Tips for the Beginner Food Photographer: Part III
In Part II of this series, I gabbed about composition. Today, I want to talk about the importance of a tripod, food props, and food styling.
5. Learn the Magic of a Tripod
When I first started photographing food, I didn't use a tripod and didn't understand the importance of using one. Using a tripod is one thing that has really improved my food photography, taking it from childish to somewhat professional. Here's why you should use a tripod when you're photographing food, at least some of the time.
No matter how many planks you do, your contracted abs will only hold you so steady. You will always be moving at least a little bit when you photograph free-hand. If you are clumsy like me and move a lot while your camera sensor is capturing a photo, you will end up with camera blur, which nobody wants.
If you have a fast enough shutter speed, say 1/100 of a second or faster, you may not see any noticeable differences in sharpness between a photograph taken free-hand and a photograph taken with a tripod. However, you can achieve so much more with a tripod!
Take crispy clear photos in low light
Like take crispy clear photos even in low light! If you remember from Part I, when you are shooting in low light, you will need to do at least one of these things to add light: (1) use a wide aperture or a low f-stop (e.g., f/3.2); (2) use a slow shutter speed (e.g., 1/20); or (3) use a high ISO value (e.g., 1600). But if you want your photos to come out crispy clear and without any grain, you'll want to leave your ISO low, preferably 400 or below. Using a low ISO value in low light means that your shutter speed will be quite low, particularly if your aperture is narrow (e.g., f/8). It is impossible to shoot free-hand at a low shutter speed without having some motion blur. A tripod solves this problem because the tripod holds the camera steady without any movement. With a tripod, you can use a very low shutter speed, even as low as 1 full second, and still capture a sharp photo due to the lack of camera movement.
Replicate the same shot
With a tripod, you can also replicate the same exact shot because the position and angle of the camera will be the same. In contrast, when shooting free-hand, your body and position will inevitably move around, even if you don't think it is. Why would you want to replicate the same shot in the first place? Perhaps you're testing out different aperture values and want to compare the same shot at f/2.8 and f/4.5. Or, perhaps you want to make a stop motion video or a GIF of pouring juice in a glass. Each shot will need to have the same angle and position in order for the stop-motion video to look good.
And of course, if you want to take those amazing maple syrup pour shots or show your own hands in a photo, you'll need a tripod. Unless you have 4 hands and can manage it all once. Or an unpaid assistant, which is more realistic. I don't have an assistant or four hands (crazy, I know), so I rely on my trusty tripod when I want to use movement or action in my photos. Also, you don't need a tripod to tell a good food story, but it certainly helps when you want to add in movement or dynamism.
6. Invest in a Few Quality Food Props
Emphasis on both few and quality. When I first started out with food photography, I was eager to get started, so I bought the first props I saw at kitchen stores. And, in an effort to save money, I would buy inexpensive items or shop at inexpensive stores. However, I ended up wasting money because I grew tired of the hodgepodge mix of props that I collected, as they looked rather cheap. Think multicolored dishtowels sold in 6 packs, a floral printed coffee mug, and bright orange measuring spoons. Hideous, I know.
These days I don't buy food props nearly as often, but when I do, I buy items of quality. That doesn't necessarily mean they're expensive (I ain't rich). If you scour (and I mean, really scour) Etsy and Ebay, you can find some amazing vintage items for a reasonable price. For more typical food props such as glasses or plates, subscribe to the mailing lists of stores like Crate & Barrel, CB2, West Elm, and Sur La Table to find out when they're having sales. And don't forget to check out your local thrift stores!
7. Get to Know your Food Styling Style
Over time, you will become more familiar in your own skin (I mean, with your camera) and you will develop your own food style. In the beginning stages, think about which food photographers you admire and study their style. Not to copy it. That would be rude. But to help find your own inspiration for the colors, shapes, patterns, textures, and moods that you like.
As an active Instagram user, I constantly find inspiration from dozens if not hundreds of accounts. I might see one photographer's use of dark moody lighting and another photographer's beautiful capture of fresh produce and think "hey, I should take a still-life-type photograph of fresh produce on a dark background."
Also, think about how you want to portray your food and what feelings you want it to evoke. Do you want your viewers to feel a sense of rustic coziness when they see your food? If so, focus on (but don't limit yourself to) shooting traditional comfort foods, gravitate towards simple wooden boards and crates, choose muted colors over bright ones, and leave crumbs, spills, or other human elements in your photos to make it feel realistic and homey.
If you're into the dark moody look, stock up on dark surfaces--an old, worn cookie sheet works great and is cheap--dark linens, and a few single-color dishes for some pops of color. Additionally, try underexposing your images and keep some of those dark shadows. Devinder of @grubwithanindianabroad and Didi of @bijzonderspaans both do a magnificent job at achieving this effect.
Alternatively, if you're into the bright airy look, you may want to overexpose your images a bit (but not too much, as you can never fully recover these blown-out highlights) and focus on light colorful props, such as baby pink or baby blue dishes and white or light-colored surfaces. My friend Ashley of @nourishmemum does a great job of nailing this aesthetic.
Regardless of which style or styles you settle on, the process of figuring it out is so much fun and once you discover what works for you, it's so rewarding to see your style grow and evolve.
Stay tuned for the last part of this series!
Lots of love,