How to shoot your food
That person with a camera permanently glued to their face, that woman wobbling on a chair on her tip toes to take an overhead shot of a bagel, that shopper who comes back from the market and lays all her veg out on a bit of old sacking, that Mum who asks her teen to wait one minute while she clicks her sandwich with an iPhone. Guilty as charged – I am that person.
Having been asked a few times about the equipment I use and the courses, workshops and help I’ve used to help improve my food photography, while I am certainly no expert, this post is about some of the steps on my journey. Starting out with a point and click, to having food shots featured in magazines…. so some of this has worked. However, it IS a journey and I’m still climbing up the first footpath with mountain peaks ahead in the distant mist.
Before food blogging (BFB) did I see everything as a potential still life and have the urge to capture it? Well yes and no. There’s a wooden blanket box in my house packed full of photos going back over decades including some ‘artistic’ shots of some onion seed heads taken with my first camera when I was about 14. There’s always some sort of creative thread running through my life whether writing, painting, drawing, photography or cooking (yes chopping an onion does count as creative in my book – I have very Zen-like thoughts while doing it). A very dear Aunt of mine always took masses of photos at family events although hated being in front of the lens; in her eighties, she still carries on (using a manual Olympus SLR and film) and at some point I started to emulate her.
When I started blogging, it was very much about the writing side but like many before me, I soon found that my adored Sony Cybershot on food mode was not helping me tell the whole story. I wanted food pics that made people feel hungry at the very least, and at best make them feel like reaching in and taking a huge bite.
In my teens I used to puzzle over a pocket manual of photography to try to work out aperture, ISO and all those good things, now there is a simply massive wealth of great stuff out there. I’ve just put together a food photography and styling page with all the resources I recommend online and offline, here in Dubai and beyond. (image)
These are the major stepping-stones on my own personal journey; if you are just starting out or wanting to take better pics (of food or otherwise) this might give some inspiration. Also, photographic equipment is still an expensive investment and advise online can be very confusing. I’m finally beginning to know why some things work well and why not when they don’t (still with me?!):
Learn to use your camera
I was terrified of my brand new DSLR for at least six months and then the wonderful Zahra Jewanjee (hosting a course at Dubai Ladies Club) taught me how to make friends with it and how to use every last little button and feature. I’m a ‘read the manual’ person but with something as complex as a camera this isn’t enough. This course is the best thing I ever did and would recommend finding one in your area as soon as you first buy a camera.
Food photography workshops
Spending time with people who take food pics for a living has given me a few ‘ah hah’ moments. They do certain things instinctively which defies explanation on the page. By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. My inspiration came from:
Béatrice Peltre at Food Blogger Connect 2011; lovely Ellen Silverman (she shot Gwyneth Paltrow’s book) at Food Blogger Connect 2012 and in Dubai; brilliant David Griffen (also at Food Blogger Connect 2012) who is totally down to earth yet takes heavenly pics; a smart phone workshop at Gulf Photo Plus with Matt Armendariz who is super friendly and practical; and through my three collaborations with Meeta K Wolff – a whirlwind of energy and inspiration. Members of Fooderati Arabia have also been super supportive (thanks especially to Arva, Sarah and Sukaina). By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. If you get the chance to hang out with a pro food photographer, seize the opportunity.
Photography has become much more accessible but is still not without expense. This is what’s in my camera bag and elsewhere that I’ve acquired on the way:
Carrying your kit around safely is important; when choosing a camera bag I’d recommend something that has room for your bits and pieces so you don’t have to juggle carrying a handbag. I bought this from Grand Stores Digital at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. It has padded sections inside so I can carry my camera and two additional lenses. It’s not the most stylish accessory ever so this one from Ona is on my wish list. For more inspiration visit Kelly Moore and Jill E in the US and Cosy Cameras in the UK.
I always over-spec when I buy something new, but think I got the balance just right with my Nikon D5000 DSLR (the newest version the D5300 is double in megapixels, has wifi and GPS). It’s more compact than its big brother the D90 with most of the same features. I must admit to using the hi-definition video camera that’s built in very rarely. As a versatile camera for all sorts of situations it’s been fantastic. I did a lot of agonizing about Nikon vs Canon before buying; Canon does seems to be the most popular choice of food bloggers and many professionals but there are many fans of both brands. You could drive yourself crazy reading all the comparison charts. One advantage is if you buy another Nikon (unless it’s a full frame) you can always use your old lenses.
Don’t feel pressured into buying a DSLR though. The options for taking great pictures increase every day. I was at a talk this week about the Nokia Lumia 1020 smart phone which has a 41 megapixel camera sensor – perfect for taking images in dark restaurants unobtrusively and making videos. Your final choice should be based on what you are going to use your camera for most.
Pics above taken on iphone.
The Nikkor AFS DX 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens that came with the camera is fine but I wanted something that gave me a shallower depth of field (that lovely blurred background look). I bought a Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D which is great used on a tripod but doesn’t have a motor in the body of the lens (and there isn’t one in my camera) so manual focus is necessary (a dot in within the viewing panel shows when you are in focus). Last year I invested in a Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G which is a dream and helps me achieve pinpoint focal points and soft blurry backgrounds.
My Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G Lens was bought in a happy accident. I dropped my camera in the middle of a farmyard while in the UK and the ring chipped on my kit lens (I bought a new bayonet mount ring and had it repaired in Dubai). The 35 mm is very reasonably priced and I’ve come to love it especially for travel and walking. It’s very light to carry and the wide-angle is fantastic for the English countryside. Both the 50mm and 35mm are fixed or prime lenses. They don’t zoom so if you want to get a close up you have to walk nearer to the subject (and vice versa).
My most recent and (most expensive purchase) is a Nikkor AF-S DX 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II which I bought to give me more flexibility when out and about – I must say I’m still getting used to it.
For UV filter, colour balance and to protect the lens I bought a Hoya filter for each of my lenses and keep them attached permanently.
A reflector can be anything that reflects light and are used to fill in areas that look too dark in a food shot. I bought this early on and now know I should have got one with a white side instead of the gold side. The handle is great for angling reflected light onto the area you want. I also use white or black (to absorb light) foam core and white card.
Using something to reflect the light and a tripod are the two things that transformed my shots. Buy the sturdiest one you can was Zara’s advice and my Benro tripod kit has served me well but now I’d like something more substantial. A Manfrotto 055 XPROB tripod legs with a 322RC2 ballhead and accessory arm, so I can do overhead shots more easily, is on my wish list.
Some people can use many food props with abandon. Meeta and my new, super-talented friend Rowena from Apron and Sneakers are excellent at this. When I try to do this it looks too contrived and ‘less is more’ suits me best; Smitten Kitchen did a whole cook book without props after all. Getting the food to look it’s absolute best is paramount and tips learned from wonderful, kind, creative Fiona Archibold here in Dubai, and charming Emily Jonzen at Food Blogger Connect have stood me in good stead. I only use tips that will keep the food edible; I don’t cook for photographs, I cook for my family. Here are a few:
- Keep an array of fresh herbs in a plastic container lined with damp kitchen roll
- Have a water spray on hand, especially to invigorate leafy greens (which I should have used on that pear above!!)
- Only dress a salad at the very last minute – paint it on the leaves with a brush
- Arrange spaghetti from a height, let it coil down onto the plate
- Oil is your friend – brush on oil to light-catching surfaces to make it look appetizing
I love kitchen shops so an excuse to buy all sorts of things from market stalls to kitchen equipment stores “it’ll be good for food photography” was easy. However, I’ve made a decision, as my blog is about food cooked in my home, I’m going to use the surfaces available like my dining table and the kitchen surfaces. I use what’s in my cupboards and don’t go out and buy things specially for a shoot. Never, say never but…. In the meantime, I’ve accrued a fair assortment of stuff for that purpose including a pile of napkins and tea towels which I buy in the sales. Dishes tend to be on the small side – it’s easier to shoot and to make things look generous. Having said that if you are propping with cutlery, this needs to be in proportion. Car boot sales and markets in the UK have been the best hunting ground for cutlery.
Natural props are my favourite and I like using the ingredients pertinent to the dish. I always remember the advice from my Prue Leith book about ‘simple with elaborate’ and ‘keep it relevant’.
Hunting grounds are everywhere but in Dubai: Daiso, Crate and Barrel (sale), Tavola, Lakeland, Pottery Barn (sale), Little Luxuries (Town Centre Mall) and of course Dragon Mart (if you can stand to lose hours of your life!). Elsewhere I love Tavistock Pannier Market and wish I’d taken an extra bag for the flea market in Tbilisi, Georgia.
If KP reads this he’ll realise exactly what Is in all the cupboards – gulp!
Lightroom (and Photoshop)
I wish I’d bought Lightroom along with my camera. It’s a fantastic tool for organising your pics as well as brilliant post-processing. If you can use your camera (see above) you can use Lightroom. I was given Photoshop but it’s not intuitive. I have to Google all the time as I forget how to do things. The beauty of Lightroom is that it also works with Photoshop as it’s Adobe. You can edit in Lightroom then open the image in Photoshop (for instance for adding text to an image) but save a copy back into Lightroom. This gives it the edge over Apple’s Aperture for me. (Adobe CS2 suite is available for free download from Adobe – thanks to Gavin on Twitter for this).
Backing up your work, especially your images, is a chore ….but vital. A photographer I know downloads the images from her camera (via Lightroom) onto two external hard drives. When they are full, she labels them and keeps them in a safe; it’s her valuable work after all. Another friend never reuses a memory card and keeps them. I use external hard drives – Seagate are very affordable although you have to format them for Mac which is a bit fiddly.
As an avid reader, I confess to very few books on photography. I bought Nikon D5000 from Snapshots to Great Shots by Jeff Revell along with my camera. A lot of it went over my head; my advice would be to take a really good beginner course (as above). Food photography – from snapshots to great shots by Nicole S Young is very practical and has some detailed instructions about editing in Photoshop too (I also follow her blog here) although aimed more at professional photography. It has many example called ‘poring over the picture’ where she tells you how an effect was achieved. Her style is precise and detailed. Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin (of Tartelette blog fame) was much anticipated. It covers the basics of your camera, natural light, artificial light, composition, set up, styling and a bit of post-production. There are some beautifully inspiring pics with lots of showing step by step set up pics or before and after. I find the writing style a bit wordy but it’s a useful resource.
To now I’ve shot with natural light only. Yes it would be handy to have a soft box or some Lowel Ego lights …. but for now that can wait.
So that’s a bit about my photography journey – how about you?
What does photography mean to you? Who is your favourite food photographer? Would you read a food blog without pictures? Have you any advice about getting started or improving your photography?
For more links and resources visit my food photography page: