My Take on Food Styling and Photography
When I first picked up a DSLR camera and began photographing/blogging regularly, I never imagined I'd fall so head-over-heels in love with food photography and styling. Nor could I have predicted that less than 2 years later, I'd be getting such incredible support from my readers, and more recently, an increasing number of emails asking for photography advice. I have no idea if this comes across online, but I'm actually quite a shy person in real life. It's truly a testament to you all that I feel quite at ease writing this post today.
Please understand that I don't claim to be an expert in any of this (photography, styling, processing, etc.). What I do possess is a body of information collected through passionate observation, experimentation, and experience that will hopefully make the brave new world of food photography a lot more fun and less scary to you than it might otherwise be... So what are we waiting for? Let's get started!
At this point you might be wondering why I chose to start a post about food photography with a collage of photos that are mediocre at best. The photos above are some of the first ones to have graced this blog. In fact the blurry shot of raspberry streusel bars at top left was the first food photo taken by yours truly to be posted here! The point of this collage is simply to emphasize that everyone starts photographing with no experience and little technical skill.
For me the importance of this is twofold. First, it makes the task of learning food photography or improving your photographs less daunting once you realize it's a skill to be mastered and honed through constant practice/study rather than some gift you have to be born with. Certainly some people are better at it like anything else. But to give an example, take a look at this early post by blogger/photographer/stylist Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille. I bet her early photos are not so different from yours or mine. She had to learn the same basics as any other photographer in order to get where she is today.
Second, I think it's important to remember where we started off to maintain perspective on how we've grown. I've seen many bloggers complaining about how much they hate and hope to one day replace their early blog photos. If you're one of them, I hope you'll change your mind. There's no shame to showing the history of your development as a photographer, and at least for me, removing them would just feel like pretending to have been something I wasn't.
BASIC FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT
As I've mentioned before, I've used the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS camera with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens for the past 2 years and for the majority of the photos on this site. Both are on the lower end of the price range for dSLR equipment. To touch briefly on the Point and Shoot (P&S) versus dSLR issue, I do wholeheartedly agree with the common saying that "it's not the camera, it's the photographer." So no, not even dropping several grand for a professional camera will allow you to instantly take amazing photos. BUT dSLR cameras do generally produce photos with noticeably superior clarity and color. And most importantly, they put an incredible amount of control in your hands. Yes -- it's an investment -- but one that's been more than worth it in the amount of joy, creative expression, and blogging success it's provided me.
Though the Rebel XS has served me very well, I'd recommend starting with a slightly higher-end model (like an XT or XTi/Nikon equivalent or even better if you can afford it) if you expect to be serious about photography. Regardless of the camera, I guarantee the 50mm lens is the best bang for your buck (at around $100) and won't disappoint!
My other indispensable equipment for shooting food include:
- a very affordable tripod (key for getting clear shots even in low light and to free up my hands); do make sure to get a tripod that can withstand the weight of your camera and lens(es) -- higher quality cameras tend to be heavier and you don't want your new camera crashing to the ground!
- any sheer white curtain, bedsheet, or parchment/vellum paper (to diffuse natural light)
- cheap white/black foam boards in various sizes from any craft store (used as light reflectors/absorbers)
- cheap clamps from any hardware store OR any heavy tall object (to hold or prop up your reflector boards);
- 38-inch horizontal tripod arm extender (optional but very helpful to get overhead shots and squeeze into tight corners in my small apartment);
- round 40-inch 5-in-1 flexible collapsible reflector (optional but useful for tight spaces and corners)
BASIC PHOTOGRAPHY LIGHTING AND SETUP
My main and usually sole source of light is natural light. I totally understand how limiting this is in terms of time, but natural light simply breathes life into photos in a way that's hard for artificial lights to provide (though a pretty good counter-argument has been made before). When I first started blogging, I was working a very busy job, but was still able to photograph with natural sunlight in the morning or on weekends. This is a personal preference and priority, but most of the blogs and tutorials I enjoy and linked below also use natural light in their photos. And since it is what I have experience with, this post will only discuss natural light food photography.
My window is fairly tall (almost 5 feet) and almost twice as wide. Since the window faces West, I find that my best hours for photography are between noon and 4:30 pm. My lighting setup usually involves styling my tabletop within 1-2 feet of the window (you can use any strong but diffused light source available to you). I usually prefer to soften the lighting to avoid harsh highlights or shadows, so I've taped large pieces of white parchment paper over my entire window to act as a diffuser. You can also use a sheer white curtain, bedsheet, or vellum paper.
I use white foam boards in a variety of sizes and a large round expandable reflector (see equipment list above) to bounce more light into areas of the photo where I want it (it's amazing how much of a difference these can make!). The expandable reflector has a silver side and a gold side to give a cooler or warmer tone to the resulting photo. To create a cheaper version of the silver reflector, you could simply wrap one side of a board in aluminum foil as a makeshift reflector. Likewise, I have black boards to subtract light and deepen shadows when that effect is desired (my friend Vera has a great post with photos on this technnique). To use either reflector, I start by positioning it about perpendicular to the table. Then, I may angle the reflector(s) down toward the food or up above the food and move the reflector(s) closer to the food or further away from it, taking photos of each and comparing results until I'm satisfied with the photo.
BASIC EXPOSURE AND CAMERA SETTINGS
To reach your photography potential and get the most out of your dSLR camera, you will need a basic understanding of exposure. Since there are already quite a few excellent posts on this from bloggers that are professional food photographers, I will only do a quick overview of this topic and direct you to their sites for more in-depth lessons with demonstrative photos =).
As illustrated in the diagram below, 4 main factors contribute to exposure (or the the amount of light that passes into your camera and onto the sensor): the amount of light in the scene and camera shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (light sensitivity). To keep this post from becoming a novel, this will be a very general overview with the emphasis being on the effects of each setting rather than the mechanics behind it (which I honestly don't completely understand anyway =p).
Shutter speed is probably the easiest to understand. It is the setting determining how long the camera shutter remains open to let light in and is measured in fractions of a second. Thus it makes sense that the faster the shutter speed, (such as 1/500) the darker the photo will be (assuming other settings aren't changed), and the slower the shutter speed (such as 1/4), the brighter the photo will be. Shutter speed is also important for capturing motion; a slow shutter speed will capture any movement (intentional or not) as blurring, while a fast shutter speed will "freeze" a moment of that motion clearly.
Aperture reflects the size of the lens opening that lets light into the camera while the shutter is open. Aperture size is expressed in “f-stop” numbers like "f/2.8." The smaller the f-stop, the larger or wider the aperture is. The larger the aperture/lens opening is (such as f/2.8), the greater the amount of light let in and the brighter the photo will be (assuming other settings don't change). The smaller the aperture/lens opening is (such as f/16), the lesser the amount of light let in. The aperture also determines the “depth of field” (DoF).This is the part of a photograph from front to back that is in sharp focus. A very small aperture will keep everything in the frame from near to far in focus (deep DoF). But a large aperture opening (but smaller f-stop!) will keep a small section of the photo in focus (shallow DoF). Large apertures produce photos with the blurry backgrounds that are so popular in food photography.
Finally, ISO is the camera's sensitivity to light. the higher the ISO is (such as 1600) the brighter the photo will be, the lower the ISO is (such as 100) the darker the photo will be (assuming other settings don't change). Increasing the ISO can be very useful for taking photos in low-light settings, but a high ISO also produces photos with more noise (dust-like specks/graininess). Thus, once you know how high your camera can go before the noise becomes visible, you should keep your ISO below that number (unless you are seeking the grainy look for artistic effect).
- Vintage wood tables: the real deal is pretty expensive, but one day I hope to afford it; meanwhile I've been eyeing this DIY tutorial for faking the farmhouse table look.
- Weathered wood boards: if you have access to a farm or barn, those are your best bets for scoring naturally weathered boards; or you may want to try this DIY tutorial for painted boards.
- Linen, denim, burlap, etc.: local fabric stores are best so you can examine the color and weave before purchasing; but if none are available, online stores like Fashion Fabrics Club stock a large variety and have frequent sales; get at least 1 1/2 yards of any fabric you want to use as a background
- Step outside "the box": there are many other potential backgrounds out there just waiting to be uncovered...you just have to get a lil creative; for example Helene of Tartelette has used vintage ceiling tiles very effectively in food shots. I also read of a stylist who picked up a broken table from the street, sawed its legs off, and got a gorgeous wood backdrop for free. Two examples of my own use of unconventional backgrounds are shown in photos above and below. One was a vintage wood chair and the other was the back of a small, dingy roasting pan.
- Buy a spray bottle, fill it with water, and use it to refresh raw fruits or veggies that start to dry up
- Rub or soak sliced apples and pears in lemon juice to slow browning
- Smaller portions of food photograph better than bigger portions, and they look bigger in photos than they do in real life
- To make pretty swirls of spaghetti, lift a section with tongs or clean fingers above the serving plate. Lower the pasta until only the tip is touching the plate, then continue lowering the pasta slowly as you rotate the plate with your other hand. This should cause the pasta to rest in a coil. Repeat with the remaining pasta
- Butter the top of your muffin pan when baking cupcakes to prevent the tops from spreading outward
- To make firm, pipeable cream cheese frosting for cupcakes, use my recipe/method using soft butter and cold cream cheese
- Milk actually photographs to be more yellow than people expect. If this bugs you, you can use heavy cream (which is whiter) instead for pictures or use a layer mask to adjust the color in post-processing
- Flat foods like waffles can tend to look, well, flat in photos. An easy and food-safe styling solution that I use is to tear an extra waffle into smaller pieces to prop up the waffles in the photo to give them more dimension (see waffle photo below)
- If you want to be in your own photo (see pretzel photo below), you just need to use a tripod and set your camera to timed capture.
- Always keep Q-tips on hand for delicate clean-ups
-Xiaolu at 6 Bittersweets blog