Saturday, June 5, 2010

How To Take Better Food Photos: Basics

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 never became interested in food photography until after I started my blog back in 2005 and for a very long time I satisfied myself by looking at other peoples' photographs. Eventually when I began blogging more seriously, I would revisit some of the incredibly inspiring blogs that I'd found and yearn to be able to take photos that did as much justice to my food as did theirs. My friends were probably sick of seeing my amateur happy snaps taken with a craptacular camera phone and encouraged me to get a DSLR which I finally did in 2009.

Spain - Olympus OM10

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! :)

Cathy x.


  1. ahh! thank you so much for the tips! i really need to learn how to take better food pics. shall try these out next time :D


  2. ahh.. very good basic intro to DSLR!! Definitely can refer ppl who wants to learn about DSLR here..

  3. hehe thanks yw :) i just finished my course last week so it's all still fresh in my mind.

  4. Great tips for all us food bloggers,thanks for sharing:)

  5. I have had my DSLR for a couple of years now but I am still struggling. I've been shooting in AV mode to have a little crutch but I know I need to get on over to Manual. Right now I'm having trouble getting the things I want to be in focus, in focus. They look like it to me as I'm shooting but then when I download the image they're not. I tried to up my aperture to 2.8 to get more in focus but it hasn't seemed to make a difference (these are primarily for people shots). Perhaps I need to bump it up even more?

    Thanks for listening and thanks for the tips. I just keep hoping that maybe after I read these things 100 times, something will finally soak in or click.

  6. The ACP classes are great, aren't they? I am mid-way through a course and every class I think "oh hey, that makes sense, I wish I knew that before"

    Great tips.

  7. hi danielle! i don't really take many people shots myself but from what i've read, the best results come from focusing on the person's eyes. if the person is standing quite still you might find you get a better result if you zoom in on the face, adjust the focus, then zoom out and take the picture. using the largest aperture can make close up portrait shots look romantic and dreamy ( if you take lots of photos indoors you might want to try using a higher ISO which lets you use a faster shutter speed so you end up with less blur from movement and a sharper picture. if you're taking a picture of people who are standing in a row, all of whom are the same distance from you, you can keep the aperture quite large (eg. f1.8). If the same people are standing differently, one behind another or a little further away, then you'd have to close the aperture (eg. f8) so the people in the front AND back are in focus. in both cases, you'll need to focus on the person in the front as the depth of field extends backwards more and more as you close the aperture.

  8. hey that was a good read! i'm thinking of buying a camera before i go on holidays this august, and your camera sounds too good to be true - how is it that your lens can be good for both food/macro and portraiture? i thought they were on opposite sides of the spectrum (don't know much about cameras, but telephoto and wide angle?)

  9. hey grace :) my lens isn't a macro but it's great for 'intimate shots'. it's a good one to start off with as it has the closest range of vision to the human eye. the 100mm is supposed to be awesome for food photography too and i think french blogger foodbeam uses it. if you want a good all-rounder for when you're travelling i'd suggest the 24-70mm. it will give you a little bit of distortion for landscape shots at 24mm and you'll have the flexibility to zoom in on food (50-70mm looks more natural) without having to get out of your seat at a restaurant and look like a complete weirdo.


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