How to photograph food

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Do you do blog posts about food? Want to improve your food photos? Here are my best tips for you, all in one place.

I've been learning to photograph food for a few months now and have been doing a weekly summer salad post as practice. I've also started getting a few emails asking about how I do what I do - keep in mind, I am not a professional at all. Did an online class or two to get acquainted with what my camera could do. And looked at a LOT of photographs of food to figure out what I liked and what I didn't and why.

So from me to you - because you know I like to share.

1. Don't go crazy on the camera and lens

I use a Nikon D90 DSLR but only because it was around the house. It's the man's camera and I picked it up one day and started to learn. Trust me, you do not need a fancy schmancy camera. As photographer Dave Cooper says, they "won’t make your photos better if you don’t learn how to take better photos". (Go read his fab post on family portraits over here). A mid-priced DSLR will serve you well. Nikon or Canon - they are both great systems.

I use a 50mm f1.4 prime lens. That gets me the shot above. It's a great lens for portraits too as you can work in low light. If you want to take shots with the blurred backgrounds, this is the one to get. You can get a 50mm f1.8 that is less expensive and it'll still do a great job.

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2. Go medium crazy on the tripod

I don't know about you but I can hold my breath and have a fast shutter speed and I'll still end up with a bit of blur. Get the tripod. Get a good tripod. I have a Manfrotto with an arm that can reach horizontal. You'll need that if you want to do overhead food shots.

Another benefit of a sturdier tripod is that when you do the overhead shots, it won't tip it over - you can adjust each leg on its own to balance the weight of the camera.

And if you are on the move and don't want to have that geeky look carrying the full size tripod (you know, the look that goes with the camera vest with a zillion pockets), get a gorilla tripod. This could work well at home for most of your food shots on the counter til you can afford a larger tripod.

Don't you love my studio? It's other name is "kitchen". I'll spend when I need to spend but if I can do it for less, I'm right there, my friends, right there. It KILLS me to spend more than I have to. Below is the shot that I took with this set up.

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3. It's all about the light - natural light

Get some good light and you'll get great photos no matter how average your camera. Shoot mid-morning or mid-afternoon - any time that the light isn't high in the sky. You want softer light that won't cast harsh shadows.

Shoot by a window. You can adjust the white balance in your camera for incandescent lights but it never will look as good as natural light.

If you live in a bright, sunny area, use some cheese cloth or white translucent fabric and tape it over the window with masking tape to diffuse the light. Think dish towels but whatever it is, make sure it's a bit translucent to let light through and also white so that it doesn't change the colour of what you are photographing. That'll cut down on the harshness. I live in the Pacific Northwest so the cloud cover is my natural diffuser.

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4. Soften those shadows with a reflector

But don't go out and buy some fancy reflector from the camera store. You know - the ones that you see them using when they are filming movies?

Head out to Michaels or another art store. Remember those backdrops for science fairs? The three-sided ones? Made out of foam core? Buy a white one to reflect the light back onto the food and reduce the shadows.

If you can't find the three-sided ones that will stand on their own, get one sheet of foam core and use the floral "frogs" shown below to stop it from tipping. Any florist will have these.

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5. Start collecting accessories

I keep my eye out for sales of dishes and fabric when I am out and about. I've bought some on sale at Williams Sonoma, CB2, Crate & Barrel, etc. (I'm not a fan of the dollar stores because I don't trust that their dishes are leadfree). Raid your mom's kitchen. Use swatches of fabric from the remnant bins. 

Buy smaller rather than larger serving pieces as you won't have to make as much food to shoot. It's also easier to compose your shot with smaller dishes. Here's what I have on hand:

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6. Take your time planning out your shot

Have your ingredients on hand, select the dishes and other accessories and think ahead about which shots you want to take. I wanted to do the ingredients at a 45 degree angle and also an overhead shot. Those are two angles that are pretty standard in food photography. You'll see them used a lot when you take a look at Donna Hay or Martha Stewart Living magazines. 

I composed my shot for 45 degree angle and took a number of photos. Then I switched things around and did some overhead shots. When I looked at the photos I realised that I had forgotten to include the mint. Oops - had to go back and set up a second time and reshoot.

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7. Try something new

It's always fun to try something different. For this one I stacked the ingredients. Remember when restaurant food came stacked? Was that the 90's?

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8. Collect magazines, tear sheets and links of food images that appeal to you

Study them. Where is the light coming from? Most of the time it'll be from the side - back lit food shots can be dramatic but are trickier. Front lit shots are boring.

How did they use their accessories? What is the story they are trying to tell? What colour choices did they make?

How did they compose the shot? Where is the focus?

You'll find that over time your eye will become sharper and you will be more skilled at narrowing down why this photo works for you and that one doesn't. And when you find ones that you like, try to recreate them as a way to up your skills. It's being inspired, not copying. Don't worry, no one will mistake you for a pro, at least not yet!

And before I forget, I should tell you the recipe. It's another Mark Bittman salad. No. 39 this time. Watermelon, sliced red onion, feta cheese, kalamata olives, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Add some sea salt if needed - the olives are salty but you'll need more than you think.

So what have you learned about shooting your food photos? What equipment do you use? Any favourite food photographers?