Visuals: Simple, affordable tools, techniques and accessories to improve your food photography


Welcome to the BlogHer Food ’11 liveblog of the simple, affordable tools, techniques and accessories to improve your food photography.  Please feel free to leave comments!

This panel will cover both technical aspects and artistic aspects of blog photography.  This panel will cover more of the basics that a lot of people have expressed they would like to know, like improving your photography on a budget, getting familiar with photo basics, and translating your vision into the final photograph.

Sarah: The reason I thought of this panel was I was interested in food photography and started working in a professional food photography environment. But then I realized I found out that there were a lot of simple procedures that they were utilizing. It goes to show that everyone can have great food photos.

Let’s start with some basics about photography in general.  First up is shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  You shutter speed shows as a “T” (or an “S”) and it tells you how fast your shutter is opening and closing and that determines how much light gets in. 
Shutter speed is balanced by aperture, which is how big the hole in your camera opens up to. The wider the aperture, the shallower your depth of field is.  ISO determines the brightness of the environment you’re shooting in. BE CAREFUL not to use too high of an ISO because it will let “noise” show up more frequently. Don’t go higher than you need to.

There are 3 categories we’re going over: tools, techniques & accessories


  • The best tool you can have is a tripod. You can use it with any camera and it helps your photos stay in focus. Some benefits of putting your camera on a tripod include: you can shoot in low light, you can shoot at a lower ISO (which means a higher quality in the shadows), you have more consistency among multiple shots, it helps editing process go much faster, it allows you to turn off your flash, and it frees up your second hand – which you could even use as a prop in your photos.  Alice: also, if you want to do freelance photography, a tripod is essential.  Sarah: You can have a professional blog design but blurry photos – it looks really inconsistent.

  • Your camera. People always ask, “what kind of camera do you have?” And the important thing to know is that it doesn’t really matter. Even if you have a point and shoot you can totally get great pictures!  Knowing what settings you have can make a huge difference in what your pictures look like. Get familiar with your camera manual. Look at focus options or color balances (the color coming out of different lights – color cast).  Alice: when shooting in natural daylight you’ll have a blue cast in the photos. You can correct this by choosing a different color balance setting and save yourself the editing time later.

  • With a DSLR – don’t ever shoot in Auto (green square).  Try to learn what the advanced settings are. Shutter priority means you set the shutter speed and your camera chooses aperture.  Aperture means you choose aperture and your camera chooses shutter speed. Manual means you choose both. 

    1. Some good lens upgrades: Canon 50mm 1.8 $125

    2. If you have just one lens, make it a zoom (Tamaraon 28-75mm $430)

    3. Buy the lens you can AFFORD.

    4. If you’re not stuck on a brand, Sigma makes great, inexpensive lenses that work well.

  • Go to a good, professional camera store and see a recommendation.  They can teach you a lot about a camera and the best one to meet your needs. You can also rent lenses from these places before you invest your money.

  • Cable Release/Shutter Releases.  These are worth their weight in gold for clear pictures; they run about $20-60.  This can be invaluable because with a low shutter speed the very act of pushing the exposure button can move the camera. This is also great for being in the shot – because you can use them while you’re participating in the shot. Wireless models are also available. For point-and-shoot cameras, utilize your camera timer.

  • Fill card. This is any kind of white piece of paper of sorts that reflects the light better and fills in the shadows. It’s an aesthetic edit that helps you find more detail in the shadows, which helps you with the dynamic range of your photo.

  • Small light with daylight balanced bulb. This is a GREAT tool for utilizing when you are shooting in low light or at nighttime.  You can pair it with a fill card and put a piece of paper over it. IT it portable and works really well to recreate the light.  The daylight balanced bulb (ie. GE Reveal or a tri-chromatic bulb) is the key to this effect working well.


Sarah: Please let me implore you to love using Manual setting. Think of it as good communication with your camera. Your camera wants to please you, but you need to tell it what you want.  You will be happy with the results that you get. An added bonus: it makes editing much easier.

  • Turn off the Flash.  I think we can all agree on that. Sometimes its hard when you’re in low light & need a quick shot, but if you’re shooting for your blog, take the time to set up a shoot without utilizing flash. You lose dimension with flash.

  • Use good light. Window light or outside light is great for this; directional window light is the absolute best light to use.  Another option is to go in to open shade outside – like a porch or something. It is up to you what your creative vision is.

Alice: A way to diffuse harsh light is to use parchment paper or a light table cloth and hang it over the window.  It takes away harsh, direct light and it’s economical (try Big Lots or a discount store for cheap table cloths or sheets).

  1. Home Studios

    1. Alice: I use a reflector made of foam board pieces taped together and it’s a mobile set up. I also shoot right next to a patio door. It’s the only place I have good light so that’s where I shoot.

    2. Sarah: I shoot where my dining room table would be. I use white curtains as diffusers, sawhorses and a piece of laminated wood. I have a rotation of different backgrounds I can also use and then my various tripods.


  1. Techniques for low-light shooting:

    • Use tripod.

    • Use garage clamp covered with vellum and a fill card.

    • Use a Coralife Tri-chromatic fish tank light (this light does take some maneuvering to get it just right, but it’s a solution that is less than $25!) Tip: If you are shooting with a slower shutter speed in this light, turn off other lights in the surrounding areas.

    • Use a reflector to help eliminate dark shadows in low lights. When you fill in like that, you get a lot more detail like that. White foam board is a great reflector for nighttime shooting.

Aperture technique: the bigger your aperture (the hole inside your lens) is not always better. A lot of times there are photos with a shallow depth of field.

Sarah:  Your camera is looking for white in an image. So throw something in the photo that is white, or you can manually choose your white color balance if you don’t have that option. 

Alice: Shooting with a 2.8 aperture has its place (when you’re focusing on one small aspect of a food photo), but more often times it is misused.  You want the whole shot to be in focus.


  • Small dishes work best for arranging. Try Ikea, Big Lots, Daiso, thrift stores, garage sales, etc. Stay away from overly glossy plates, matte works best. Same for silverware. Steer away from wide rimmed plates because they take up too much room on the photo. Same with bowls – go for shallower. Small, shallow, matte, less room.

  • Background: less is better -keep it simple.  Use a colored napkin assortment as a way to easily change backgrounds. Scrapbook paper also works well for this; and handmade paper too.  Keep in mind you want it to be simple and not overwhelm your shots. Mounted wall paper samples also work well.

  • Small glasses and jars. Baby food jars, mason jars, ramekins, lids, etc. all work well to use for food shots.

  • Textured/Aging Materials. Old silverware, cookie sheets, tile, stone or marble remnants,  beat up wood, etc. adds depth and character easily. Ask stores for free samples and if you get a marble sample ask for an unfinished sample. Use what you have at home and be creative. For example, if you’re posting about frosting – you don’t have to bake a cake to demonstrate the techniques. Try piping your frosting on the back of a baking sheet or another flat surface.

  • Household backgrounds: pots, pans, cooling racks, coffee filters, stoneware, lids from jars, paper plates, etc. Anything old or rustic can make for a great background!  Texture and color from these elements can add so much to a simple photo.

Point of View (POV)

  • Determine if you want to show all the components or just a small view of what you’re working on.

  • When showing in-the-process steps, think of what steps are most important and use those.

  • Keep the main subject the main subject.  When focusing on a shot, make sure you highlight what you’re trying to share.

  • Grouping and arranging: showing a grouping is nice, but so is showing the inside of something. Find the best way to highlight your favorite grouping.

Restaurant Photography

  • Go during the daytime and ask to be seated near a window; if you’re there at night – bump up the ISO. In the end, a clear picture is better than having no noise.

  • Use your best judgment when deciding to take photos in a restaurant.

  • Use your personal effects as props – purse as tripod, scarf as background.

  • If using your phone as a camera – utilize things around you to prop it up so you can steady the phone. There are also some apps available.

If you had $25 to spend toward a prop or tool, you’d get:

Alice: Foam core board, white sheet or table cloth, plain white plate and bowl, and a clear drinking glass.

Sarah: A tripod.

Q&A From the Audience

Q: What is digital zoom and the alternative to using it?

Sarah: Digital zoom is where the camera zooms in to where it can go, and then an interior, digital zoom works to further zoom the image without getting closer. It usually translates to poorer quality.

Alice: The more you zoom, the more you compromise the quality.


Q: I have a camera that has a fixed range and I can’t zoom. What do I do?

Alice: Get a longer lens (like 24-70mm) to help with that.


Q: Tips for shooting a beverage in a glass?

Alice: a polarizing filter is a good option that will help. Also, be creative with your angle. ¾ of an angle is a good angle and point of view to have.

Sarah: I move around the subject and find the best spot. Or, I use a small card to block that reflection from coming in. But be careful not to lose light.


Q: What is your feeling on using an external flash?

Alice: I rarely use external flash, but when I do – I point it up or off to the side so the light bounces and it isn’t so harsh. Also there are plastic diffusers that help it filter better.  See what works best – try a couple shots.

Sarah: That is also when a fill card might come in handy really to help you bounce the light.


Q: Explain an i-Fi card.

Alice: My camera doesn’t use one, but they are basically an instant way to view your photos not on your camera screen.

Sarah: also you can get a cord that connects to your laptop if you use Lightroom 3 and view immediately.

Q: Do you recommend editing software?

Sarah: I use Lightroom, Picnik or GIMP are all great – the latter two are free for basic use. Picassa is also good for making collages.

Alice: I use Photoshop. If you have a Canon that shoots in RAW, Canon gives you software that you can use as well.  If you’re a student – take advantage of your student discount.

Q: Can you give tips for shooting steam or hot foods? The camera looks foggy.

Sarah: It can be very difficult – steam will cloud out the food.

Alice: Tammy from Running with Tweezers will let you in on some photo cheating secrets that explain why our photos don’t always look like styled photos.



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