Hello everyone! I've been meaning to do this post for a while now, but I've been feeling very unqualified— in fact, I'm still rather unqualified. I'm a lot unqualified, but I'm going to do it anyway, because people seem to enjoy my photos. So I'll finish with a disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I do not have an expensive camera (by DSLR standards). This is what works for me, and it may not be exactly what works for you.
In this relatively brief guide, I'm going to cover some things which sound technical, but which really aren't, including f-stops/aperture settings, shutter speed settings, perspective, white balance, and a little bit about food and product tips and styling. This guide is most useful for those with a DSLR, although some aspects are certainly applicable to a good point and shoot camera as well.
I'm using a Nikon D3200, with a 40mm macro lens. It's pretty much the cheapest DLSR body they offer, but I think the real value comes from having a good lens (which, happily, is also reasonably priced. The equivalent Canon lens is rather expensive). I think this lens has made all the difference. It's fixed, and has no zoom, but as I'm more interested in the details, it's alright. What this means is that the image is always relative to the distance I am to the subject being photographed. It works really well in my situation, as I'm mostly photographing food, and smaller stationery objects.
That doesn't mean that the lens is useless for other things— it takes beautiful portraits, and lovely landscapes. It's a great all-round lens, and if you're going to buy one, I'd get this over the kit lens any day. (It also performs really well in shoddily lit areas).
Most DSLRs are set up much the same way, so although these instructions are Nikon specific, they should be relatively easily applicable to any camera.
When I'm referring to the M, A, and S settings, I'm talking about the Manual, Aperture, and Shutter Speed settings on the dial nearest the shutter-release button. You can use the camera on the Auto setting, the focus and shutter speed will be selected for you— but the best results come from working in Manual.
The first thing I decide is on when taking a photo is the aperture. I'm not going to get technical here, but what this adjusts is how much of your photos is in focus, by adjusting the width of the entrance pupil; this also controls how much light is let in. An 'f-number' (also called f-stop) is used to refer to this ratio. As the opening grows, the f-number shrinks. The higher the f-number, the more of your scene which is in focus at once. A low f-number, therefore, gives you a very short depth of field— an effect often used for food and product photography.
This effect is called bokeh, and a good macro lens will get you this for sure. It looks like this, in a photograph with a very low f-stop.
This is great for drawing attention to small details, and in my case, disguising a background of less appealing objects, like messy living rooms, and torn up leather swivel chairs.
Here, I'll show you the difference with a similar photo, taken with different aperture settings. High f-stops can be really useful for certain kinds of photography where the entire product or object needs to be in focus— landscapes sometimes, too. A low f-stop guides the eye irresistibly to the part in focus, and you can use this to direct the viewer.
Something to consider with the aperture is lighting. On a sunny day, it will be hard to use a low f-stop because a massive amount of light will be let in, over exposing your photograph. Similarly, a very high f-stop is not a well suited to a poorly lit room. You can adjust some of this with the shutter speed.
I have an interesting relationship with shutter speed— mostly since I don't have a tripod, and I do have shaky hands. This limits my range of shutter speed on a typical day to a fairly small range. Shutter speed, measure in seconds and fractions of a second refers to how long light is being let into the camera. A wide range of effects can be created with shutter speed, but for my purposes, I mostly use it to control light.
With regards to speed, a fast shutter speed is best for capturing moving objects— birds, sports games, etc. This will capture the clearest photo without the appearance of motion— most of the photo will be in focus. A slow shutter speed lets in light for longer, and so those objects which are moving will in effect be captured in more than one position, creating a blurred movement. This can be great if you really want to show the movement of something, such as cars at night, moving trains, rushing rivers with smooth, flowing water, etc. As I don't have a tripod, all of these options are really out, as when the shutter speed is so slow, all sorts of movement registers on the camera.
For basic purposes, propping your elbows on a stable surface like a table or chair, and breathing out as you take the photo will help with shaky hands to some degree.
Tip: Sometimes, if I'm particularly low on sugar, I will set my camera to a continuous shooting mode— images are captured rapid fire as long as the shutter release is held down. I take about three photos, and chances are one will be clear if I've shaken a bit.
In relation to the aperture setting, shutter speed can be used to correct an over or under-abundance of light. The faster the shutter speed, the darker the photo.
Shutter speed is not something I worry too much about. Obviously, it's important, but a photo that is slightly under or over exposed can be corrected fairly easy in an image editing program. I use Photoshop, but there are lots that are even available online for no cost that are fairly good.
White balance is your buddy. Your friend. Your Samwise Gamgee. Probably the most frustrating thing about taking photos on my iPad was the lack of any sort of correction for different kinds of lighting— leaving you with photos that are washed out with blue, or as hot as Hades. White Balance settings come on all DSLR camera to the best of my knowledge, and a little tweaking here will save you zillions of frustrated minutes in editing software trying to make your food actually resemble something edible.
White Balance helps correct the coloured cast of light created by different lighting situations— my camera has a dozen Fluorescent settings, an Incandescent, Direct Sunlight, Shadow, Cloudy, Flash, and an Auto setting.
Here, the bottom right is definitely the best choice, although I think the top right could work depending on the mood, and with a little editing to take down the warmth just a tad.
This photo is of my newly started plants beneath a grow light. The first photo is without the correct white balance, as is the second. The last is white balance correct, and the light most resembles daylight, neither too warm, or too cool. The light source from directly above is a bit awkward, but hey— that's what you get for taking photos three inches from a grow light.
I'll talk a bit more about lighting later, but if you're not in a situation where you can use natural lighting (which is pretty much always best), white balance can help tone down the blues or oranges in a photo under kitchen or bathroom lights. Fiddle around with your settings based on the type of lighting you're stuck with to see what most accurately captures the colours before you. Sometimes I wiffle waffle between a few different ones to see which best captures the mood I'm going for— and sometimes auto works best if I have a collection of different light sources.
Allow me to preface this section by once again stating that I am not an expert. I am not an expert in lighting, especially, but I can offer a few tips. The first, is that while it's not always possible, shooting in soft natural lighting will make everything magical. Ordinary objects suddenly seem to have a beautiful quality you might not have previously noticed. It's great. Natural lighting has its downsides sometimes, too. A sunny day can be so bright that your camera cannot deal with the brightness, and you end up with a set of overexposed photos. Extremely bright, directly light, like at noon, will also result in very harsh shadows.
The best light is typically a bright but cloudy day, morning, and afternoon, when the sun has a slightly warmer cast than at high noon. If it is a little bright, and you're shooting indoors, a sheet over the window will help soften the light and reduce any serious shadowing that might be happening.
You can also do this with a piece of paper held lovingly by a family member while you fuss with settings and angles, or with a piece of poster board, propped up like a picture frame. The white backdrop will reflect some light into the shadow areas by placing it opposite your light source out of frame.
If you're in a situation where you can really do either, photographing your object with the light source to one side, rather than behind or in front can be helpful.
"The angles are the director's thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy."
Perspective changes everything. With perspective, you can make an object seem minute or towering, important, or insignificant, part of a whole, or a unique feature. For the purposes of this tutorial, I'm really only going to talk about a few kinds of perspective, mostly with regards to closer-up photography. When taking photos of food or other close up objects, two main types of camera angles or perspectives are really used: 3/4, which is the view we normally have of objects, and overhead, or birds eye.
This kind of view is good for showing a table of food, a product set up in a scene.
This overhead view, shows of the surface and the shape of objects— pies, salads, berries, beautiful round bowls, decorations on the rims of plates, cups of coffee, trinket dishes, and flowers. It doesn't work for everything, but it can be an interesting way to view a table.
Similarly, an overhead view can be good for highlighting a number or arrangement of something, such as these cookies. These aren't your only options, but they are trusty.
If you're looking for a fresh perspective, get down low. I especially like this one when it comes to out of doors stuff. Grass is just... grass. But I got on my knees on the patio, and suddenly...
It's a little bit magical.
Tips for Styling
I've just a few more things I wanted to add before I head off for some more business planning.
- a few cheap props can make all the difference in a photo. I buy little pieces here and there. You can find interesting props for relatively little at:
- flea markets/second hand shops
- places like Crate & Barrel, Winners, and Pier 1
- Chapters (one of my favourite places, to be honest. I do surveys for giftcards here, so I feel like I'm not spending too much).
- Target (R.I.P, Target Canada).
- When photographing food, put any sauce or dressing on at the last minute (throw maple syrup in the freezer to get that thick, gooey thing that photos often have going)
- Save a bit of your ingredients to use as photo props and garnish, ie; herbs in the dish, lemons, berries, etc.
- Try not to use shiny things: I bought a cheap matte plate from Chapters which I use often. I have black plates, but they are glossy, and I end up with all sorts of wacky reflections I have to deal with in editing (and I'm not quite good enough for that). Using cutlery that has a vintage look, or a brush metal look will also reduce some shine.
- When in doubt, blue. Most often you want to emphasize the warm tones in delicious baked bread, cakes and cookies. Foods that are often warmly coloured, such as brightly coloured vegetables, soups, pasta sauces, etc, will pair well with a blue dish, napkin or placemat which really makes the colours pop. If you know your colour wheel, you'll know blues and purples are the opposite of yellows and oranges.
- Abundance. More food almost always looks better— stacks of gooey cookies and brownies, heaps of fruit, full salads. Although you might not always have enough to fill a dish, try using smaller dishes, or pushing the food to one side and not photographing the entire dish to create an illusion of plenty.
I didn't really have enough to heap the whole plate here, as I had already made too many cookies that week and didn't want to make a massive batch for the purposes of the post. I didn't photograph the whole plate (and really, you can photograph even less and get away with it), and I stacked them and lumped them to create that 'fullness' thing we seem to like. The blue background makes the milk look particularly fresh and brings out the hint of golden brown on the surface of the cookies.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful and encourages you to fly free in manual mode! It can be a little daunting at first, but the results are totally worth it. :) If there is anything important I left out, let me know in the comments. Please share with me your most awesome photography and food styling tips.
Much love, happy photographing