The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Food Photography Tips

I bought my first serious gas grill and first digital camera in 2003. For the past seven years I have taken close to 30,000 food photos, of which 3,500 have been used for the picture page entries on this site. While I am not a professional food photographer (nor do I play one on TV) I do get compliments from folks on my food photos. About 5 years ago I made a calendar using Apple’s iPhoto with pictures of the food items I’d cooked that year. I had one copy printed and I figured it would be of little to no interest to anyone but me. It turned out I was wrong. Over the years as people have seen it, I have had relatives, friends and co-workers express an interest in getting a copy. This really surprised me, but it means on some level I am doing some things right. My shots aren’t fancy studio type shots that are set up an designed with great attention to detail and utilize fancy lighting set ups and cameras on tripods. I am documenting what I am making and serving with a hand held camera on the fly. If you are looking for a blog entry about food, this isn’t it. This blog will discuss some of the things I have learned to date about shooting food pictures.

One assumption people make is I use a DSLR to take the photos. Not true. While a DSLR would be key for a professional food photographer, I am able to get by with a high end point and shoot digital camera. Back in 2003 DSLR bodies were in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. I wanted to take the plunge into digital, but that was too rich for my blood. I also knew in one or two years the prices would drop below $1,000. So as a temporary measure I bought a Canon G5 for under $500. This was Canon’s high end point and shoot model. While the G5 didn’t have detachable lenses like a DSLR, the fixed lens it had turned out to be quite good. The G5 also had the same logic chip and many of the same features and shooting modes of Canon’s entry level DSLRs. I wanted something that had the settings and flexibility of both my previous SLR and future DSLR. It had several things in common with DSLRs that proved very important to me. It had a remote control, a tripod mount, and it had the same shooting modes plus manual control. But most importantly it had a flash hot shoe. I use my camera for my work as an architect and from my SLR days I knew the importance of having a powerful flash that could light large rooms or spaces. This camera also had something most DSLRs of the time didn’t. It had a flip out view finder like many digital movie cameras of the time. This allows you to point the camera at your subject and point the view finder towards you. The feature is GREAT for food photography because you can shoot straight down at food on a table or plate and you don’t need to be standing on a ladder to do it. The reason it took me so long to replace my G5 is Canon took out the pivoting screen in the G7 and didn’t restore it until this years G11 model. But back in 2003 I was pleasantly surprised that the G5 took excellent pictures which were far more than adequate for my needs.

Most flash units built into cameras have a range of 20’ (6M) if you are lucky, and often less. Since they are so close to the axis of the lens, they are prone to giving you red eye when shooting portraits. They are also pretty useless when it comes to moving in close up. They often over shoot the subject and you get a picture that is too dark on the bottom half and over exposed on the top half. When I bought the flash for the G5, I bought a model with an eye to the future knowing I would want to use it on that DSLR I was going to buy. I bought a model with a pivoting flash head so I could do bounce flash photography. This a technique of rotating the flash head and bouncing the flash off the ceiling or a light colored wall, to get images with soft and smooth lighting instead of the harsh look direct flash can give. I had used that many times on my SLR to get pleasing portraits. I quickly found that there were often severe glare issues with food photography, But when I tried using bounce flash, I saw they could be virtually eliminated. The model I bought could illuminate up to 100 feet (30.5 M) at ISO 100. Initially this was for architectural use, but bouncing flash off of walls and ceilings requires more light than direct flash. A big plus with the G5 was an external flash unit could be completely controlled via the G5’s image sensor. So instead of the external flash unit measuring the light and setting the flash duration, the camera measures the light falling on the image sensor itself. Lastly the external flash unit presents a bigger brighter auto focus target than the built in flash. You will get a focus lock much, much faster.

Before moving on to some tips let me just mention what ended up happening. With the compact size and fixed zoom lens came some unexpected benefits. Right off the bat I found I was shooting more again. This camera was small enough that you didn’t have to think twice about bringing it along. With my SLR it was: What am I shooting? What lenses do I put in my camera bag? What can I leave home? Instead with the G5 if I was heading out somewhere it was easy to grab the camera and bring it along. The camera bag holding everything I needed for the G5 (except possibly a tripod) was about 1/6th the size. The quality of the photos surpassed my expectations. At 5MP they were hi res enough to print out for any of my needs. The results on tricky subjects often surpassed my abilities with a manual focus lens on my SLR. I very quickly realized I was happy for several reasons. First because I was shooting more pictures than ever before. Part of this was because with digital you can do this without going broke buying film. But also as I mentioned I was bringing this camera more places than ever before. The need to get a DSLR vanished for me, I just figured I’d get another G series camera.

OK so here are some things I think are essential for a shooting food photography with a digital camera, whether it is a DSLR or point and shoot:

This is how I often shoot with my camera: We are looking at the back of my camera. The camera is held at shoulder height pointed down at the food at about a 45 degree angle (The camera is not actually tilted here), the flash is set to point over my shoulder & bounce off the ceiling & the viewfinder is swung out away from the camera body & set to the angle I need to see it clearly.

Get a model with a flash hot shoe and buy an external flash with a pivoting head. Be sure to get a model that has far more range than you think you will need. Bounce flash requires more light to do it’s magic. The light has travelled farther and is spread out more when it gets to the camera lens. having a flash with a long range will allow you to set an ISO value of 80 or 100 and you will get the least noise possible in your images. You will be able to shoot farther and auto focus faster, because the focussing assist beam from the off camera flash is brighter and more powerful than the one built into your camera. But the most important thing is you will be able to use bounce flash to get a soft diffused light. You get soft shadows, low to no glare and generally more pleasing results. You may need to experiment to see which bounce angles and directions work best for a given shot, but the results are worth it. When I bought my Ez-Up pop up tent for my grills I got the white colored roof. This was a happy accident and it allows me to do outdoor shots using bounce flash too. The Ez-Up cuts down on the direct sunlight and the bounce flash eliminates the glarey direct flash look. I’ve already written a blog entry on the virtues of bounce flash. So if you are interested in learning more about that, scroll down to the links at the end of this blog.

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Direct Flash (Left) and Indirect Bounce Flash (Right).
Same food, same setting the only difference was the first shot had the flash pointed towards the food and the second shot had the light bounced off the ceiling.

When I first got my G5, I made a point of doing lots of experimenting. I’d pick a cook where I wasn’t on a tight schedule and take multiple versions of the same photo. I’d try different auto and manual exposure modes, different white balance settings, different angles and directions for the pivoting flash head. Since you are shooting digital it isn’t costing you big bucks in film and processing. By taking a lot of test shots up front when you have some leisure time, you’ll know what to do when you don’t have time and you need to get it right in one shot.

Don’t simple rely on the cameras Auto White Balance mode. You may find it does not give you the best results under all lighting situations. When I took flash photos with my G5, the AWB gave me photos that were too red. The Flash WB gave me a better look. The tungsten lights of my stove exhaust hood fooled the G5. I would try using the Flash WB figuring the flash was the primary light source, but the pictures came out orange. In this case the Tungsten WB did the trick. When I got the G11 I could use the Flash WB to shoot photos of items on the stove. Do remember to reset the WB for different light sources if you aren’t using AWB.

Anyone who has been into photography for a while knows there are certain lighting situations that fool the cameras meters. At some point in the past it was determined that the typical image’s lighting averages out to a color between black and white, that is an 18 percent grey. But there are lighting situations that break this mold. Images containing bright sky and snow, or an ice skating rink. If left to it’s own devices, the camera will make that snow a lovely 18 percent grey. It will try to do a similar thing with images that are primarily dark. You will get a washed out grey image instead of a black. Learn to recognized this type of lighting and learn how to deal with it on your particular camera. Your camera may have some special auto modes to deal with light and dark scenes. You may be able to do exposure compensation where you manually change the exposure +/- 2 f-stops in 1/3 stop intervals. The camera may have an auto bracketing feature where it takes X amount of photos and varies the exposure for each shot. If you use this bracketing feature and then study the photos after to see which exposure looks best, it will tell you what adjustment you could use if you want to try setting exposure compensation manually. The point is the metering exposure systems in the new cameras are amazing, but not infallible. Learn to spot these tricky lighting conditions and look at the camera manual to see how you can deal with them.

Beside tricky lighting, your camera meter may still not be infallible. My G5 did a great job with daytime pictures shot without flash, but I wasn't happy at first with the flash pictures it took. They all seemed a little over exposed and washed out. I checked to make sure that I had it set so the camera would do the metering through the lens and that wasn’t the problem. It turned out that was just the way it was, but I wasn’t stuck with it. I was able to go to a menu and turn on Electronic Flash Exposure compensation. This allowed me to dial the exposure down a bit to compensate. I found -1/3 was perfect. So if you don’t like the exposures you are getting under certain situations, check the manual and see what you can do about it.

At least not at first. If you have taken my advice and done lots of test shots, you’ll probably end up with lots of duds. Your first temptation may be to delete the bad ones to keep from filling up your hard drive. These days most computer’s hard drives are big enough where this isn’t a problem for a long while. Secondly you can often learn as much from these bad pictures as you do from the good. Modern digital cameras tag these photos with all sorts of so called meta data: Camera model, Date, Time etc. Most image editing software show this amount of information somewhere in the main user interface when you select a single image. But most programs allow you to to go to an advanced setting and display a dialogue box with all of the meta data. Depending on the sophistication your camera it may include: shooting mode, shutter speed, aperture value, white balance setting, flash on, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation, GPS coordinates and sometime 50 or 100 other things. You can often look at a bad photo and use this meta data to uncover the truth behind the failure.

Is the photo blurry? See what the shutter speed is. Without using flash most folks can hand hold a shot one shutter speed slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. Huh? In plain English if your zoom lens is set to a 60mm focal length then you can hand hold down to one shutter speed slower than 1/60th (the reciprocal of the focal length) or 1/30 of a second. If you are going telephoto and are shooting at 250mm then you can go to one speed slower than 1/250 which would be 1/125 of a second. The point is you can look at the meta data to see the focal length you were using and then see what the shutter speed was. If the shutter speed was too slow you’d need to use a tripod next time or pick a faster shutter speed. Is the color off? See what White Balance setting you were using vs. the type of lighting you were actually shooting in. Is the picture too orange? Look to see if the White Balance was set to Daylight and it turns out you were actually shooting indoors under tungsten lighting. Too green might indicate you were shooting using Daylight white balance under fluorescent lighting. Now if you are using the Auto White Balance and the lighting is off, try one of the manual modes. If indoors under Tungsten lighting (incandescent bulbs) try the Tungsten white balance. If the AWB is too green in fluorescent lighting, try one of the Fluorescent modes. The point is, see what lessons you can learn from your bad photos before you just throw them out. The key to the failure is often there in the meta data.

As you start learning your camera, you may set it to Auto everything. That is fine while you learn all of the ins and outs of using it. At some point though, to get the best pictures, you may want to read the manual or get a third party book that will help you to learn some of the other modes. For example there may be times where you want to have the subject sharp and the background blurred. This is where you would use an Aperture preferred mode. You tell the camera you want to pick an aperture where the lens is wide open and the camera will choose the shutter speed. Or if you want to capture something in motion you may want to use a Shutter Preferred mode: You pick a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion and the camera picks the lens opening (aperture) to use. The point is there are times where you may want to take partial or total control away from the camera. At some point you should learn how.

There are times where you may have enough natural light to take a picture without using flash. But you may still want to use the flash. Take a look at what you are shooting. Are there harsh shadows along with that bright light? You can turn on the flash and allow it to add it’s light to help fill in those shadowy areas. You may not want the flash to be at full intensity though, because the the photo may look washed out. As I mentioned before most cameras allow you to override the flash intensity. You’d tell the camera to underexpose the flash by 1/3, 2/3 or a full stop, Try several test shots to see which setting looks best. Some cameras allow you to do this automatically. It is often called Automatic Flash Exposure Bracketing. The camera will take a series of shots and adjust the intensity of the flash.

There are several ways to get in close to your subject when using a zoom lens. Most cameras have a macro mode used for shooting extreme closeups. You can be in wide angle where you physically move the camera in closer to the subject. Or you can be in telephoto mode where you can stand back in one place and zoom the lens in and out to frame the shot. Often I prefer telephoto and here is why: When you are at a real wide angle, you start getting that distorted fish eye type look the closer you move in. Straight lines look bowed, particularly lines towards the edge of the photo. The other problem is the camera may end up only inches from your subject, which causes a problem with lighting. Direct flash will often shoot right over the top of the subject or be too harsh and over exposed. Bounce flash my not work either, because both the camera and your arms may cast a shadow in your picture. Telephoto macro solves these problems, but causes some too. To get enough light the camera may have to open the lens way up. This will cause the depth of field to diminish. This is the part of the photo that is in focus. You may end up with a blurry foreground and back ground and an area 1/2 deep in the middle that is perfectly focussed. This is a reason to buy a powerful external flash for use with bounce flash. The other problem is the more you zoom in, the faster the shutter speed must be to hand hold the camera. Double check the shutter speed or look for a camera shake warning which some cameras display for you. One solution to keep the shadow of your hands out of the picture would be to move off just far enough to keep out the shadows and then you may not have to zoom in all the way to frame your picture. You do get more depth of field towards the wide angle end of your zoom lens.

No this isn’t a food picture, but it illustrates the things you can do with a pivoting viewfinder: These two butterflies landed on my knee and shin while I was sitting on a bench. I was able to hold the camera down low at my side at arms length. The camera was facing me but I was able to pivot the viewfinder around 180 degrees and tilt it 45 degrees upward so it was facing me too. You could not easily take this shot without the pivoting viewfinder. So if you have one take advantage of the additional creative shots it can help you take.

In my opinion the pivoting view screen was the best feature of my G5 and G11 cameras. I held off replacing the G5 because Canon took the pivoting view finder out with the G7. They didn’t put it back in until the G11. This pivoting viewfinder allows you to point the camera at the subject and point the view finder so you can see it. This is great for food shots where you might want to hold the camera up high and point down at the food. If need be you can hold the camera above your head and just aim the viewfinder so you can see it. It sure beats having to use a step ladder. I have seen folks who simply take the pivoting view finder and swing it around so it is just sitting on the back of the camera like any other camera with a fixed view finder. This is a real shame because you are missing out on a whole range of photos you can take using the pivoting viewfinder to free you from having to be stuck directly behind the camera. Also at the end of the day you can take the pivoting viewfinder and face it in towards the camera body instead of facing out, thus protecting it when not in use.

While I try to get the composition I want when I take the shot, remember you can always crop later to make a good shot better. With cameras these days running 10-15MP you have some pixels to burn later in cropping. So I always try to make sure that everything I want is in the picture. Next priority is to make sure nothing unwanted is there. But if I am in a hurry, such as taking pictures of food on the table when there is a hungry hoard waiting to eat, I try to get a good composition as I described above. But you don’t have to go with total perfection because you can always crop a bit later.

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These pictures illustrate two points. I was trying to get the sandwich on my plate and was in a hurry to eat (Left). As you can see it is underexposed and the plate in the background is distracting. Because I got everything in the frame I needed, I was able to crop out the background plate and correct the exposure in my photo editing software (Right).

First while it is noble to try to get the best image possible captured on your cameras card, there is still room for improvement using the right photo editing software.

This blog has become far longer than I originally planned. I’ve already done a couple blog’s on Apple’s Aperture 3, the software I use, so if you are interested I will refer you to the links at the end of this blog for more information. I will also note that Aperture is for Macs only. Adobe makes a product called Lightroom 3 for people using Windows or Macs. What I will say here is if you are doing a lot of digital photo work, you may want to spring for one of these two advanced packages. They allow you to do most of your work in the one piece of software. If needed you can still take photos into Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, but I rarely need to. The products allow you to import your photos and in the case of Aperture I am able to apply many of the routine standard adjustments I made previously in PS Elements automatically as part of the import process. I used to import into Apple’s free iPhoto app and then from within iPhoto open the photos into PS Elements. I would manually make the same 3 or 4 routine adjustments to every photo and then save them back into iPhoto for cropping and straightening. I like the crop and straighten tools in iPhoto better. For say 75 photos this would take a minute or two for the import and 60 to 90 minutes to send them to PS Elements and back. Now using Aperture I do the routine work I used to do in PS elements as an import preset on the way in. Aperture also adds the resolution information to the end of the file name for me, plus it adds in some standard keywords of my choosing. So now the import off of the card takes 5 or 6 minutes, but then other than some cropping or straightening I am done. That is a huge time saving.

Some higher end point and shoot cameras and most DSLR’s allow you to shoot in what is called RAW mode. RAW mode captures the data as recorded by the cameras image sensor, but does not apply sharpening or compression. Nor does it apply any filters or settings such as white balance that you’ve told the camera to apply. Instead it stores a record of your choices of setting which can be used later when you print the file or convert it to a JPEG. The other format that digital cameras use is JPEG. This is a compressed file format, where data is removed from the file when it is saved. In theory the data is removed in such a way that the effects are not visible. However if you apply heavy amounts of compression when saving a JPEG you will see blotchiness, pixelization and fuzzy edges. So when you camera saves out a JPEG, whatever data is lost due to compression is gone for good. The advantage to RAW is that you have all of the data captured by the image sensor and it gives you much more flexibility in post processing. Plus you are not stuck with some of the choices you had the camera apply, such as white balance. My G11 allows me to save both a RAW file and JPEG from the same shot. As an experiment I did that for a couple photo sessions. Even though I was using the least amount of compression possible on the JPEGs, the RAW files always looked better. In Aperture 3, the software I use for handling my photo library, there are additional adjustments that become available only on RAW files. They allow you to sometimes recover blown out highlights or lighten areas that are too dark. These are things that can be too late to try on a JPEG.

The big (pun intended) disadvantage to RAW is the file size is bigger. The images will take longer for the camera to write to the memory card, longer to save out to your computer and can take up more room on your hard drive. On my 10 MP G11 camera, a RAW file is around 5MB vs. 4MB for the best quality JPEG. This is a 20 percent difference, but another reason I switched to Aperture 3 was to save space when using RAW. Both iPhoto and Aperture do what is called non-destructive photo editing. When you make a change the original information is retained and you can always revert back to the original. The difference is in how this is done in the two programs. In iPhoto if you make a change, a second image file is created with the changes. In the case of RAW, you now have the original RAW file plus a modified JPEG. In Aperture the changes are stored in a data base format, a second file is created but it is simply a record of what settings you wish to apply to the image. These changes are applied on screen or in your printed output. So with iPhoto if you make a change to a RAW file, you now have a 5MB RAW file, plus a 4MB JPEG for a total of 9MB. In Aperture you have the original 5MB file plus a data file less than 1MB in size. You save over 3MB per RAW file. Adobe’s Lightroom works in a similar fashion, in fact I have read that the equivalent Lightroom library is even smaller than Aperture’s library. So once again if you are doing a lot of shooting and want to use RAW for the best quality, it may make sense to use something like Aperture or Lightroom.

So there you have a summary of what I have learned shooting images of the preparation and serving of the various items I have cooked. I am certainly no professional, but what I produce serves my purposes. I do get compliments on some of my images, which means I am doing some things right, but I still have lots to learn. But the learning is fun and when I am done shooting I get to eat what I just shot.
Here are the links for some of the Blog Entries referenced in the article above.

  FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY TIP Blog Entry on Bounce Flash
  APERTURE Blog Entry


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