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Food Photography Setup – Post One

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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