Posted on March 14th, 2013
Let me warn you..this is going to be a long post, though I will try my best to keep it to the point. I have been working hard on sharpening my photography skills over the last two months and thought of sharing some learnings with you. I am by no means an expert in this area but I want to get there gradually and eventually. So, if you have just started a food blog or want to learn something about food styling and food photography, you might want to make a cup of coffee for yourself, sit comfortably, relax and then continue reading.
When I got my first DSLR camera two months back, I was so excited. I thought, now I could take some fancy food photos just like others. But how wrong was I!!! My photos were still getting rejected by Foodgawker, Tastespotting etc. Submitting my photos to these sites and then waiting for them to be ‘accepted’ was like an exam every time.. a test which supposedly tells you whether your photos are ‘good enough’ or not. I would be heart broken when they were rejected, though they still get rejected at times. Few of the things which I focused on to improve my ‘success rate’ are: sharpness, composition, lighting. I will talk about these in greater detail. For the purpose of this post, I am assuming that we are slightly comfortable with our DSLRs and know little about exposure, ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I will do a separate post explaining these.
Nothing is more disappointing than not having a sharp image.. we could have beautiful props, amazing recipe, perfect lighting, but if the image is not sharp, it would NOT tell the story. To get your pics sharp, use of tripod is a MUST, especially for beginners like us who still are getting used to the cameras and possibly working with a kit lens or may be an extra one. Though sometimes we feel it being more of a hassle assembling it, mounting the camera and then packing it back, it is TOTALLY worth it. Once you see the benefits of a tripod, you would not look back. And once the tripod is set up, it does save you time in styling, planning composition, as now your hands are absolutely free and you don’t have to lug that heavy piece of equipment.
Second important thing is proper focus. It is very important to get the star of the picture perfectly sharp. Most DSLR cameras have an array of focus points ranging anywhere from 3 to 45 within the viewfinder. You can normally select either one specific point or all points at once for auto-focussing. I normally only use the centre point no matter what I am shooting. If the subject that I am photographing, or the point I want in focus is off-centre, I aim the focus point directly where I want to be sharp without moving back or forward at all, partly depress the shutter button to hear the beep as it focuses, hold the shutter down to lock the focus in, then re-compose and take the shot. As long as the distance between the lens and the subject does not change, the subject will be sharp. This will help you to be in control of your shot and by using this effectively, most of the images will be sharp at the point you want and not where the camera wants.
Now let us talk little about Depth of Field. I was really excited about using this feature on my DSLR and wanted to create the soft creamy backgrounds which highlights your subject even more. These are created by adjusting your Aperture settings. For shallow depth of field and nice blurry backgrounds, choose a large Aperture (the smaller the number the larger the aperture). While this is a great technique, I was actually getting carried away and was creating too shallow depth-of-field which gave a very blurry overall photo. For instance, if I wanted to highlight the cherry on top of a cake, the DoF was so shallow at aperture 1.8 that most of the cake was also getting out of focus. When it comes to food, an aesthetically correct picture, in my opinion, would be which either tells a story or focuses on the food making you hungry. In both cases, the cake needs to be in focus otherwise the photo achieves nothing. It is important for the photo to achieve an objective. For food photography, f-stops between 2.8 to 4 work great.
Coming to the composition part, I would say keep it simple, though sometimes I do get carried away. Too many props in one frame, gets the photo confusing. Use food itself as props, for instance, fresh herbs, salad leaves, cut fruits and vegetables, cocoa, sugar, spices etc. I personally like to use everything edible as props other than the cutlery and serve ware. We can’t and need not spend a whole lot on styling food. Few shots of the ingredients helps in telling a story. Play with the contrast and the colors of the ingredients. Create textures. Crushed nuts, sprinkled sugar, sliced fruits, bashed up berries, dripping sauce etc.
Think about what kind mood you want to create with your photos. Is it going to be festive, summery, cosy, romantic, rustic? For instance, for this blog post, I wanted to give a very spring, floral, bright morning feel. For my tea-time treats, I wanted to create a rustic romance etc. Sometimes, the seasons and the type of food will dictate how you present it. For example, if its winter and you are shooting bowl of thick comforting soup, you may prefer to set it up in such a way that it looks warm and cozy vs. in a very white and ‘cool’ environment. If its summer and you are shooting fruit and ice cream, you may want to show it looking light and refreshing.
On food styling, it is great to get inspiration from other blogger’s food photos but eventually, you have to find your own style. If you are inclined more towards dark photography and creating drama in your images, don’t try and replicate someone else’s work showcasing floral, vintage images. You will not be able to do justice to the images. If dark photography comes naturally to you, experiment and polish your skills with dark tones. Develop your own style so that they stand out from millions of food photos available on the internet. If you haven’t yet figured your style, experiment as much as you can, see what you like, what mood inspires you generally in life. You would eventually find that your images are leaning more towards one style. Let your personality shine through your images.
Now lighting, the most important of all! Shoot in natural light when possible. It is said that early mornings and late mornings are best for shooting food. Avoid direct sunlight as it create harsh shadows on the food. If you have strong light coming through your window, diffuse it by using a sheer curtain or a sheet of parchment paper taped to the window. Use reflectors, white or dark foam boards to reflect or absorb light depending on what mood you want to evoke. These are basically thick, sturdy pieces of cardboard that can be found in bookshops for a few bucks. Play around with them and see how each one affects the lighting. I still haven’t experimented on using artificial lighting, so can’t comment about it at this stage.
I the end, I would say that have fun and don’t over think it, only practice, practice, practice. For this post alone, I would have taken at least 100-120 shots, till I got the above 10 right! Yes, one more thing, don’t shoot when you are hungry. I shoot the best when I am well fed, then I am not in a hurry to eat the food I am shooting!. Try not to get carried away with excess styling, depth of field or even post processing. Less is definitely more. These are used just to highlight the gorgeous food, just like in modeling, make-up is used to enhance a model’s facial features. I would do a follow-up post soon on more photography/styling learnings. In the meanwhile, do visit my Facebook page: Kitchen Talks where I will post some more learnings as I go about it.
Hope you enjoyed this post. I would love to hear back from you and if you like, share your experiences and perhaps some more tips to benefit us novices.
300g gluten-free rolled oats
190 g nuts and seeds – you can use a combination of pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds (white and black), pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds etc.
125 ml apple juice
125 ml honey
60 ml coconut oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
180 g dried cranberries or any other dried fruit
1. Preheat oven to 325F (160C)
2. Combine the oats, nuts and seeds in a bowl.
3. Mix the apple juice, maple syrup, coconut oil, vanilla extract, cinnamon, sea salt and black pepper in a medium saucepan. Gently heat all together until salt is dissolved and coconut oil liquified. Pour liquid over the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Spread the mixture evenly on a baking sheet. Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden. Make sure to stir the mixture about every 10-15 minutes to make sure it is evenly baked.
4. Let the granola cool completely. It will become crunchier as it sits. Stir in the dried fruit when completely cool. Store in an airtight container for a few weeks.
5. Serve with fresh fruit, yoghurt or milk. I added a bit of berry compote too for that little tang.