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Food Photo Tips: Part I - Lighting

15 years ago

Food Photo Tips: Part I - Lighting

Hi everyone. Here I hope to be able pass on a few useful hints about photographing food. Im just another self-taught hobby photographer, but after taking these photos nearly daily over a period of several years I've established some norms for myself in how to go about taking pictures of food.

Assuming that most people will be using a point and shoot digital camera, I'll leave the DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras for the time being. The basics about lighting and positioning will apply to both types of cameras.

If you're an occasional photographer and haven't read your camera instruction book and understood all the creative possibilities available with your camera don't feel bad, since many people never get around to it either. But I will go over some of the important menu icons and shooting modes that will make a big difference in your pictures once you learn to use them.

But first let's get down to what is one of the most important factors in taking food photos: LIGHTING.

Light is what defines the shape of an object and is the one factor which can make the difference between a beautiful photograph, an ordinary one, or a downright bad one.

Finding or creating the right lighting for what you want to shoot should be your number one concern, especially with food, which can look really unappetizing when photographed in the wrong light, such as flash, or heavenly when seen in a good light.

The ideal lighting for tabletop photography, especially food, is natural daylight. But there's a problem when people are wanting to take pictures of their dinner, which is usually an evening meal and in winter especially, a time of day when it is dark.


For the moment though, let's look at one good daylight setup. Perhaps you're baking bread or cakes during the day, or canning and want to show off your work.

Finding the right window in your house is important. Try to find one which is not in full sunshine at picture taking time. There should be indirect light and you should be able to put a table near or under that window, which could be curtained with a thin net if the light is too strong. Most of the time the quality of your photo will depend on finding that window where the light is right. If the window is too high so light doesnÂt fall on the subject, get a few books, take out a kitchen drawer and top it with a tray and a cloth to raise up your food plate.

Position your camera facing towards the window and pointing down at the subject. FIG 1. (I'll call the plate of food the subject...okay?) If you can mount the camera on a tripod you will have less chance of camera shake although nowadays most cameras have IS (image stabilization) incorporated. Still you are in better control with your hands free, and even more so if you invest in a cable release. ThatÂs a little cord that plugs into the camera with a plunger on the end. Pressing that instead of the camera shutter release button lessens the possibility that you jerk the camera when you shoot. Cable releases are not an expensive extra item and are nice to use.

The light should come down through the window and skim across the food, bringing out the texture. FIG. 2

Using your optical zoom (not digital zoom) close in a little on the plate until you have it filling your LCD screen or viewfinder. Fig. 3 & 4 show the unzoomed image in the camera and

Fig. 5 shows the zoomed image. You are better off moving the tripod back and away from the table a little and then using the zoom to get closer than if you were to stick the camera right up close to the subject. Getting too close will make a distorted picture. You may get that potato in the front line filling up half your picture, while the rest of the plate seems to be falling away at an angle. Move back and zoom in to avoid distortion.

How high you want to have the camera is up to you. If you want to show the plate from the same angle as someone who is sitting down to dine, then have the camera at that height, so you can show whatÂs on the plate. If you are looking more for an art photo at a low angle then get down and take it from a low side angle. ItÂs up to you how much of the food you want to display. You can always crop out a lot of the plate with post editing if you only want to give a closeup impression of a dinner without showing every carrot or pea on the plate. But we can talk about that later. For now youÂre still setting up the camera.

Be careful of too much hard reflection bouncing off any liquid on the plate.You may have to adjust the tripod or move the plate. You may have to turn the plate to avoid too much bright reflection off gravy or sauce. A little is okay but you want to see down into that sauce too, and not have it look like a bright sheet of white ice.

If the side of the subject facing you is too dark, then you can easily set up a piece of white paper or styrofoam to reflect the window light back onto the dark side of the subject. FIG. 6

In this example I just taped some white paper onto the nearest objects at hand (a vase and a lantern) to reflect light onto the dark side. You can set up something a little more sophisticated with just some folded cardboard lined with tin foil or white paper. FIG. 7 shows the paper reflecting on the dark side.

I love being able to invent things like that out of objects that are already in my house without having to go out and buy professional photo reflectors.

But of course they would be nice too!

When you press the shutter, remember to press it half way down and pause a moment while the camera reads the light meter and focuses, Then continue to press all the way down. Some cameras will give an affirmative beep after that half press to let you know that it has your subject in focus. By pressing quickly all the way down without that halfway pause you may have out of focus pictures and wondered why.

Try and practice with some fruit on a plate or dish during some free time during daylight. Take a few pictures on the following settings.

If your camera is like many others, you will have a fully automatic option.Try taking a couple photo on that. Then go to your "scene" modes and try taking a couple on Portrait mode if you can find it, (icon is a girlÂs head), and on Indoor, if your camera has that. When you find youÂve taken something you like, make a note of which mode or scene you used.

I know I havenÂt yet explained how to take a picture, but next instalment will be about another daylight shoot, taking photos under artificial light and how to set some of the options such as white balance WB and exposure evaluation EV. I hope this has been an easy read and that next time you will learn more.

Before finishing, I'll show here a couple of my best photos taken with my smallest pocket point & shoot, the Olympus Stylus 800 with 8 megapixels. I went to a charity lunch where we were squeezed onto long tables in a crowded room. By extreme luck I was seated across from the only window in the room. It was a tall one with a light white curtain and the light reflected down onto my fish in cream sauce and the luscious creamy dulce de leche in a way that I thought was a perfect example of what I have shown above in FIG. 1. The light is skimming across the food into the camera, leaving lovely reflections. Here are the pictures. Just shows you don't always need a big expensive camera when you have the right light and correct exposure.


Thanks for joining me, I'll have the next instalment ready soon.

Sharon (Canarybird)

(All text and photos copyrighted)

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