Tips for the Beginner Food Photographer: Part I


Today I want to talk about a topic that's near and dear to my heart: food photography. Before we get to it, here are links to Part II, Part III and Part IV of this series. 

I began my foray into food photography about a year ago. When I first started, I knew literally nothing. I was taking photos with my iPhone in fluorescent kitchen lighting, I didn't know how aperture or shutter speed worked, and I was taking photos on hideous yellow and green dinner plates. #theworst

It's now a year later, and I'm doing a bit better. I am not proclaiming to be an expert of any kind. After all, everything I've learned has been self-taught or taught through online classes and tutorials and I'm still relatively new at this. But since I get lots of questions on Instagram about food photography, I thought I would do a few blog posts on some food photography tips that have helped me.

1. Natural Light is Your Best Friend

The #1 tip I give anyone interested in food photography is to shoot in natural light. This isn't some big secret. The perfect source of natural light is the holy grail in food photography.

When you get to be more advanced, you can try using an artificial light source designed for indoor photography, but never ever ever use fluorescent or ordinary overhead lights in your home. Fluorescent lighting is to food photography what IKEA is to a craft artisan furniture store: an embarrassment. Not knocking IKEA because I LOVE IKEA. But fluorescent lighting gives your food an ugly, ghoulish yellow-greenish-orangish hue, making food look incredibly unappetizing, i.e., the opposite of what you want your food photos to do.

So, turn off your kitchen lights and seek out the sources of natural light in your home. Your light source doesn't have to be in your kitchen. Just pick the window(s) in your house with the best source(s) of natural light. It might be your living room or your bedroom (depending on the time of year and time of day, my bedroom window is the best source of light for me).

Natural light made that little sliver of light on my arm possible.

Natural light made that little sliver of light on my arm possible.

If you are lucky and have more than one great source of natural light, you probably don't live in a tiny NYC apartment like I do. So, test out different windows in your house at different times of day. The light will vary based on whether it's early morning or late afternoon, and some windows may be best for different times of day.

If you have the problem of having too much natural light (lucky you!), you can create a diffuser to make the light less bright and direct. Try a semi-sheer white curtain over your window to soften the light. Don't have a curtain? Try a thin white bed sheet or dish towel, or you can even tape parchment paper on your window.

Another way to control your light source is to use a reflector to bounce light back onto your food and remove any dark shadows. You can use a variety of materials for a reflector or a "white card," as it is sometimes called. I've used this set of reflectors before, which gives you a nice variety since it's a 5-in-1 pack, but you'll need a stand and clip to hold the reflectors in place (they don't stand up on their own). For a cheaper, easier solution, I just use a white foam board that you can buy at any craft store. If you want to add more shadows to your photo, use a "black card" or a black reflector/foam board to take away light.

2. A DSLR Does it Best

Let me preface this by saying you do not need a DSLR camera to be a good food photographer. There are plenty of foodies who use their iPhones and take really beautiful photos. But, if you want to take your photography to the next level, if you want super sharp images at high resolution, and if you want maximum control over light and depth of field, a DSLR camera is worth the investment.

Background blur is something you can achieve with a DLSR camera but not with a smartphone.

Background blur is something you can achieve with a DLSR camera but not with a smartphone.

If you're just starting out and don't know much about food photography, keep your wallet closed for the meantime. I find that it is much more useful to know the fundamentals of photography (see tip #3 below) before you take the plunge. If you start learning about food photography and decide that it's not for you, at least you haven't dropped a bunch of billz on a fancy camera. Plus, reading your camera manual without knowing what aperture means will be confusing.

I have a beginner's DSLR camera, the Nikon D3300. It's pretty inexpensive for how good it is as an introductory camera. The price tag might not seem inexpensive, but I use my camera at least three times a week, so it's well worth the investment for me. If a DSLR camera isn't in your budget, consider buying a refurbished camera from the camera manufacturer. You can save at least a couple hundred dollars on refurbished cameras. Refurbished electronics are no longer considered new, not because they are "used" but because they were returned by a customer, had a manufacturing defect, were packed in a damaged box, or have cosmetic damage.

And as much as I use Amazon to buy everything (including toilet paper), I recommend going to a camera or electronics store and speaking to a live human being, preferably one who's knowledgeable about cameras, to decide which one is right for you. Or if you're a Millennial with a fear of human contact, consult the interwebs and do some solid research before buying a camera.

3. Understand the Fundamentals

Some people use the term "Holy Trinity" to refer to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I am irreverent so I use it to refer to Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. This "exposure trio" is what determines exposure--the amount of light that reaches your camera's sensor and selects how light or dark your photo will appear.

I'm not going to give you an in-depth definition of these terms since I don't have a technical photography background. And I trust you know how Google works. But I will give you a brief description of what each term means for food photography. It's really important to understand how this Holy Trinity works in order to improve your food photography, so I highly suggest taking some online classes or tutorials to get more familiar with these concepts (I'll include some recommendations in a later blog post).

Aperture: Aperture is basically a hole through which light travels (i.e., your lens) and it is expressed in f-stop numbers such as f/8. There are two main things you should know about aperture.

(1) Large apertures, or large holes, mean large sources of light. Confusingly enough, a large aperture starts at the lower end of the f/stop numerical scale, so f/1.8 is a large aperture that will bring in a lot of light, whereas f/22 is a small aperture that brings in very little light. So, if you are shooting in low light and don't want to bump up your ISO a lot or can't afford to reduce your shutter speed (see below), you will want to use a large aperture to let in more light.

(2) Aperture determines depth of field, with large apertures (low f-stops) having shallow depths of field and small apertures (high f-stops) having deep depths of field. Most food photography uses a shallow or somewhat shallow depth of field, with table view shots typically being on the shallow side (e.g., f/1.8-f/4.5) and overhead shots on the somewhat shallow side (f/5.6-f/13). These numbers are just guides and not hard-and-fast rules, so I encourage you to play around with aperture in your DSLR camera's "Aperture Priority Mode" to see what looks best for each particular shot.

A large aperture (low f stop number) = shallow depth of field = blurred background

A large aperture (low f stop number) = shallow depth of field = blurred background

A smaller aperture (lower f stop number) = deeper depth of field = no blur

A smaller aperture (lower f stop number) = deeper depth of field = no blur

Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is the length of time that your camera's shutter remains open while you are snapping a photograph. If your shutter speed is 1/100, that means your shutter is open only for 1/100th of a second while you are taking a photo. The lower your shutter speed, the more blur you will have unless you use a tripod, which will be discussed in Part III of this series. You should always use a tripod if your shutter speed is below 1/60 of a second.

Shutter speed 1/160

Shutter speed 1/160

If you want to capture an action shot, such as dusting powdered sugar over a cake or pouring mylk over cereal, you will need a higher shutter speed to freeze the action. Again, you should play around with the actual numbers, but I suggest a shutter speed of at least 1/125 a second or higher for these kinds of action shots.

ISO: ISO refers to how sensitive to light your camera’s sensor is. What this means is if you are shooting in an abundant source of light, your camera does not need to be very sensitive to light and a low ISO number (e.g., 100 or 200) is appropriate. If you are shooting in low-light conditions, your camera needs to be very sensitive to light and you may need a high ISO number (e.g., 1600).

ISO 200 = crisp, grain-free photo

ISO 200 = crisp, grain-free photo

I don't have too much light in my apartment, as I live on the ground floor of an apartment building in NYC. However, that doesn't mean I just use ISO 1600 all the time. The higher your ISO, the more "noise" there will be in your photos, which will give them a grainy look, generally undesirable in food photography (unless that's the particular aesthetic you're aiming for).

As a general rule, I try not to shoot over ISO 400, unless I'm doing an action shot and need a very high shutter speed.

Putting the Holy Trinity Together

Together, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO determine exposure, or how bright or dark your image will be. All three enable you to add or take away light, so you will need to balance the three together to get the right amount of exposure.

If you're shooting in Aperture Priority Mode, you select which aperture/f-stop level you shoot at, and your camera will determine the appropriate shutter speed based on the selected ISO value. If you're shooting in Shutter Priority Mode, you select which shutter speed you shoot at, and your camera will determine the appropriate aperture based on the selected ISO value. And in Manual Mode, you have the most control and can control all three values.

For instance, if you want to keep your ISO low and take an action shot, you will need to select a high shutter speed to freeze the action. A high shutter speed means your camera will be open for a very short period of time, so there will be very little light coming in (unless you're shooting in bright daylight). To add light, you will need to use a very wide aperture such as f/2.8 to balance it out.

Or, if you are shooting in low light and you want an aperture of f/11 but still want to use a low ISO value, you will need to decrease your shutter speed to let more light in. Otherwise, you will underexpose your photo (i.e., it will be too dark).

For more tips, stay tuned for Parts II-IV of this series. Feel free to subscribe to my blog so you don't miss them!

If you found this helpful, please leave me a comment below! It greatly helps me figure out what you enjoy (and don't enjoy).

Hugs and kisses,