technique

Food Photography

May 21, 2009

Just recently I have got a few emails from people asking about the food photography setup that I use. I honestly find those some of the most flattering emails I have ever received, because honestly, I am a big time hack. BIG TIME. I don’t do photography as a job, and really have very little time to shoot the food I cook, before I eat it.

I don’t like eating hot food cold.. even if it means a good photo, and I generally (there are exceptions..) don’t like to piss guests off either by making them wait for theirs..

Because of this, I have my little system which really limits the time it takes to shoot after the food has been cooked and plated. I think most food photographers have their own methods for this too. A lot of food can start looking pretty dodgy if it has been sitting out for even just a few minutes, especially what I cook a lot of – seafood.

To make all this digestible and manageable I am going to split the topic of food photography into two posts. This first post will concentrate on more physical elements – cameras, lighting, bounces, scrims and plating. The second post in a few weeks will deal with what happens after you get the image onto your computer – so post-production editing: exposure adjustment, levels, tone, cropping, color adjustment and so on.

TOPICS:

Cameras, lenses and tripods

JPEG vs RAW

Shooting Tethered

Lighting, Bounces and scrims

White Balance

Controlling Reflections and highlights

My approach to composition and styling

My approach to getting a shot fast


CAMERAS:

You have two options here really. No, I don’t mean Nikon or Canon.. Rather a compact (point and shoot) camera, or a digital SLR. The compact camera’s main positive is price. A decent one is almost half the price of a base/mid level digitalSLR, and it comes with a lens built in. The downsides here are somewhat many though. The lens is small, so too is the image sensor. This is going to limit image quality somewhat, and also the camera’s ability to pick up subtle light and textures. Typically most point and shoot cameras don’t have a lot of photographic control either. It is rather useful to be able to manually adjust more technical camera settings like F-Stop (aperature size), ISO, shutter speed and so forth. Especially F-Stop since this controls the range of what is going to be in focus in your shot. Some compact cameras have the option to adjust some of these settings – they are more expensive however. I have noticed that with my compact camera (which has a full manual mode to adjust most photographic settings) it still really lacks the exposure range of a digitalSLR, but you can still certainly take good pictures with it, you just have to be rather careful with lighting setup (which isn’t a bad thing)

DigitalSLRs are sexy. There is no doubt about that. A big pro looking camera.. megapixels up the wazoo… They can be expensive though, especially when you start talking about getting a good lens as well. The bonus of the digitalSLR however is great. You are able to take complete control over exposure, white balance, F-stop, shutter speed, ISO – and all that good stuff. This obviously gives you much more creative control. You are able to get some extremely good quality lenses, that really have a huge impact on the quality of your shot. DigitalSLRs also are able to shoot in RAW format – which is a wonderful uncompressed image format that allows for a lot of control once you get the image off your camera and onto your computer.

I started shooting using a compact camera, and quickly outgrew it. I got my first entry level digitalSLR maybe 6 years ago now, and bought a cheap lens for it. Since then I have upgraded the lens, and just also upgraded the camera to a newer digitalSLR.

My suggestion here is to buy the best camera you can afford (well duh..). A decent compact camera is going to be fine for some blog photography. If you think you are going to be doing this for a long time, get an entry level digitalSLR, and a decent quality lens for it and you will be very happy.

LENSES:

It is possible to prattle on about lenses all day. Here is some bullet points that might come in handy:

* Professional photographers agree: “it is all about the glass” – the camera is somewhat secondary. You want to make sure if you are using a dSLR that you are using a good quality lens, otherwise that sexy camera is somewhat pointless
* Good quality doesn’t have to mean really expensive. Canon has a great lens (50mm 1.4F) for $350. That is pretty cheap for a good quality lens. They also have a nearly as good lens (50mm 1.8F, but plastic construction) for just under $100
* On a crop frame digital SLR (most entry to mid level DigitalSLRs) I find 50mm to be a great focal length
* I prefer to shoot with prime (no zoom) lenses over zoom when shooting plates of food. Unless you are spending a lot of cash on a lens, you will typically get better image quality from a prime lens (mainly sharper). Sure you can’t zoom, but that can acutally help you with composition a bit. If you are out and about, shooting market food or restaurants, a zoom can certainly be handy
* I use Canon cameras, and shoot almost all my photography on this blog with a 5omm F1.4 lens. I can’t afford to spend a bunch of cash on different lenses, and I find this is a great lens for what I do. My next lens? Most likely a 100mm macro

TRIPODS:

Not much to say here, apart from use one, and make it a good one! Even if you think the light is fine for handheld shooting, it is always best to pop your camera on a tripod. You want to make sure it is a sturdy, well built solid tripod, even if you are using a compact camera.

My personal preference is for the brand Manfrotto, which I have always found to be well built. I like a 3axis head (the head is the bit the camera sits onto). The 3 axis head lets you adjust each rotation independently, which gives great control. Some tripods for only a few extra bucks offer a “quick release” head. This means that with just the swish of a lever your camera is either locked or released from the tripod. In my book this in money well spent, since I am always taking my camera on and off.

If you are using a compact camera for your shots, you should absolutely always shoot with a tripod no matter what.

JPEG vs RAW:

JPEG and RAW are the two main image formats that cameras shoot in. Compact cameras shoot in JPEG (I don’t know of any that shoot RAW, but could be mistaken). Most digitalSLRs have the option of shooting either RAW or JPEG.

JPEG is a very common format of image. Most images you see on the web are JPEG. JPEG is great because it gives pretty decent image quality, with low file sizes. The problem however is that the image is compressed in a way that image data is lost. You may have seen an image online that looks blocky, especially in areas of low contrast. This is caused by JPEG artifacts – to make the image small, JPEG removes some data from an image, which leads to slightly lower image quality. When used properly these effects are barely noticable however.

The problem comes when trying to do a lot of post production on a JPEG image. The more you work the colors/contrast and so on, the more these effects can be noticable.

RAW format however is different. This format isn’t compressed, and is in fact the raw data from the camera. Since it isn’t compressed you don’t get any artifacts at all, which makes for much cleaner images – especially if they are being used for print. The biggest bonus of RAW is that when the shot is taken, extra information to do with the exposure, white balance and tone is saved with the image. Inside your photo editing software you are then able to very accurately adjust the exposure, white balance and so forth after the image is taken!

This gives much more control to developing your digital images, and is fantastic for fixing any exposure problems an image might have. RAW files are big however, and love to fill up hard drives very fast. I tend to delete ones that I know I am never going to want (out of focus, over exposed etc).

SHOOTING TETHERED:

Most digitalSLRs have the option to hook up your camera via USB to your computer. Through this hookup you can control the camera via computer, take a shoot, and almost instantly see it on your computer screen. Some cameras even have a “live view” mode, where what you see on the laptop is updated realtime, as you adjust exposure, F-stop, and move the composition and lighting.

Whilst this takes a couple of extra minutes to setup, it is something well worth doing. Just being able to see your image composition on a big screen is huge, and really helps you work the look of your image andfix any lighting or composition problems.

Do I shoot tethered all the time? NO. Sometimes I just don’t have time to pull my laptop out, get it all setup and so forth. I should, it can make a big difference to a shot.  All too often when I don’t, I get the image onto my computer after shooting, and have a “OH BUGGER” moment, as I see something I would really want to fix, that wasn’t noticeable through the camera viewfinder or LCD screen.

LIGHTING:

Lighting has the biggest impact on your shot. No doubt. You can have the best camera, the best plates/food/props/styling, but if your lighting is bad than your picture is going to be bad. Thankfully it isn’t crazy hard to get a lighting setup that is going to work pretty well for most food shots.

NATURAL LIGHT: I think most modern food photographers agree – natural light really is the best to photograph food in. It is also one of the faster to setup and get going with. Here are my tips for working with natural light:

* Shoot in the middle of the day, or early afternoon when the light is at its best
* Position your food close to a window or large opening, one that is preferably south or west facing. Some people shoot in a garage, and just roll up the garage door to shoot – my garage in Seattle is far to dingy for that however!
* Pay close attention to the strength of your light. Bright early afternoon sun is lovely, but it can also be extremely strong – and lead to very large strong highlights, and very harsh shadows.

Not all of us however have the ability to shoot in natural light all the time. I know I don’t. Here in Seattle through the winter I am certainly unable to shoot in natural light, since I do a lot of my photography late afternoon when I get back from work. This is when we have to start looking into artificial light setups.

TIP: Identify areas in your house that would work for food photography at different times of the day. For instance – my dining room works well around lunchtime, my kids playroom works great in the afternoon.

ARTIFICIAL LIGHT: For a little bit of cash (or hardly any cash and some handy DIY skills) you can put together an artifical light setup that is controllable, and give decent quality results. In fact, some of the shots on this blog that I have been most happy with have been shot under artifical light conditions: Beef/Noodle Salad, Eccles Cakes, YellowFin Tuna, Bresaola.

What you want is a light that is as white as possible (halogen is good here), and also as diffuse (soft) as possible. Just using an incandesant bare lightbulb would be a really bad idea! You get strong shadows, overblown highlights, and a bad yellow cast to your light – not to mention making your food look rather greasy.

For my artificial light shots I use a Lowel Tota Umbrella light. This is a bright halogen light that is on a stand. In front of this is an umbrella which softens light right off, and bounces it around a room. This makes for much softer highlights and shadows, and far sexier looking food than when shot with a basic lightbulb.

Another option is to use a “soft box”. This is a light that is surrounded by a box. One end of the box is open, and has a sheet of translucent vellum over it. This vellum does the same thing as the umbrella – softens the light right off, giving smoother highlights and soft, diffuse shadows. The Lowel EGO light is a great option for food photography. My good friend Jaden over at Steamy Kitchen has a great article on using them.

NEVER use an on camera flash.

BOUNCES:

Food Photography Setup

Here comes one of the cheapest impacts you can have on your shots. A big ole piece of white card. Or foam board if you want to get extra fancy.

You can use this card to “bounce” light back into your scene, helping to gently illuminate the darker areas of your scene. As a rough starting point, it is a good idea to position this board on the other side of the food to which the light is – so: if you are lighting from behind, put the board in front (just under the camera). Main light from the left? But the card on the right of your food.

Now all that is needed is a little fine tuning of placement to get the fill light exactly where you want it.

All I normally do is hold this card with one hand, and hit the shutter release button with the other. This can be tricky with some shots, so I might use a chair, or one of Drake’s toys to prop up the card just so. Taking a toy away from Drake for too long however is sure to lead to a toddler fit…

Here is an example of before and after with a bounce card. The shot is lit by natural light on the left of the food. In the first shot there is no bounce card, in the second the bounce is on the right of the food.

Food Photography Setup

Food Photography Setup

As you can see, the second image has some light now in its most dark areas. You could even knock this back a little bit just by moving the board a little further away from the food.

TIP: Most art supply stores will have a range of sizes of white card or foam board. My preference is for the later – it is thicker, and a little more sturdy. I am a complete clutz, so sturdy is better for me. I have two large sheets (5ftx3ft), and a smaller one (3ft x 3ft). The larger ones are great to use since they have a large impact. The small one is good for just bouncing light into a smaller area.

SCRIMS:

A scrim is just a sheet of something that will soften and diffuse any light passing through it. Scrims are extremely useful in both natural and artifical light setups. You want to place the scrim between your light source and your scene. This will soften and harsh strong light. It also has the added bonus of making highlights smoother, making objects look more rounded, making your food not look greasy, and also making reflections look cleaner.

A scrim can really be anything that is translucent. I personally use artists vellum, which can be picked up in rolls at just about any art supply store. If I am shooting next to a window, I just tape up a sheet of it onto the window, and voila, the light through the window is instantly softened.

I also built a large frame (much like a frame for an artists canvas), which I have taped some vellum to as well. This gives me a large moveable scrim, which is pretty handy for when I shoot a little way away from a window, or when shooting something outdoors. You can see the frame in the back of the picture at the start of the blog post.

TIP: If you have direct sunlight coming onto your scene, use a scrim to soften it. If the light isn’t to harsh, try a shoot with and without the scrim, and see which you prefer. If you have really strong light coming in you can even use a relatively thin bed sheet as a scrim.

Below are two shots that demonstrate a scrim. Both shots are in the same location – a light filled area that is strongly lit by direct sunlight. The first shot is without the scrim, the second is with.

Food Photography Setup

Food Photography Setup

As you can see, the lighting is much softer. The really harsh shadows are removed, as too are those strong highlights that were washing the image out.

WHITE BALANCE:

As we look around, we are able to tell what color is white, white is cream, and what is light blue, even under different lighting conditions. Things get more complicated as all lights have different colors to them – the sun is yellow, daylight is a wee blue, lightbulbs are pretty darn yellow, hallogen bulbs are more neutral.

In order to get the correct color, and whites be white on a camera, we have to tell it what color is actually white. Most cameras have controls for adjusting this – and its called “white balance”. All cameras have the option to go auto with it. The camera will take a stab at guessing what lighting conditions are, and what color is actually white. Some cameras also let you set the white balance by telling it what type of lighting you are taking the shot in.

You can also get extra fancy by even specifying the Kelvin (light temperature, and thus color) of the lighting conditions you are in. If that doesn’t make you feel like a geek, I don’t know what would.

On most digitalSLRs it is also possible to take a picture of something white (or even more preferably light neutral gray), and tell the camera that this shot color should be neutral – or white. To do this, just place a white board or something in your shot, take the shot, and set your camera to use that shot as the white balance.

White balance can also be adjusted inside most of the common photo editing packages – more on that in the second post on food photography. It is however best to try and get the white balance as close as possible on the camera. Post production editing is fine, but getting it right when you take the shot is certainly the best approach.

So why do we need to set this? Well, we want to make sure that in our food shots white plates show up as white, and the colors of the food you are shooting are shown accurately. Back when I did that post on the beet salad a few weeks ago I didn’t set the white balance correctly, and when I viewed the shot inside Lightroom (my photo editing package of choice) the beets were a rather shocking purple color, instead of that intense red/purple color they should be. If I left the shot as is, the colors would be off and the food wouldn’t look right, or even appetizing.

Below are two shots of the same scene. The first shot has no white balance correction. It was shot in artifical light, and you can see there is a strong yellow cast to the image. The second image shows the same picture but with the correct white balance set.

Food Photography setup

Food Photography setup

CONTROLLING REFLECTIONS AND HIGHLIGHTS:

One thing that I try and pay attention to when shooting is the quality of any reflections or highlights. It is a good idea to look at other objects (especially those either light, or brightly colored) in your room, and make sure they aren’t showing up in any reflections you might have.

If you shoot next to a window, your are most likely going to see anything outside the window in a reflection in your plate or bowl, since the light outside is so bright. The good thing here is that a scrim cuts this out! The scrim not only softens light, but because it is generally placed between the window and your food, those nasty outside reflections are cut out, and you get a wonderful, white smooth reflection going on.

The white bounce boards help grately too. I will often place one in front of a bright object I cannot move too easily (a bright red picture, or one of Drakes heavy toys).. again this cuts out unwanted brightly colored reflections.

This is a small detail, but one I think that really helps keep images clean and simple.

MY APPROACH TO COMPOSITION AND STYLING:

  • * I like to keep images very simple, and often without too many props. Keep food the star.
  • *To me, white plates and dishes always show food very well, and I tend to like white-on-white presentations, when I can get good enough lighting to differentiate the white objects in the scene.
  • *To add a splash of color when needed, I often through in a richly colored napkin or coaster.
  • *To pick a plate of food out from the background (if it is blending too much), I might just put a prop behind a corner of the food, to break up the blend a bit (does that make sense?)
  • *I like a rustic style to my shots, but with somewhat more elegantly plated food.
  • *Always plate WAY less food than you actually eat. Sure I am skinny, but I do eat a lot more than you might see plated in a shot on my blog. Typically I cut it back by 2/3rds.  I find it easier to make a small amount of food look pretty, and visually it doesn’t fill a plate, which is a far nicer composition than a big plate of food.
  • *I typically back light my shot – so behind the food is the main light source. Side lighting is also great. Avoid having the main light in the same direction as the camera – you are going to get very flat lighting (like on camera flash lighting) and bad looking food.
  • *Never use an on camera flash

MY APPROACH TO GETTING A SHOT FAST:

I don’t have a lot of time to shoot food photography. I wish I did. I have come up with a little method that really helps me get a shot as fast as possible, without letting food get cold, pissing off a 2 year old waiting for his dinner, or making guests wait..

  • *Identify areas in your house that have good lighting at the times of day you are most likely to shoot a picture. When it comes time to setup, you know exactly where has good light.
  • *Have all your photography tools together – keep your scrim and bounces together, and drag em out together. You are most likely going to use them together.
  • *Before you cook, think up a setup you might want to use with your dish. Work through plating and prop ideas in your head, thinking what would work with your dish.
  • *Get a couple of large sheets of MDF or particle board. Use these as a stage for your shot. Even earlier that day setup the board with a tablecloth or covering, arrange plates and so forth on it to get a decent setup. When it comes time to shoot, drag the board out (with dishes still on it!), position in the light, and get ready to shoot.
  • *Have the set ready to go before you plate your food. The visual appeal of hot food starts to decline rather quickly as it gets cold. Have the setup ready (props, scrims, bounces, camera on tripod and setup to shoot tethered if are going to do that). Then just pop the plate of food down, make final adjustments and shoot
  • *If you aren’t shooting tethered, take a few shots from different angles. Also take a few shots with different F-Stop (aperture size) values. F-Stop controls the size of the lens aperture, which in turn controls how much of your shot is in focus. Make sure the focus point is on the food, but take some with varying F stops. Later when you look at your images on your computer, pick one that has the food in focus, but the background slightly blurred out – this pulls focus to the food, and adds depth and visual interest to your shot.

I guess the final thing to say is just have fun with it. Experiment, do things differently every time until you find a setup and style that works for you. Screw up a lot, and don’t worry about it. I screw up a ton, and post the screw ups on my blog!!

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  • foodwoolf May 21, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    My god Matt. You are incredible. Thank you so much for putting in all the time to write this incredible post. Amazing. Beautiful, and most importantly, helpful for all us food photographer wanna be bloggers!

  • alice May 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    This has to be by far the most useful and practical food photography tutorial I have ever seen. Thank you Matt.

  • helen May 21, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Matt, you rock. There’s so much good information here. I can’t wait for the next installment.

    A quick question: Does one adjust the white balance and/or lighting to create a particular mood/colour tone , or should that be done post-production?

  • mattwright May 21, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    FoodWolf: thanks!
    Alice: Cheers!
    Helen: My suggestion is to always try to get the mood you want with lighting and setup first. There is a lot you can do in post production, but I consider it always best to get a really good starting point before you even turn on your computer.

  • Ronald May 21, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Great post Matt, thanks a ton! Making the switch from natural history and wildlife shooting will be much easier with tips like these. If only I could spend a day or two or three… in the studio with you and the other uber talented Matt I just might learn something. ;P

    As always I appreciate your posts and thanks for sharing. It’s tough to be this dedicated with family and full time job.

    Cheers,

    Ronald

  • Sophie May 21, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Great post – such a lot of information here!

    Correcting white balance makes such a big difference I think – definitely worth learning how to change it on your particular camera model. I second the 50mm lens recommendation to – I have the cheaper canon lens and it’s just great

  • Kate May 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this out! The illustrations are very helpful. And as someone who often does a lot of cooking after work/at night, it’s nice to hear another food blogger acknowledge that even though natural light is the best, it isn’t always possible.

    If anyone is looking for a budget artificial light setup, I bought this set of table lamps from Ikea:
    http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/00095588

    I have daylight spectrum bulbs in them, and the thick frosted glass acts as a diffuser. I still need to tinker with the white balance and be careful of strong highlights, but they were a compact and inexpensive, if imperfect solution.

  • cindy May 21, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    super helpful matt. very thorough.

  • ravenouscouple May 21, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Unbelievably helpful post, Thank you!!! We’re just starting out and have some of the issues you talk about…white balance..poor lighting…but keeping at it. Love your blog and love and miss Seattle (live there for 5 yrs)!

  • Paoletta S May 22, 2009 at 5:42 am

    Your blog is wonderful, thank you for this article!

  • Reginald May 22, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Wow! Thanks Matt. As a new blogger and novice photographer your insight and tips are a godsend. Keep up with the great work.

  • Angry Brit May 22, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Wow.

    That’s all I can say.

    You have managed to get the vital points of photography down to a manageable size. Thank you so much for posting this! I’m not sure that I’ll ever be a great photographer, but at least I can take better pictures!

  • cheryl May 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Great Article on food Photography.. Thanks for all the time to post it.

  • Ben May 22, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Oh very nice! Thanks for sharing this tips with us. I’ve seen a lot of bloggers giving tips on this topic and that’s great for us, the people giving their first baby steps in food photography :)

  • Marta May 22, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Wow Matt! Thank you so much for this tutorial! It must have taken a while to put together and I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate you the time to share this with us. I don’t taek my own photos because I’m so artistically-challenged it’s painful, but I’ll forward this to my photographer!!
    I look forward tot he second installment!!
    THANKS!!!!

  • Ashley May 22, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    You are so generous to share your talent. This post was so thorough and useful. I will use this as a reference many times and share it with others who would appreciate it and all the work you went through to create this post. Thank you.

  • Peabody May 22, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Great write up. Though I find that for the everyday food blogger that jpeg is the way to go. RAW takes up way too much space!

  • Jaime May 23, 2009 at 2:56 am

    Hey, wow, thank you for taking the time to write all this up. Great pointers. I’m glad to have seen the tweet tastespotting gave you on twitter.

  • Biz May 23, 2009 at 5:01 am

    Wow – thanks for all those tips!! I am positive I use 10% of my cameras capabilities!

    I am going to bookmark this for future reference!

  • Nadia May 23, 2009 at 6:00 am

    wow,wonderful article, can you please recommend good point and shoot camera, right now i have sony cybershot, and want to upgrade, with not much cash to spend so any good budget point and shoot recommendation? Thanks in advance

  • Zo May 23, 2009 at 6:12 am

    Fantastic post! I’ve read a lot of them, and yours is so far the most useful (for me personally anyway). Cheers for also specifying where to get things like vellum, and adding simple alternatives (like a bedsheet). Not to tech-y yet also not bleedingly obvious!

  • Sheethal May 23, 2009 at 8:57 am

    hey matt,dat was really helpful for especially about the scrims and white balance.Really thankyou for putting in so much of information.

  • leslie May 23, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Hack?? I say NOT. Thank you for all of the wonderful info

  • Eileen @ Passions to Pastry May 23, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m going to bookmark it. I just upgraded to a Canon SLR and my only lens right now is a macro. I pretty much just use my camera for food shots, but I do need another lens and appreciated your comments, which were exactly what a friend of mine was telling me — get a good 50mm with a low F-stop. THANKS!

  • Broderick May 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    This tutorial is excellent and I’ve learned a lot from it. I can’t wait for the follow up post!

  • Lynne May 23, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    A great post which explains a lot of things to the novice food photographer. Looking forward to the next one.

  • Hungry Jenny May 23, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Hey

    Found this via a tweet from Tastespotting – what a great post! I had a lot of frustration when I first started getting into snap-happy with food because I had a normal compact camera but now have a much better camera – though am still getting to grips with using it so this article has really helped. Will definitely be coming back for next installment!

    Thanks x

  • Ramya Kiran May 23, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Wow, superb writeup! Matt, you rock! Thanks a lot for such a useful info.

  • Ann May 23, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Thanks! I need LOTS of help with my food photography!

  • Giff May 24, 2009 at 3:58 am

    fabulous tutorial Matt. Very kind of you to share all this with the blogosphere. I am about to switch from my little point-and-shoot to a DSLR, and am going to stick with Canon — do you have a body that you recommend out of their various models?

  • matt wright May 24, 2009 at 5:10 am

    Thanks everyone so much for such a wonderful bunch of comments. So to answer a few questions:

    Nadia: I like Canon point and shoots, but that is really just my preference. I say make sure you get one that has a decent manual mode – where you can adjust f-stop, shutter speed, iso and so forth.

    Giff: There is a new Canon digitalRebel out that shoots HD movie too, that might be worth looking at. I am a fan of just about any in the Canon EOS line-up. I would skip the 50D though, and just go for the 40D if you are looking at those two. From the reviews I have seen, the 50D might just be too many megapixels for the sensor to properly handle. I know quite a few that shoot with the 40D, the digitalRebel series, and the 5D Mk2.

    I highly recommend the 50mm F1.4 lens to go with whatever you purchase.

  • Y May 24, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Finally, the post we’ve all been waiting for! Thanks so much for writing this, Matt! I enjoyed reading every bit of it. My setup is ultra basic at the moment : a table and a camera, and I’ve always wanted to improve on that a bit more. By the way, my boyfriend bought a macro lens recently, and it’s been so much fun taking pictures of flowers/nature. It’s as though a whole new (previously unseen) world has opened up :)

  • Lorna May 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Thanks so much for such a wonderful tutorial! I am getting a base model SLR soon…and it’s secondhand…but still, I am so excited!

  • Happy Cook May 25, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Thankyou so much for all the info.
    Must admit i only have a compact camera.

  • Patricia Scarpin May 25, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Matt,
    I was searching for tips to improve the quality of my photos and got here – your blog is wonderful and so is this post! Very useful!
    Thank you for sharing such great info.

  • Kevin May 26, 2009 at 1:46 am

    Great post!

  • Hélène May 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Matt, this is one of the best tutorial I’ve seen on the net. I’m looking at buying a new DSLR. My neighbors probably think I’m nuts when they see me shooting my food in front of the window… :)

    Costco Canada is now offering a Canon EOS Rebel XS 10.1 with EF-S 18-55IS and EF-S 55-250IS. Do you recommend a kit like this or should I buy a body & lenses separately?

  • mattwright May 26, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    So – buying a kit. It can be a good deal, if both the kit items are something that you want.

    The Rebel series is a great (really great) digtalSLR range, you get a great camera, and pretty decent price (OK, to me it is still a lot of money, but you get a lot of really great technology that is going to last you for the price).

    Lets talk lenses. The first question you should really ask yourself is what you are going to be using the camera for. Is it just food photography, and really not much else? In which case, your lens choice might be a bit different to most peoples.

    So I don’t know much about either of those two lenses. My suggestion is to google both lenses, and see what the reviews say. http://www.dpreview.com is a good place to seek reviews and suggestions, and so is http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/ . Both are forums that have professional and novice photographers in. The guys on DPREVIEW can be downers though – nothing is ever good enough…. just take that in mind!!

    So – what I do know about lenses.. Zooms are fun, but unless you are spending a lot of cash ($1000) for the lens, it won’t be as sharp as a “prime” lens – that is one with a fixed focal length.

    When looking at a zoom lens, also look at how “long” the zoom is. 18-55 is a reasonably short zoom range – (37mm difference) compared to the 55-250 (195mm difference).

    What does this mean? Well, typically lenses are sharper when they have less of a zoom (less difference).

    My thoughts is that for food photography the 18-55mm is going to be boarder-line too wide angle to use for food photography. I use a 50mm, and find it as wide as I would want to go (the lower the mm, the wider, more fisheye the lens). The 55-250 would give you better focal lengths for food photography – anywhere between 50mm and 120mm is a good bet. I have recently shot some stuff at 100mm and love it.

    Just to throw a spanner in the works…. if you wanted to look at prime (fixed, no zoom lenses) – you should look at these:

    Canon 50mm F1.8 (100bucks)
    Canon 50mm F1.4 (400bucks) – similar to the F1.8 above, but better quality, sharper, and better out of focus effects (the blurred stuff looks better..)
    Canon 85mm F1.8 (400bucks)
    Canon 100mm F2.8 macro (550bucks)

    these are all great lenses. I use the 50mm F1.4 for all my shots, but am now thinking about getting a 85mm or 100mm to go with it.

    Depends what you are looking at doing.. If it is just casual shots, then a zoom will honestly suit you fine. Wanting to get pretty serious? Primes are great.

  • Lauren May 27, 2009 at 1:32 am

    Hi Matt,

    This post is so useful in that it telsl me a heap in a very concise efficient and fun way. Thanks a lot. I am just taking some photos with a compact camera and thinking about getting an DSLR. Lots of the things you point out that makes photos look bad are present in mine so I’ll lots of fun making them look a damn site better if I do get a better camera. I know just where I’ll be coming for inspiration too! :-)

    Lauren

  • Aran May 27, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    what a great post matt. i shoot very similarly and i’m sure many people (including myself) will find it very useful.

  • jules May 29, 2009 at 3:11 am

    brilliant & inspirational post matt
    thanks for all the detail.
    looking forward to the next installment

  • White On Rice Couple May 29, 2009 at 4:13 am

    This is the mega food porn post, great job Matt! Wowzers, it’s a keeper and bookmarker for sure.

    We shoot with both: fixed and zoom lenses. For location shots and special events, 24-70 2.8 is OK, depending on the lighting situations. It’s one of the faster zooms, but sometimes the assistance of a strobe inside restaurant or interior situations is vital. We need zooms so that we can hide to the side and not disrupt the event, but still be able to zoom in on certain shots. For fast paced, busy, moving shots, it’s almost impossible to change fixed lenses to get further distance.

    For darker locales, we use pocketwizard triggers attached to multiple exterior TTL’d flashes: with one main one set as the commander. Sometimes, no matter how fast the lens, one will often still need strobe assistance.

    Prime, fixed lenses are awesome and the wide angle is extremely flexible. Our lens of choice is the 50mm 1.4 and 80 mm. Both are fabulous. If we had a choice for one lens, it would be the 50mm 1.4

  • David May 29, 2009 at 5:56 am

    Terrific post and info! I have both the 50mm 1.8 and 1.4 and think for most uses and for the price, the cheaper 1.8 is the way to go for those on a budget. I love my Rebel and if you watch the prices, when new models come out, they drop the price severely on the older ones. (Right now, they’re selling one for less than $500.) And I agree about the kit lens; once I took it off, I never put it back on so skip it.

    My question is about Lightroom: I’m on a Mac and use Photoshop, and I get the infamous “Mac fade”: after editing on Photoshop, then uploading to the internet, there’s major color washout. Bigtime.

    So I’ve been told that Lightroom is better, but what’s the difference? I’m reluctant to spend the $300 for another Adobe product when the one I have doesn’t work. But you, and others, say Lightroom is the way to go.

  • mattwright May 29, 2009 at 6:22 am

    WoRC: holy cow, you have 1000x more gear than me! I am now jealous. One day you are going to have to tell me how all those strobes and flashes work, because I am rather rubbish at that, and you guys take sodding amazing pictures!

    Yeah, Love the 50mm. On full frame now though it is almost too wide.

    David: Completely agree – the 1.8 is a complete steal for 100bucks, and not a million miles from the F1.4.

    So, the photoshop fade thing is really bloody annoying. It happens for me on both Mac and PC, so don’t be too down on your Mac! You can start to muck around with the color spaces inside Photoshop, but that is really something for a rocket scientist to be honest. I have been using photoshop now for nearly 10 years for different stuff, and have never quite figured out all the color space settings.

    Under one of the menus (view i think it is..) there is an option to preview the color space (proof colors) I think it is called – that at least lets you see what you are going to get. What I would do then, is dupliate the image you have in photoshop. Set one of the duplicates to “proof color”, then use the hue/saturation adjustments to eyeball it back close to the original.

    All in all, a major pain in the behind.

    So – Lightroom. I love it I have to say. For a lot of reasons – here are a few:

    Color spaces work fine – what you see in Lightroom you get on the web

    It has really amazing organizational tools for rating shots in a sequence. So, say I take 500 shots on a shoot, I can really quickly just tab through the images really fast, and hit a hotkey to pick the possibles. I can then filter my view to only show those images picked – and I can start narrowing it down.

    The control over exposure/white balance/color/tone/shadows and highlights is SO much better in Lightroom. Tons more control, without being too confusing. Everything is laid out really well, and it is pretty fast to pick up – especially if you have used Photoshop for a bit.

  • Tram May 29, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Hi Matt! Thank you very much for this awesome post. I really appreciated it!!! :) have a great day!

  • Sylvia May 29, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Great post and ver useful, Matt

  • Sylvia May 29, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    By the way I have the same Iwachu tea pot

  • waisze May 29, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Great tutorial. Thanks for sharing. I don’t spend a lot of time taking good food shots but I would love to get some good ones of food I make. Great tips.

  • Natalie Sztern May 29, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I have a Sony DSC, so am I out of it completely? and if not what would be the best settings?

  • mattwright May 29, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Natalie – the DSC is a pretty big range – which model? And nah, I don’t think you are out.

  • Anne May 29, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Lots of great info here, thanks for taking the time to put it all together! I’m a newb so I’m eager for all the help I can get, and I can already tell that this will be very helpful.

  • mattwright May 29, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Natalie:

    So my advice – set the camera to full manual mode. Or Aperture priority if
    you can.

    Here you can start adjusting settings. The aperture setting (FStop) will
    adjust how much of your shot is in focus. The lower the number, the less
    will be in focus. The higher the number, more will be. Aim to get it so
    that the background is blurred out.

    Shutter speed: this is how long the camera’s shutter stays open. A faster
    shutter speed means that you might be able to shoot hand-held. Most likely
    you are going to want to use a tripod.

    Aperture priority mode means that you set the aperature (fstop), and the
    camera will automatically set the shutter speed to get a correctly exposed
    image.

    ISO – this is the camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO
    number, the more sensitive it is. This is great for shooting in low light.
    The problem is that the more sensitive you make it, the more noisy your
    image will look. Aim to use the lowest ISO possible (you will need a
    tripod).

    So – pop the camera on a tripod (or a stable stack of books..). Position
    your food next to a window with decent light. Use a piece of cardboard as
    a bounce if you need to. Set to manual or aperture priority mode. Start
    adjusting the aperture setting until you get as much in focus as you want.

    Adjust the exposure or shutter speed to get a properly exposed image if
    you need to (if the camera doesn’t do this automagically).

  • K.N.Vinod May 30, 2009 at 4:51 am

    Fantastic tutorial. I am a chef and photography is my hobby. Have recently started taking food photos – for my blog. Where can I post some pictures for you to critique it? facebook, flickr …?
    Thanks for taking the time out…

  • Michael Natkin May 30, 2009 at 5:53 am

    Nicely done Matt. I face all of these same issues and you’ve given me some new ideas to try. I haven’t messed with scrims at all, and I haven’t tried tethered mode. I shoot with a Nikon D300 and almost always the 50mm 1.8 prime, and it has been terrific, though I’d like to add a macro option soon. My biggest problem is always the tension between trying to get a shot and get dinner on the table. You can tell most of my best shots are the ones where I’m playing late at night and have time to set up lighting, tripods etc, and my handheld or braced shots at normal dinner time with the family are really hit or miss. I totally agree with you about Lightroom – love at first shot for me (though full disclosure I work for Adobe). Anyhow, thanks for the excellent tutorial, I’ll be passing it on when people have questions, and for the new ideas to invigorate my own shooting.

  • ega June 5, 2009 at 3:10 am

    Nice technique…nice tutorial…and great picture…I am still student but photography is my hobby ….

  • Stephanie June 5, 2009 at 5:33 am

    When do we get part two? :D

  • Heidi Robb June 9, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you for the generous crash course in food photography – your photos are so genuinely appealing. Much to learn…

    What I wouldn’t give for some great natural lighting.

  • Samm June 10, 2009 at 1:35 am

    where’s part 2?

  • Jude June 12, 2009 at 2:20 am

    Fantastic article. Unfortunately, most of my shooting is done at night so I have to make do with Lowel lighting. I especially appreciate the section on getting a shot fast. It can be a bit nerve-wracking.

  • Aleta Watson June 12, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Thanks so much. As a writer faced for the first time with the challenge of illustrating my work, I welcome all the advice I can find. I’ve been using a Canon G9 in macro mode with available light, or the Ego lights you mentioned, for my blog photos. Now I’m moving up to a digital SLR and realize I have a lot more to learn.

  • Deb Mele June 13, 2009 at 5:54 am

    Thanks so much for sharing. I am always struggling to try and get decent food photos and your suggestions will really help!

  • pat June 13, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks for the great insight into taking excellent shots of food!

  • mycookinghut June 15, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    A very good piece of post!

  • Cindy June 15, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    This is a fantastic post. So much basic and usable info. I just recently started a food blog and was unhappy with my pics. I started researching and your site popped up and I can’t tear myself away!! I have been struggling with the whole lighting issue and you have really shed some “light” on it. (pun intended!!)

    Thanks again.
    Off to buy a Canon 50mm 1.4 for my Canon Eos 20D.

  • Pavel June 17, 2009 at 4:28 am

    > JPEG and RAW are the two main image formats that cameras shoot in. Compact cameras shoot in JPEG (I don’t know of any that shoot RAW, but could be mistaken).

    I know at least one Canon PowerShot A530, that is forced to make photos in RAW (.CR2) by using different software (loads from memory card on every poweron, can’t be stored in camera permanently).

  • rachel June 19, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I read this a while ago and then read it again and then again today when I had time and not in a crazy ‘Let’s check as many other blogs as possible in the shortes possible time’ moment.
    Thankyou is what I need to say, really thankyou, this is really helpful and inspiring writing.
    Whats makes is so great is that I know you through your writing and style of photo’s, so when you write with advice about photography it makes more sense in that, I can relate it to your past posts, I recognise what you are talking about from what I have already seen in your work.
    I have bought some foam board……..baby steps eh
    I will be using this post alot.
    hope you are happy in the garden and all that
    hip hip
    rach

  • CindyW June 20, 2009 at 4:40 am

    Matt, great read. I am a very amateur food photographer (learning)! Have twittered and blogged about the tips you comprehensively discuss here. Trying to learn for my own healthy eating & nutrition blog. My techniques so far are pretty simple, but I am learning with help from others and tips from here. Basically using Canon EOS digital SLR with my fav lens: EF 100mm f2.0. Happy so far but what I really want to develop is shooting at night (with approp. lighting) along lines of Dustin Diaz at flickr whose night pics are amazing (discusses technique) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/polvero/sets/72157611811908959/. Thanks again.

  • Rasa Malaysia June 21, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Matt, you are awesome! Love it and have learned a ton. I only know how to use 3 buttons on my camera: shutter, P, and the aperture wheel. I am a total klutz when it comes to photography, but lucky I still take pretty good shots. LOL.

    I love the white wood plank that you have. I always see them in mags, where did you get it?

  • Chef Dale July 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Hi Matt, Chef Dale here, I’m an American chef living in Perth, Western Australia I have a cannon 350D with 8 megapixel and have the passion for photographing my food. Is there any food photography publications you can recommend, please recommend.

    Will my photo quality improve going from a 8 to a 12 or above megapixel images?

    I found your info very useful especially the artical on WB. I now pre shoot a grey scale card to set the custom WB so white is white. I have a 90mm 1/1 micro prime lens I can’t shoot with out it.

  • suzy August 21, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    This was very, very helpful. Such detail! Thank you.

  • alpay kasal August 24, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    thanks for the great post.

    look at the 1st image, his tripod only has 2 legs :) the author must have some serious shooting skills. to work with a 2 legged tripod. dipod?

  • alice September 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    hahaha love this post. that first picture is exactly how we set it up =)

  • Matt September 17, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I just stumbled onto your blog via this article, and have to say that it’s excellently presented. I’ll definitely have a go at some of your recipes.

    Kudos on the great site and keep up the great work!
    Another Matt

  • Rose November 3, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    This is one of the BEST articles I’ve read on food photog in a long time. THANK YOU!

  • AnnieH November 28, 2009 at 6:01 am

    Great tips…. Thank you for sharing! I love your photos :)

  • Rob December 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Great post! Helped me a lot!

  • Jenn December 18, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Great tips, thanks for sharing!

  • Naomi January 22, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Fantastic! I’ve have read so many articles on food fotos and yours is the best. Well written with a wealth of detail that is easy to read for the non-photog. Thanks for taking the time.

  • resume February 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Than you for good and most important cheap advice how to setup place and to take the best from photos. I`m begginer and I`m searching for the cheapest way not beacause I`m snob).
    I couldn`t spend a lot of many for my hobby – shooting.
    Thank you a lot!
    P.S. very detailed and easy to get explanations!

  • Jean March 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you so much. I’m a freelance magazine writer who has never needed to take photos before. Now that I am blogging, it is a must. And I am starting with a lovely little compact camera and no idea how to use it! As a side note, I love the traditional British foods made with care. I make a shepherd’s/cottage pie that knocks the socks off people who never thought very highly of such a thing before!

  • S Lloyd April 2, 2010 at 2:30 am

    For great sharp clear low-light macro food photos, what lens for my Canon EOS 550D?
    -I am seeking for a great solution (at good value $$$) for

    close-up food photography in low light conditions: for ie, at restaurant dinings with very weak light and yet get sharp clear close up detailed pics from such condition with no use of flash.I bought the 550D but now I am searching for the right lense to go with it: What do you think of a 60mm f2.8 paired with the 550D? Any better suggestion given what I want to do?

    Also: Would the 550D paired with a 60mm f2.8 make superior low light macro food dinner’s food pics than a Canon 350D paired with a Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 lens?

    PS: I do understand the necessity of the tripod, but most restaurants will never accept that I get in with a Tripod. I haven’t yet used that Canon EOS 550 (just have the body and I am now planning for the Lens), but if this is going to be shaky enough to the point that taking photos without a tripod would be impossible, please let me know: I will return the digital SLR.
    Thanks to all for your replies.

  • patricia franco August 26, 2010 at 4:20 am

    HELLLPPPPPP!!!!! how much higher from the table the camera should aim? i am struggeling with angles!!!! it is harrrdddd!!! do you recomend always shooting from above? lets say if the table is at your heaps tall, should i put my tripod where?

  • patricia franco August 26, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    thanks for your response. Your pictures are gourgeous! I simply find it very dificult and cannot get the angle for the dishes to look beutifull :(.

  • tava tea August 28, 2010 at 4:20 am

    Because of this, I have my little system which really limits the time it takes to shoot after the food has been cooked and plated. I think most food photographers have their own methods for this too. A lot of food can start looking pretty dodgy if it has been sitting out for even just a few minutes, especially what I cook a lot of – seafood.

  • Yummy Images September 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Well most food photographers prefer to shoot from that angle as Matt showed in the first picture because that is that point of view that the person sees the food (it is about the same height as well you sit to eat).

    Tava you should try to photograph ice cream to see what timing really means :) , that is why there are some trickes that photographers use

  • sara September 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Matt, thank you so much for this photography tutorial! Right now I am practicing taking pictures while reading your wonderful post on Photography! Amateurs like me thank you from the bottom of my heart! Cheers, Sara.

  • Lina-Elisabeth October 29, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Hi Matt

    I have a technical question for you. I been taking photos for some time and been, up to now, using a Pentax SLR camera. Recently I moved up to a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and also a Canon 100mm f,2,8L Macro lens.
    When I used my Pentax camera I had no problem what so ever with to much “camera shakes” and if a picture was a bit “shakey” it was due to me shooting without a tripod. But now with my Canon camera I can’t seem to get hardly any picture without shakes. I use both tripod, mirror lockup, and a remote control. Still I just get maybe 1 out of 15 pictures without camera shakes. Do you have any experience with this and if so, Is this sensitivity common or might I have a technical problem with the camera?
    Kind Regards
    Lina-Elisabeth

  • food photography November 12, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    its wonderfull you do this – great inside for people who are interested in getting into food photography. cheers

    Luc

  • miami wedding photographer November 27, 2010 at 5:18 am

    I have noticed that most food photographers use medium format cameras…

  • stocklight December 12, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Very nice food photos! :)

  • CherylK January 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Just want to thank you so much for sharing this information. I have a simple point and shoot digital camera – a Canon A720 IS Power Shot so I’m obviously working with not the best equipment. However, these tips will help tremendously, I think. Lighting is critical, I can see that, so using a white board and a scrim will be the best way for me to start.

    I’m looking forward to your other lessons!

  • Sanjeeta kk January 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Was googling around for food photography tips and came down to yours. Have meticulously read each and every word of your article. Just got me hooked to the whole process of your photography. Thanks for clearing a lot many doubts.

  • Tracey March 11, 2011 at 3:52 am

    Contrary to the wedding photographer above, the majority of food photographers on a worldwide basis opt for full frame DSLR’s now not only because they’re reasonably priced but produce gorgeous imagery. Medium format is more for building sized photos now. Check stock photography sites out rather than someone looking to publicize their website.

  • sally March 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Matt, I finally got to reading this wonderful piece and was tickled by your “big time hack” reference. The setups I concoct when photographing, often in a damn hurry, are a hoot – the corner of the living room, or even under the bathroom skylight. I feel a little chagrined, but dang, some of those pictures are fine. Low light in winter is tough and several of your suggestions, actually many of them, will be very helpful. Thank you.

  • Rashed March 18, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    These pictures are excellent, there is some real talent here. I couldn’t even notice the difference between the two teapot images until you pointed them out. Regarding point and shoot vs SLR, I use the Sony Nex 5 which (in my opinion) is the best of both worlds because it is almost as compact as an average Point and shoot camera but it also allows lenses to be attached to it which gives it one of the benefits of a SLR camera…. at around £500 it is a bit pricey though.

  • Anthony May 14, 2011 at 2:53 am

    Many better compacts will capture raw, eg. Canon G series, probably the S95 and the Lumix LX5.

  • Anthony May 14, 2011 at 2:54 am

    The third leg is behind the one on the right. You can see the rubber foot peeking past the leg just above the joint.