Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Food Photography Tips 101: Why you don’t need a digital SLR to take good pictures

This is a guest post by Megan from Cooking Whims! (You can also find her on Twitter: @CookingWhims.) Interested in writing your own guest post for Email Rachel. Without further ado, here's Megan!
“But Moooooooom. If I get a digital SLR for Christmas I might become just as famous as The Pioneer Woman! Or Jenny from Picky Palate! Or ANY other food blogger besides me!!”

Oh yes. I’ve drooled. I’ve whined. I’ve begged. I’ve stared at digital SLR pictures on other food blogs with endless envy. I’ve entered contests to win cameras. I’ve searched Craigslist. I’ve even asked God himself. But I’m afraid I’m stuck with my five-year-old Panasonic Lumix digital camera for now.

And from time to time, not having a fancy pants camera gets me down. I took an in-depth course about photography in college, and I’m even a professionally-trained photographer. I’ve used the best of the best cameras and I know just how perfect and crisp a picture can turn out with a digital SLR. But when it comes to my personal budget, I can’t afford that kind of camera right now in life. However, if I look at the big picture, it’s not all that bad. If you know how to work a camera and take a picture, you don’t need 8 billion different settings and a gorgeously lit million-dollar kitchen to get a good photo.

So, what should you do to get a good picture for your food blog? Here are a few tips I always keep in mind when photographing my food: (Please note—all photos below are from my blog.)

Try to use natural light. You can’t have a good photo without light. Try to take pictures of your food in natural light. That way you’ll be able to capture the food’s natural colors. But I know from personal experience this isn’t always possible. Let’s face it. A lot of us work full time jobs and cook at night when it’s dark out. (Or if you’re like me, you live in a basement where it’s always dark out!) In that case, make sure you take your pictures in a well-lit area of your kitchen.

Place your food on white dishes. This is more important if you don’t have a well-lit area or a source of natural light for your food. The natural colors in the food will bounce off of the white plate (and into your camera lens!) This will diminish weird yellow, red, or blue hues.

Don’t use the flash. The flash is for parties and for capturing people who are in movement. I’ve been trained never to use the flash, and it’s particularly important with food photos not to use the flash. It will completely distort your colors and often white out most of your subject (the food!) If you don’t have enough light, either don’t take a picture, wait until you can take a photo with enough light, or try to up the exposure on your camera or in an editing program to capture the natural composition of the food.

Use the macro setting on your camera. Most compact cameras come with a macro setting built into them. If you don’t know where it is, check your manual. In most cameras, you can get to the macro setting by switching to the flower icon on your screen or knob.

What’s macro, you say? The macro setting on the camera allows the lens to focus on your subject at a very close range. This allows you to capture tiny details on your food—which is perfect! People want to see that cheese ooze out of that calzone or the specks of sugar on those sugar cookies. So go on, stick your nose in your food. Distant shots are boring and not personal enough for food. If we can’t smell it, we at least want to see it.

Be aware of your composition. This is one of the most important aspects of photography. I know that it’s tempting to take your dinner/baked goods out of the oven and gnaw on them immediately. But resist the temptation to snap a quick and dull photo of your whole plate of food. It’s important to have a foreground and a background in a photo—which is another reason why macro is so great—your macro setting will usually blur out the foreground or the background, and focus on one particular element. That’s what you want to do. Make your photo interesting. Don’t say “oh it’s just food you can’t do anything cool with that.” Shame! Food is SO interesting to photograph—have fun with it—get creative!

Try new angles. Go for a diagonal. Crouch down underneath the table and see what that cupcake looks like from below. Or the side. It will give your food a new and interesting twist.

Play with your food. I can be a naturalist, sure, but you should make your food look pretty. Stack your pile of cookies. Take a picture of your dinner half-eaten. Try new things!

Take lots of pictures. I take at least 20-30 pictures for every single blog post. Yet I usually only post 1-2 pictures that I take. The more pictures you take, the better chance you have of getting one that is truly stellar.

Look at other food photos. You can only learn from the best. See how the best of the best take their food photos and learn from their composition.

There are billions of great food blogs with great food photos out there, but here’s a small selection of the ones I personally love:

The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Back to the Cutting Board
Food and Whine

Use photo editing programs. If you have Photoshop, use it! It’s a magical program. But if you don’t have it, also not a problem. There are some great free photo editing programs on the Internet. If you take a good picture in the first place, usually the only aspects of a photo you need to change are exposure, contrast, color, and sharpness. These tools can really make your picture pop. It will turn a gray-looking soup back to its original colors. Or your boring-looking stew will come alive with a bit of contrast adjustment. Best thing? These tools usually come built in free photo programs online. One I rely on and love is Picnik—I use it all the time.

Most importantly, have fun! Simply put, you can’t take a good picture unless you like taking pictures. Also, the more confident you are in your picture-taking abilities, the more fun you’ll have. Your boyfriend/husband/family members might think you are a little nuts when you sit down at the dinner table and feverishly take some fabulous photos. But who cares? You’re doing this for you. (And your tummy.)

Good luck! And please let me know if you have any other photo tips you’d like to share. Maybe someday when I have a big, delicious camera, I can come back and give another tutorial about food photos with digital SLRs. Until then, I’ll stay full and satisfied with what I have. :)

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