(above shot taken with my old Canon 8MP compact camera)
When I did the blog posts about food photography, and food photography post production a while ago now, I got some emails and comments from people asking how this stuff relates to using a compact camera, instead of some flashy big digital SLR.
Truth be told, there are a lot of similarities. There are also of course a lot of differences.
The one thing that is completely key with both camera systems is knowing your hardware. Know the advantages, and certainly know the limitations.
So, without further a do, lets get down to the nitty gritty, and look at using a cheap old compact camera for food photography.
Well, actually.. before we get going, be sure to look through at least my introductory post on Food Photography that I did back in June. This talks about bounce cards, scrims and so forth – methods that I will be using in this post.
TO START: ADVICE ON BUYING A COMPACT CAMERA FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY:
* Large megapixels aren’t everything. Look for a camera that lets you adjust settings manually and has a good quality lens and sensor.
* You want to be able to adjust FStop, ISO, Shutter Speed and White Balance.
* You want to be able to turn off all JPEG image sharpening on camera.
* Check out online reviews from decent photography sites – http://www.dpreview.com is a good one to look at.
* Make sure the camera feels good in the hand. Make sure it has a hole for a tripod mount (all do these days really). SHOOTING ON A TRIPOD IS A MUST.
* Personally I like a compact camera that takes regular batteries, rather than something that has a funky recharge pack. I use my compact camera for travel a lot, and if I am the other side of the world (I wish..) it is far easier to find a shop with AAA batteries, than it is to find a voltage and plug adapter.
* The lens should have a focal length of somewhere between 50 and 100mm.(for instance – the lens might say 40-150mm – that is fine, since 50-100mm falls into its zoom range.
* Digital Zoom is pointless. It is the same as enlarging a photo in Photoshop. Don’t use it, and don’t fall for a cheesy salesman telling you how great a camera is because it has a 10000x digital zoom…
* If shopping for a tripod, get a decent one. Make sure it is really stable, and feels like it could go through a couple of wars. I really like the Manfrotto brand. For an old job years ago we had one that traveled all over the world, and never broke. (Sadly the tripod traveled more than I..)
TYPICAL PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS OF SHOOTING FOOD USING COMPACT CAMERAS:
* Most compact cameras operate at a high F-Stop, meaning that you don’t get a lot of depth of field in your images (not much of that lovely out of focus background blurring). No point bitching about it, its a fact with this small lens, high zoom cameras.
SOLUTION: Setup your shot knowing this. Try not to clutter up images, since you cannot use blur to focus in on the subject. Try top down shots since those typically are always in full focus.
* Compact cameras often have a slower shutter speed that most digital SLRs, because of the higher F-Stop. Their small size makes them harder to hold completely stable when hand shooting. This means that there is much more possibility of camera shake, and thus blurry images.
SOLUTION: Always use a tripod when shooting with a compact camera, even if your camera has Image Stabilization. If the shutter speed is looking really low (1/30 or lower) then consider shooting on a timer mode, where the camera takes the picture after 10 seconds – meaning there is no camera wobble when you press the button, which can make a photo blurry, even when using a tripod.
* Highlights can very easily get completely blown out in photos taken with a compact camera. This can make food look greasy, and white plates pure, bright white.
SOLUTION: Work with lighting very, very carefully. Use a scrim (more on that later, and more about that here). You can use a scrim to soften any harsh light that might be causing large white hotspots and reflections. In the shot above the whole left side of the plate was completely blown out, until I used my portable scrim to block out the harsh lighting from the window I shooting next to.
* Compact cameras often over-sharpen an image on camera, and once downloaded the shot looks un-natural.
SOLUTION: If you can, go through the options on your camera and disable all on-camera sharpening. Seriously, your shots will look a lot better for this quick change. If you need them sharpened, then you can use your photo editing package of choice to make those adjustments, as YOU want them! (my old compact here has no option to remove the on-camera sharpening however)
* Most compact cameras have a large LCD screen, that give you a real-time update of the shot you are going to be taking. USE IT! This is a great feature of compact cameras. Put the camera on a tripod in front of your shooting area. Now start laying out (styling) the area, constantly referencing the LCD screen to check prop placement and so forth. Also use this screen to work on your lighting – move your scrim and bounce cards around, and watch how the lighting changes in the LCD screen.
LEARNING BY ANALYSIS! BREAKING DOWN THE PHOTO ABOVE:
Here is a quick shot showing the basic layout I used to take the compact camera photo at the start of this blog post.
There are five key elements here:
* bounce card
* props and styling
The single most important factor to getting decent looking compact camera food photography (any food photography really – not matter what camera system) is lighting. I consider it especially important for compact camera shots for a few reasons:
* Compact cameras with their small lenses and sensors can easily blow highlights out, and often take shots that have large highlights in them.
* Compact cameras shoot in JPEG format, which is fine and all that, but it does limit you with the amount of adjustments you can do in post (Photoshop/Lightroom etc) before quality really starts to degrade. Really though, no amount of tweaking in your image editor of choice can make bad lighting look good.
* Food can quite easily look greasy if shot in harsh lighting conditions. Since highlights can often be either enlarged or blown out quite easily with a compact camera, careful attention needs to be paid to soft lighting, to help limit greasy highlights on food.
.* If you can, shoot using natural light. It is soft, nice on food, and – er, free. No need to buy expensive light setups and flashes.
I shoot most of my food photography in the area you can see in the shot above. Yep, that’s right folks, it is my toddler’s play area (see the toy kitchen, small art easel and midget sized table?). Once or twice a week I take it over for an hour (often when he is napping – toddlers and camera equipment are a dangerous and expensive experiment..) to shoot some food for my blog. The space works out great. Tons of natural light, generally reasonably soft (unless shooting at noon, then the light in the summer piles through those windows). If shooting early in the morning I tend to favor the dining room however, which gets more early light, from a large picture window.
* Find areas in your house that have decent natural light through the day, and figure out how you can use them for food photography. You don’t need a lot of room – just space for a small table, and you with your camera.
* If a really tight spot in the house has good natural light, I tend to get Danika (wife) to hold the plate for me, and I shoot her holding the plate. A recent blog post was just that actually. She takes up way less space than a small table.
* Experiment by changing your light position (or rather, moving your camera and food around, so the light is coming from a different side). I like shooting with light behind the food, but side lighting also has great effects. Personally I avoid shooting in the same direction as the light, this can make an image look flat, and like it was taken with a flash. Lighting can create drama and depth – experiment!
So – find space near a bright window. Doesn’t even have to be a big window. Get your table as close to it as possible. Setup your tripod and pop your camera on it. Put a plate on the table, and get your camera focused on it. Put some dummy food on there (an apple or something) just to get focus. Start setting up the styling around it. Constantly check on the LCD screen on the back of the camera
A scrim is a simple piece of material (often vellum) which is translucent. When placed between your light and your subject, it softens the light right down – knocking down highlights, and creating softer, more gentle shadows. Harsh shadows, strong lights, and aggressive highlights aren’t (in my opinion) a food’s friend at all. It seemed like earlier this year a few food mags started doing this with food shots, and it just looked horrible (again, in my opinion). Food looked greasy and cheap. A scrim can really help avoid that.
I wrote about scrims in a previous food photography article – you can read all about them here.
The best thing to do is to pop down to your local art supply store, and get a big roll of artists vellum. When you are ready to shoot your picture, tape a big sheet of this over the window you are shooting by. This will soften the light coming through the window, reduce ugly highlights, and make food look pretty. We all like pretty food, don’t we?
If you want to get extra fancy then you can make yourself a simple frame (much like a frame used for artist canvas) from some cheap wood. Tape or staple these large sheets of vellum over the frame. This way you have a movable scrim, that you can position in seconds, and tweak to your hearts content. You can see I have done just this in the picture above. It is very handy if you have light coming through a few windows.
A bounce card is a simple sheet of white card. Nothing fancy. I like to use a thick foam core board, just because I am a complete klutz, and tend to break things pretty easily. The foam board is tougher than normal thick card.
Typically you want to place this on the other side of the food to which your light is coming from.. For example – if you have light from the left, position it on the right.
This helps brighten the dark areas slighty, and gives much more detail in the shadows, which makes food look more rounded, and have more volume. Really dark shadows are just kinda severe in food photography – unless you really know what you are doing for styling and shooting.
Here are two shots from a previous post I did on food photography – showing before and after using a bounce card. The first shot is with no bounce card, the second is with:
I like to get a few pieces of card – all different sizes. Sometimes if you are shooting a large table top scene, it is great to have a bounce card that is 6ft x 4ft for instance – to bounce a lot of light back into a scene. These cards can also then work out great for blocking lots of light coming in from windows that you might not want. For instance – in that play area I shoot in, sometimes the light is so strong back there I put a couple of the large bounce sheets up against a couple of windows in there, just to knock back the ambient light a bit, and give more directional light (so the incoming light is focused through one window).
PROPS AND STYLING:
* Keep it simple. Don’t add too much to the scene.
* White plates will never, ever go out style because food always looks good on them.
* Always make sure the food is the main focal point, not some super fancy glass or spoon.
* Thrift stores are great places to find all manner of props cheaply.
* I am a complete sucker for Crate and Barrel. They often have great plates and such for not much cash, and can have great sales.
* Theme the image, but not too much. Decide if you are going rustic or modern, and style around it. If your food is a simple peasant dish, don’t style around it for haute cuisine.
Next to the camera itself, a sturdy tripod is the most important piece of camera equipment – especially for compact camera shots. Save up and buy a decent one. somewhere between 100 and 200 bucks should get you something pretty stable.
When you buy a tripod, you buy the base and the head. The head is the bit that the camera attaches on to, and has all the controls for tilt and so forth. I like to use a head that allows me to adjust each tilt axis independently of the other. That way I can rotate or tilt, without effecting any other axis.
I like to use a quick release head on my tripods. This means with the flick of switch the camera can be taken off the tripod. Makes packing down and setting up faster, and if I want to take a quick hand-held shot of something, I can – and when I snap the camera back on to the tripod it is in exactly the same position as when I took it off.
FINALLY: STEP BY STEP – SETTING UP THE SHOT
* find a bright location near a window
* place a small table right next to the window, put down a plate with some dummy food (an onion, apple, or something) on it.
* setup your camera on a tripod, and focus in on the food.
* Zoom as you see fit. I tend to like a more telephoto shot, rather than wide angle. Food looks less distorted, and you have to style less around the food (since less environment is in shot)
* Put your scrim between the bright window and your food – this will soften down the light, and knock back very strong highlights
* Style props around the food to help tell a story. Keep it simple and clean.
* Constantly check out how the shot is looking in the camera’s LCD screen. Move props and food as you see fit to get a good composition.
* Use the LCD screen to check where strong highlights are. If they are on the food, or the plate holding food, consider moving the scrim to knock those highlights back.
* Position your bounce card near your camera to bounce a bit of light back into the scene. This will illuminate darker areas and give more detail in shadows.
* Go cook your food.
* Swap out the plate of temp food, do some final tweaks of the scrim and bounce card, and take the picture!
Just for giggles, I quickly snapped a similar shot using my digital SLR. Shown below:
you can see that the shot does have a little more depth to it, thanks to the low F-Stop depth of field going on (foreground and background blurred). Lighting is a touch softer with it too – typical of SLR vs Compact Camera. But really, not much difference.