It wasn’t too long ago that I was taking pictures with my iPhone in poor lighting (or even worse—with the bright glare of a flash), but through trial and error, some education, and lots of practice, I improved enough to confidently shoot all the photos for my award-winning cookbook.
A Few Thoughts on Cameras
Shooting photos with your phone isn’t the worst thing you can do. Many of them now have great-quality cameras built in that work really well under bright light situations, but there are definite drawbacks. Let’s say you’ve been dutifully snapping pics with your camera phone and blogging them for a while, and then you decide to compile your recipes into a book (electronic or print). The resolution is likely to be too low to create a quality product, and you’ll be stuck shooting them again.
If you’re serious enough about blogging that you devote several hours a week to it, my advice is to get an entry-level DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. I started with a Nikon D3200 which came with a 18-55mm zoom lens, and it was perfect for learning with. If you’re a Canon fan, a comparable camera would be something like a Rebel T5.
I shot these photos with my Nikon D3200 and the stock zoom 18-55 mm lens that came with it.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re brand new to DSLR cameras, I don’t think it’s wise to run out and spend $3-10k on a high-end full-frame deal. You may decide you really want to switch to another manufacturer (remember, lenses aren’t universally compatible), and you may even decide to stop blogging in a few months. It’s easy to upgrade in the future. For my cookbook, I upgraded to a Nikon D610 after about a year practicing with my entry-level D3200.
Top: Nikon D3200 with zoom lens, Bottom: Nikon D610 with 50 mm f / 1.8 lens. (Note the slimmer body of the D3200 because it’s got a smaller internal sensor and results in a cropped frame.)
Why get a DSLR? You can customize settings like shutter speed, aperture and ISO to really control and work with light—because after all, it’s your camera’s ability to capture light that really makes or breaks the shot. And, as a food blogger, how you portray your recipes through images is what gets people’s mouths watering! If you’re a newbie, these are cameras you can really grow into. Point and shoots and camera phones are less expensive, but their capabilities are limited.
Food Photography Tips: Crop-Frame vs. Full-Frame Cameras
The advantage of the D610 (or other full-frame cameras) is not only a larger sensor but lenses that shoot true. With a 50mm lens on the D3200 (crop-frame) the width of the field of view is cut down. With the same lens on the D610 (full-frame) you get a wider field of view.
Compare the following three photos taken while I was standing in the same spot with different camera / lens combos.
This was taken with the D3200, entry-level camera with the stock zoom 18-55mm f / 3.5-5.6 lens. (Setting: ISO 500 f / 4.5.) While the field of view is quite wide, it’s also quite dark. An aperture of 4.5, while somewhat open, is still pretty closed for lower light situations. The widest aperture this lens has is 3.5. I prefer something with a lower option.
This was taken with the D3200, entry-level camera with the Nifty Fifty 50mm f / 1.8 lens. (Setting: ISO 500 f / 2.) Notice how it’s a lot brighter (due to the wider aperture / lower f-stop number) but the field of view is a LOT narrower.
The 50mm, when used on this camera, is not a true 50mm lens. It’s cropped. It makes shooting things like food somewhat tricky because you can only be a certain distance away before things get blurry. Notice how the background is far less in focus than the photo above because the aperture is lower.
This was taken with the D610, full-frame camera with the Nifty Fifty 50mm f / 1.8 lens. (Setting: ISO 1000 f / 3.5.) It’s still bright but the field of view is a LOT wider than the photo above.
Remember, I’m standing in the exact same spot. The 50mm, when used on this camera, IS a true 50mm lens. It makes shooting larger table settings easier because you can capture more of the scene.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison…
A: Crop-frame camera with zoom lens
B: Crop-frame camera with fixed 50mm lens
C: Full-frame camera with fixed 50mm lens
Conclusion: Crop-frame cameras are great entry-level DSLRs, but to make use of lower light situations you may want to pick up an inexpensive 50mm lens with a low aperture number like f / 1.8. If you’re shooting a book or other extensive project, a full-frame camera will shoot a wider field of view.
What about lenses?
The lens I use the most is a 50 mm f / 1.8D, what’s often called a “Nifty Fifty.” (50mm is the focal length and 1.8 is the “lowest” aperture setting possible with this lens.) It’s incredibly versatile and really great for shooting subjects that are relatively close, as is usually the case with food.
An aperture of 1.8 (which means the lens’s diaphragm is at its maximum width or “wide open”) translates to getting that desired depth of field feeling you get from an item being in focus while the background is a bit blurred. Another word for that is “bokeh.”
The dark chocolate coconut peppermint cup and my hand are in focus while the background items are blurred. This is called bokeh. (This photo was actually shot with my zoom lens so I was able to get really close while hand-holding the camera.)
Be aware that the Nifty Fifty is a fixed lens, meaning there is it doesn’t zoom in and out like the lenses that come stock on most entry-level DSLRs. That means you have to move closer or farther away; the camera will not do it for you.
Many food photographers work with macro lenses which are wonderful for capturing tiny details. Macro lenses are usually quite expensive compared to Nifty Fifty lenses. If you’re an experienced photographer looking to add to your quiver, it might be a great purchase, but I don’t recommend it for newbies.
Note that some entry-level cameras lack the ability to auto-focus using some lenses, including the Nifty Fifty. There is no internal motor to drive it. When I was using my D3200 with the Nifty Fifty, I had to manually focus everything.
Before you go out and purchase a new lens, I recommend getting out to a local camera store if possible to check things out and get a feel for it. Remember that lenses are specific to your camera manufacturer. A Nikkor lens for Nikon will not work with a Canon, etc.
I learned how to really use my camera’s settings by taking an online course through Creative Live called The Photography Starter Kit. (There’s no incentive for me to recommend this course. I just happened to really love it and found it incredibly useful.) Other really helpful resources: Tasty Food Photography and Plate to Pixel.
So, How Do You Stage a Basic Shot?
Taking a great photo is all about how you manage and manipulate light, and since I only shoot with natural (sun)light, that’s what I’m going to present here.
Food Photography Tips: Location
Check out the windows and doorways in your house that provide good light. It won’t always be the kitchen or dining room! For example, my kitchen windows are tiny and the only surface nearby is a cramped countertop.
or next to my couch (afternoon hours).
In this photo, since it was 3 pm and the sun was on the west side of my house, I shot with my surface right on the couch.
As a general rule, I avoid shooting mid-day because the sun is overhead and the light just seems flat to me. My favorite times to shoot are 9-11 am and 3-5 pm, depending on the season.
If you don’t have a tripod for overhead shots, consider moving your photos to the floor so you can stand above the subject or even stand on a small step stool.
Food Photography Tips: Light
I try to have light coming from only one direction to simplify things and make it easier to manipulate. For this shot, I closed all the other blinds in my living room / dining room and shut the front door. That gave me light coming in through this west-facing window only.
Try to avoid actual patches of sunlight hitting somewhere in the frame. You want to light up the food, but if there are patches of sunlight in the shot, your camera’s light meter has a hard time figuring it all out. Put another way, you’re likely to get a photograph with some very dark and some very light areas. While purposeful shadowing is a great technique to create a mood, severely over- or underexposed food photos are virtually useless.
To soften the light coming through a window, consider hanging a white curtain or a piece of transluscent plastic over it. Works wonders!
I’m a huge fan of side light because I really like the subtle shadows and highlights it creates, but light hitting the food from the front and the back can also look great. You can experiment by moving around the food so the light hits different places.
Here are some more behind-the-scenes photos where I shot with side lighting (the process shots were done with my iPhone and the final photos with the D610 with 50mm lens)…
Here’s an example of backlight…
I had been just playing around with settings here. In retrospect, if this were an actual shoot, I’d probably have stuck a reflector in there to throw a bit more light onto those sprouts.
Here’s a different example of a shot I did on my dining room table. This was taken in the morning at about 9 am with translucent plastic over the window to cut the harsh rays coming in. The light was coming in from the left, and I wanted to take advantage of the shadowing in the bowls to create some drama.
Okay, that’s all for Part 1! I hope these food photography tips have given you a jumping off point for understanding things a bit better.
Click below to jump to the other posts in this series.