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Food Photography Basics #3 : Getting Started

Posted Mar 26 2011 12:00am


Before I get to the matter of this post, I would like to say that this series is not exhaustive. Many others have written extensively about all this and all I’m doing here is presenting my perspective of how I approached learning the various aspects of photography. So in each of my posts, I will try to explain the basics and provide links, wherever possible, to relevant articles/ posts which explain things further and in detail.




Having a camera and lenses means you’re ready to go on a never ending journey of discovery. Every journey has to start somewhere and if you are not familiar with your DSLR, then the best place to start is that little book that comes in the box – the instruction manual.

If you were like me, be prepared to discover that though the manual is written in English it will make as much sense to you as Latin or Greek (I’m assuming you know neither language)! Do not worry; all you need in the beginning is to know the front of your camera from the back. The first thing is to familiarise yourself with all the buttons and dials on your camera and what they do. It also helps to figure out what all the stuff that appears on your LCD screen actually means. (See link at the end of this post)1




Canon does an excellent job when it comes to cameras, lenses and other accessories but one are where they fail miserably (in my opinion anyways) is their instruction manual. Once I had done stuff like putting the battery, setting the time-date sort of beginner’s stuff, I found my eyes glazing over about a quarter of the way into my camera manual!

Of course, it is quite possible that I’m the only one in the world who felt this way but I think not going by the number of “How to get the best photographs out of your ABC-xyz camera” kind of books that are being written with every new DSLR released.

I bought a field guide book to understand my DSLR better and though I have a much better understanding of photography now, I have to admit that after a year and a half of having my DSLR there is still some stuff I don’t know about my camera! The only reason for this is that I haven’t got around to exploring my camera completely.
While I understood some of the stuff written on my lenses there were some numbers that made no sense to me. (See link at the end of this post)2

So how do you manage to get the best out of your camera and take good photographs? There is no easy way to do this and it will take some time and effort.


1. You really have to passionately and desperately want to take good pictures. I’m assuming that you have this if you have invested in a DSLR but I am just mentioning it because it is this passion that will drive or motivate you to go on. This is true especially when you have just spent half the day trying to take pictures which had visualised a certain way and not one of your photographs is anywhere close to it!


2. Please, buy a tripod. This is advice from someone whose husband bought her a tripod even before she got a DSLR but never used it for almost a year! I learnt the hard way how necessary it was to get really sharp pictures. Even if you have the steadiest hands with your camera, which I pride myself on having, you will need that tripod eventually. (See link at the end of this post)3

A lot of food shots involve a shallow depth of field (DOF/ blur in the back or front) which means using lower apertures. Sometimes you would have low light situations, heavy lenses or just an unsteady pair of hands! This means the slightest movement, even that of pressing down the button will result in “shake” = blurred photographs. In the tile below, both photographs of the chocolate pieces and the strawberry were shot at the same time with the same lens and in similar conditions.You can see the blur in the photograph on the left whereas the one on the right is sharp.




Sometimes this blur will not be apparent on your camera LCD screen but will show up once you have uploaded the photograph to the computer and it’s too late to re-shoot the photograph. Unless you’re one of those food bloggers who shoots while connected to the laptop, which I am not.


3. As I said earlier, the first step is to understand your camera. Explore shooting on manual mode (the “M” on the dial) or the semi-manual modes like Aperture Priority (Av) or Shutter Priority (Tv). There isn’t much point in shooting on the Auto or pre-set modes if you have bought a DSLR since the idea was to have more control over your photographs!

This is not to say that you're not a good photographer or will not get good photographs if you shoot in Pre-set or Auto modes. It only means that you will have full control over your photography if you learn to shoot on the Manual mode. This gives you complete control over the decision about which mode to use when. (See link at the end of this post)4

4. Similarly learn to shoot in RAW whether you end up deciding or prefer to shoot your images as JPEG. RAW has nothing to do with nudity and refers to a format where the camera retains all the data of your image unlike the usual JPEG format where there is some data loss due to conversion of image by the camera’s internal software.

The advantage of shooting in RAW format is that you can adjust the white balance, chromatic aberration and exposure if you need to, since all the data is available. This can be done with the RAW converter that comes with your camera software, Photoshop or free software available on the net. (See link at the end of this post)5


5. Practice, practise and more practice is really the only way to better photographs. By this I don’t mean you take 1000s of photographs without some definite idea of what you want to shoot, but using your camera at every available opportunity. Carry it with you everywhere you go. This series is about food photography but do not limit yourself to shooting food. Taking any type of photographs (landscape, people, children, portraits, and nature) will stand you in good stead as it will help you understand light and exposure better.


6. Read as much about photography and techniques as you can. Check out your local library as they would be bound to have some of the standard books/ magazines on photography. (See link at the end of this post)6
The internet is a very good resource for everything from understanding your camera, lenses and other accessories to showing you exactly how to achieve a particular type of photography and editing techniques.


7. If it is possible, attend short term classes/ courses in basic photography/ workshops. These are a lot more helpful than books and magazines because you learn hands on and can clear your doubts by talking to someone who knows photography. You get a better grasp of what goes into a good photograph and the interaction with fellow students is a big plus.


8. Join photography groups where you can interact with other photographers with similar interests who can offer you a lot of help as well as constructive criticism about your photographs. If you want to improve your photography, you have to be open to criticism and not take it personally but learn from it. Most people tend to be diplomatic and not say negative things to you, but there are many good groups on Flickr where you can find something you like and join them.


9. Go through food magazines and food sites like Foodgawker , TasteSpotting , Tasteologie , foodblogs with excellent photography and food photography portfolios to see how the food can be photographed. This will give you some idea about presentation, composition, props and colour combinations, how light is used, the angle at which the photograph has been shot, etc. Please, DO NOT attempt to reproduce any of what you have seen. You are not only insulting the original photographer but also getting into copyright issues.

However, do consider which photographs appeal to you the most and why, and then try to work on how you could achieve that in your photographs in various ways. Soon you will find that you will be developing a distinctive style that is your own and this should be what you ought to work towards.


10. Take time to think about exactly what and how you want your photograph to showcase your food. All those beautiful food photographs we see all the time had a lot of thought put into them. Also try to do your photography when you have the time for it, as you will get better photographs that way.

I mostly shoot food for my blog and I know that things like doorbells that need answering, phone calls that have to be attended to and a family that keeps asking, “Are you through? Can we eat? We’re hungry!” is not conducive to good food photographs!


11. Everyone looks at the same photograph differently. So be prepared that you might think a particular photograph of yours is a masterpiece but very few others think so. As an example, look at the two pictures below.




I put a lot of thought into this “messy” photograph of my Eggplant & Fig Caponata . The caponata looked like a bit of a brown mess and I wanted to do something different with it. So I thought about shooting it from the top and must have spent close to an hour setting it up. It is still one of my personal favourites but I have had reactions ranging from “It looks messy” and “Why do you want to present food like that?” to “Why would anyone want to eat that?”




I shot this photograph of home-made strawberry jam without giving it too much thought. I think it doesn’t look too bad but don’t think there’s anything particularly wonderful about it. Yet this photograph made it to “ Explore ” on Flickr!


12. This also means that if your picture doesn’t make it on Foodgawker/ TasteSpotting it doesn’t necessarily mean your photographs aren’t good. They invariably do pick up well-lit and composed photographs, so if you get a rejection saying “poor composition/ dull or unsharp images/ lighting white balance issues”, take another look at your photograph and try to work on those issues.

When I used to submit my photographs to these sites initially, most of them used to get rejected. Today, I get  fewer rejections so all it means is that practice and working at your photography makes all the difference. Sometimes, you will find that one will accept a photograph while the other will reject the same one so that shouldn’t worry you too much.




Foodgawker rejected these Vanilla Yo-Yo Biscuits citing "Lighting issues - dull/unsharp" while TasteSpotting published it.




On the other hand, TasteSpotting rejected this photograph of my Cardamom Flavoured White Chocolate & Pistachio Panna cotta  because they didn't like the "composition", but Foodgwaker thought it was good enough to publish.


13. The word photograph actually means “light drawing”, and photography is all about light. This is something we all know and though I mentioned it at the end it is the most important aspect of photography. The key to a good photograph is how well you use the light in your photography. This is generally referred to as “ exposure” and once you understand this aspect of photography and the rest will be much easier. The next post in this series will be about exposure in photography.



Useful links mentioned in this post:


  1.  Meet Your New DSLR Camera

  2.  DSLR Lenses And Their Abbreviations

  3.  How To Use Your Tripod

  4.  Canon Shooting Modes

       Do I Really Have To Shoot Full Manual Mode On My DSLR?
      
       5 Reasons To Shoot In Manual Mode

  5.  RAW vs. JPEG

       When To Choose JPEG vs. RAW

  6.  20 Must Reads For Any Serious Photographer

       Food Photography Books



If you have any questions about this post, would like me to touch upon any particular aspect of food photography or anything related to photography, please leave a comment here or send me a mail. I will do my best to answer them.

Previous Posts In This Series

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