focus, open up the aperture to the smallest number (with my lens it's f1.2) and shoot something really close-up. This is referred to as a shallow depth of field. The opposite applies so when you close down the aperture (eg. from f2.8 to f11) you're letting less light into the camera so the shutter speed needs to be longer to compensate. You'll be able to capture blurred motion and the depth of field or area in focus will be greater.
The relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO:
Say you have the correct exposure but you want to change the depth of field so there is more in focus. If you close the aperture down by one stop, you'll need to compensate by either lengthening the shutter speed by one stop or increasing the ISO by one stop to achieve the same exposure.
Shoot at the lowest ISO:
Food is in most cases static, so if you have a tripod, set your ISO to 100 for the best picture quality and increase shutter speed to gain the correct exposure. If you set your ISO to 800 you will notice an increase in 'noise' which is like graininess in film, especially at night. Using a higher ISO such as 800 means that you can take 'faster' shots in low light conditions or freeze motion that may have come out blurry if you used a 'slower' ISO like 200 for example. Just like in film, a higher ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light, hence a faster image capture.
Shoot in RAW:
This lets you adjust the white balance on your computer later. It's important if you want true-to-life colours, or even if you want to distort colours. Shooting in JPEG is faster and convenient but often means that your photos will be stuck with a colour cast that is hard and sometimes impossible to fix later. If you edit your photos with a program such as Photoshop, it's best to save your file as an 8-bit TIF and then save it as a JPEG at the final stage. Saving a file repeatedly in JPEG will result in a massive loss of information and be detrimental to the quality of your final image.
Shoot in manual:
Your camera assumes that every picture you take is mid grey (ie. 50% white and 50% black). If you take a picture of a white cat on a white bedspread for example, you will have to expose by 1 or 2 stops above the recommended meter reading to reach the correct exposure. Bracket by taking a few shots at different exposures to make sure you end up with one that you like. If you shoot in automatic, the white cat and white bedspread will come out grey. Similarly, if you shoot a black dog on a black rug, you'll need to underexpose by 2 stops or the dog and rug will become grey. Unless you're Chinese like me, a dog will never make it into your food shots but it's important to keep this piece of information in mind when you're shooting with light or dark backgrounds.
Use natural light where possible:
I've never ever used my built-in camera flash. It's too harsh. Even if you set your camera to underexpose by a couple of stops, light from the front makes things look flat and you may as well be using a point a shoot. It's a good idea to avoid shooting in direct sunlight for the same reason as you'll end up with lots of bright spots, lots of deep shadow and not much detail. If you want to emphasise the texture of an object, adjust your setup so that the light comes from the side. The best light is ambient light or indirect window light.
If you don't get much ambient light in your kitchen you needn't worry. I often sit an old jamon box on the desk in my bedroom and shoot there as the afternoon light is much better. Remember, you're in control of the camera and it's ultimately your choice what is included or excluded from a picture.
I hope this has helped! :)