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What I have learned about food photography so far

When I started this blog, I just had a point-and-shoot: a Canon Powershot with a wide-angle lens and 7.1 megapixels.
I was pretty happy with it considering that before I had it, I was lugging around a manual camera, a Canon A-1. Depending on the lens, that thing could weigh a ton. I always needed to have extra rolls of film on me. Sometimes I missed shots because I was busy loading film into my camera. Not very convenient!

When I got a digital point-and-shoot, it was liberating. I could run around without fear of warping my spine! I could slip it into my pocket, or clutch. No more bags of film either, only little SD cards the size of my thumbnail. Instant gratification too, as I could see each shot immediately after I took it. Total freedom.

That camera was great for vacation snaps and birthday parties, but when it came to photographing food, I started to see that, despite how well I knew my camera, it had limitations.

But I still wasn’t ready to give up on convenience. I also didn’t have enough cash to fork over for the DSLR I wanted. So, I upgraded to the Panasonic Lumix LX5.

And I love it.

I can still slip it into my pocket.

Okay, it has to be a much larger pocket, but it’s still pocket-sized.

The LX5 has a 24mm Leica lens. It has tons of features. It’s wonderful in low light. It’s macro autofocus rocks the casbah. It’s manual mode is, well, very awesomely manual. It can do a lot of what DSLRs can do. It can’t do everything, but it can do quite a bit. You can shoot in Total-Dummy mode, but that would defeat the purpose of getting the LX5 in the first place.

To get good shots, I had to relearn some photography basics. But it has been worth it, and I think that it gives me a good idea about what I want in a DSLR when I get to the point of being able to afford one.

I’m still learning, actually. My camera is relatively new, and I am still getting familiar with it. Hopefully, my shots will continue to improve as time goes along.

But I thought that I would just share with you some of the things that I have learned so far:

1. You don’t need a fancy DSLR to get a good shot, but it certainly does help.

Control. It’s all about control. That’s why you get a DSLR: to control EVERYTHING, from your aperture to your shutter speed, and everything in-between. But if you don’t have a DSLR, you can still get good pictures from your point-and-shoot camera. If you want to get better pictures, you just need to figure out what you do have control over.

How do you do that?

2. Study your camera’s manual.

Did you throw it away? Then go online and download it again. Skip the easy set-up pages in the front of the manual, and go straight to the nitty gritty. If you have a point-and-shoot without very many manual controls, you want to focus on three things: macro, ISO, and white balance.

3. Turn off the flash.

I hate the flashes that come on most point-and-shoots. Unless I am taking a group shot in almost total darkness, I find them absolutely useless. They make everyone look either startled, or ghastly white. And they make food have really unappetizing shadows. The LX5 has a hot shoe that I can mount a big ol’ flash on. A flash that you can angle up to the ceiling, or aim at a wall. A flash that will bounce light indirectly onto your subject.

If you can’t do that, for heaven’s sake, turn it off and learn how to fiddle with your camera’s ISO.

If you are old enough to remember film cameras, you might remember that you had choices: film was rated 100, 200, 400, 800, sometimes even 1600. The higher the rating, the more sensitive the film was to light. So more light — like a bright sunny day — would call for less sensitive film. Less light — like dinner indoors — would call for more sensitive film. When I was in high school taking action pictures in low light (like night football games), I wanted film with a really high rating.

ISO settings correspond to those film ratings. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a default of 200, but if you are able to increase the ISO, you can take shots in lower light without using the flash. The only drawback, and this is the same if you use faster film, is that the higher you set the ISO, the grainier the image will be (and your camera might make some harmless, yet disturbing noise).

But, I think that unless you are going to blow your images up really big, I will trade graininess for not using the flash.

The best thing to do would be to experiment with your camera’s ISO. If that is one of the only controls that you have on your point-and-shoot, it is worth seeing what kind of shots you can get without using the flash.

4. Set your white balance manually.

I cannot stress this enough. It is something that I recently figured out. If you cannot afford Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom (both freakishly expensive, though Lightroom less so), I find that setting the white balance is just as important as setting the exposure correctly.

Some cameras do come with a photo editor. Mine came with something called Silkypix — which really sounds more like a prophylactic manufacturing company than developing software . . .

Exposure is the amount light that is collected by your camera’s sensor. Exposure is dependent on three things: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Think of your lens like an eye. Notice that in really bright light, your pupils become small so you don’t let in a lot of light and go blind? And in low light, they open up big and wide to capture as much light as possible? That’s basically aperture.

You can play with the aperture, and that will affect your depth-of-field . . . but that is a lesson for another day.

The shutter speed determines how long your aperture is open. The longer the shutter speed, the more light you let in. The shorter the speed, the less light you let in. You want a fast shutter speed if you want to freeze motion. A longer shutter speed will make action look like a blur.

For those interested in learning more about aperture and depth-of-field, I would recommend the photography lessons on the Pioneer Woman’s blog. They’re really good. Even though she and her friends are talking primarily about DSLRs, the information is useful to know for all cameras.

Some point-and-shoots allow you to adjust the exposure, but a lot of them don’t. If you can’t change your exposure, you should be able to at least change the ISO and adjust the white balance.

Have you ever taken a picture and noticed that it comes out with a greenish cast? Or a yellowish cast? That means your camera is picking up wavelengths of light that your eyes are naturally compensating for. This is especially true when taking pictures in artificial light.

By adjusting the white balance, you will be able to correct the color of your shots so that they better reflect what you see/want to see.

Somewhere on your camera, there should be a kind of setting in the Menu for white balance. Sometimes it’s abbreviated AWB. This means auto white balance. You don’t want that. There will usually be other preset values that you can select, like “Daylight,” “Tungsten,” “Fluorescent,” “Cloudy.” But not everyone has the same lightbulbs; all artificial forms of lighting emit slightly different light.

You want to be able to set your own white balance, called “custom white balance,” sometimes abbreviated CWB.

How do you do that? Well, it’s different for every camera. It’s best to consult your camera’s manual to find out how to adjust it.

Some camera controls have a kind of grid on which you can maneuver a point around until you feel that you have it about right. Others let you set the white balance by taking a picture of something truly white. I use a Lastolite Ezybalance card, but you can just as easily use a white piece of paper or something else white in a pinch (like a starched dinner napkin). The most important thing about setting the white balance by using another white thing as a reference, is that the white object should have no shadows, and it should fill the frame of the shot in its entirety.

5. Compose your shot, but shoot fast.

Food — unlike other subjects like trees for instance — has a very short window of time in which it looks appetizing. Food may look wonderful, glistening, and yummy right after you serve it. And then it looks dull and congealed minutes later. That’s why food stylists do nasty things like spray food with corn syrup to keep it looking fresh.

Hopefully you’re not doing that.

Learn how to compose your shots quickly, and shoot quickly.

6. Use the macro settting. Get close to your food, but . . .

7. . . . do not get too close to your food.

Or it will look gross. If you think about it, everything looks gross really, really close up.

And it also makes your food unidentifiable. So take a step back!

8. Try different angles.

Up, down, around! Don’t just take pictures of your food straight on. Try to see it from different perspectives. If I had as many arms as the Lord Shiva, I would take more pictures of stirring, or lifted forks. But I don’t. Sadness.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try!

Or you could get a tripod — which I’m too lazy to do . . .

9. Today is my birthday.

Okay, so it’s not what I have learned about food photography so far . . . but it is still my birthday!

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About the Author

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Eater. Drinker. Academic Thinker.

4 Comments

  1. I too had a point and shoot camera when I started my blog but have upgraded…not fancy but good. What I miss about my point and shoot is keeping it in my pocket. Yours sounds like the best of both worlds.

  2. Thanks! So far, so good. I am a little paranoid about it since the lens protrudes more than a regular point and shoot . . . I am liking the shots a lot, and am learning so much too.

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