Foodphotography; controlling the light

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I get questions on a regular basis on the specifics of how I take my photos and how I light the scene.. Today is a very cold day and not really suitable to go outdoors, so I figured I entertain myself (and hopefully you) by taking a couple of photos and showing you the difference from not changing any settings to changing settings, adding reflection and also taking the same photo with a different camera.

So to start off I am showing you my lovely lunch of a sandwich with rocket, radishes and a boiled egg and gardencress on top. Simple but very yummy and in the little red bowl you see a bit of yoghurt. I do show you a lot of lunches lately now don’t I? It must be the dark weather that causes that!!

All the photos I show you are taken with the exact same conditions; indoor, window on the left and daylight only. The first photo is a shot of my sandwich without any further adjustments.

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1/160s at F4.0 iso 640

As you can clearly see, the photo is too dark and has ugly shadows in place I do not want to have shadows. When you’re shooting food your main goal is to make the food look appetizing, fresh and inviting; not drab and disgusting. 🙂 For this exercise I shot most of the frames on aperture priority (Av on most cameras) although I normally shoot food in manual mode. I will explain more about the why a little later.

Now when shooting in Aperture priority I can easily adjust the exposure a little bit with the exposure valution button. That is usually shown somewhere on the back of the camera as a +/- sign or it can be hidden in the menu depending on your camera. What that does is that you can very easily increase the exposure or decrease the exposure as you go along. For the next photo I decided I wanted to make the exposure a little longer to add a little more light into the frame, so I increased the exposure by 2/3 stop. A stop is a change in a setting by one step, for instance your shutterspeed goes from 1/125s to 1/250s; that would be 1 stop. The little marks on your exposure valution are 1/3 of a stop. You can usually change up to two stops in total to the left or to the right.

Now if you look at photo number two you will see that it does look a little better but could still be improved upon. I like the shimmer on the eggyolk but find the rest not to my liking yet. Now the light at the moment is quite dark and having light come from one direction only will most likely give you heavy shadows on the right side as you can see in both of the photos.

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1/125s at f4.0 with 2/3 EV

It’s extremely simple to solve this by simply adding a reflector on the opposite side of the light. In this case the reflector needs to be placed on the right side; bouncing light back from the window onto the food on the right side. This is how it looks with the reflector added. As a reflector you can – ofcourse – buy an expensive one but really anything will do. I mostly use white foamboard, but any white paper, a white shoebox or whatever else that reflects light would work and is much cheaper. If I want to have a little more punch I wrap a bit of tinfoil around the foamboard and use that. It reflects the light a little bit better then plain white and adds a little bit more contrast. You can use mirrors for lighting little specific spots or adding shine too.

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1/200 s at f4.0 2/3 ev with reflector right

And for easy comparison all in a row from dark to light:

broodje

As you can see; with very little adjustments it is actually quite easy to change the look of your photo from yuk to ‘can I have one of those?’ 🙂

Now I got a question from one of my bloggie friends this week about the fact that her photos were not sharp. She send me a high res file that she made to check and it was in fact perfectly sharp but arguably not in the right position. If you do not focus manually (and if you work up close and on a tripod I would urge to try that as it is much easier to work with) you have to pick a focuspoint to work with. In my workshops most people own digital compacts and not SLR’s and most of them have their focus on automatic. But what happens is that your camera decides for you what needs to be sharp in the photo!! Not something you want, so the first thing you have to learn yourself is to either focus manually or use the middle focus point. The middle focus point is the strongest so that’s why that is the most logical choice.

So let’s assume you have your focus in the middle and you now take a photo and you get this:

Focus point in the middle

Focus point in the middle

I hope you can see it at this size, but I think it is quite noticeable that the egg in front is not sharp. Not sharp at all. But the middle of the sandwich is sharp. When you take a photo (any  photo) you always have to ask yourself which point in the scene do you want to have sharp? Is it something in the foreground or something in the background or – even sometimes – something in the middle? Taking a photo of a person for instance, you would always focus on the eyes as those are the main feature of a human being. For food it’s a little more complicated. You have the pick something that make it pleasing on the eye and ‘leads’ your eye through the frame. In this particular case my natural focus point would be the front of the egg or the cress on top of the first egg slice. But if I focus there and press the shutter I get this:

Focus on the egg

Focus on the egg

Not what I want either, so how do you solve that? In order to focus on what you want AND get the composition you want you need to incorporate an extra step. You focus on your point, then keeping the shutter pressed halfway, you make the composition you want and then your press the shutter completely. Don’t release the shutter in between or it will refocus all over again. That might sound tedious (and gives you an extra argument to try manual focus!) but for me it has become second nature; I even accidently moved the frame a little bit on the photo above as pressing the shutter straight away is sort of become counter intuitive for me.

If you’ve recently upgraded from a compact you might struggle with the fact that you photo appears so much blurrier then with your compact. I took the same photo with my SLR (above) and then again with my compact (below) See the difference?

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Taken with SLR on 1/60s at f4.5 (manual) iso 640

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Taken on compact with 1/80s at f3.2 on iso 200

You see a big difference in the sharpness throughout the shot, don’t you? The compact appears sharper throughout the frame while the sharpness on the SLR ‘fades’ away as you get further from your focus point. Now I personally like a shallow depth of field in my photos, which is why I prefer the SLR above a compact, but if you’ve been wondering why your compact appears to be sharper, this is why… I won’t go into the techical details as to why that happens, let’s just say that it is due to the different way a compact is build… 🙂

So one more thing before I let you go… we just discussed your focuspoint and how you should focus and refocus, but… (and this is why I choose to shoot on manual most of the time) where you focus will also impact the settings on your camera in terms of lighting. If you focus on the front of the egg (white) the photo will be much darker, then if you would focus on the dark sandwich. I will show you the difference:

Focus on egg

Focus on egg

Focus on bread

Focus on bread

You see what happens? Your focuspoint not only determines where the image will be sharp but it will also determine how your lighting will be. So if you want to avoid this happening if you’re playing around with composition and the food, just dial in the number that you see on manual and you don’t have to worry about it anymore (unless the light itself changes!). There is nothing scary or difficult about using the manual settings; you can use your program settings as guideline if you want. Take a photo on automatic, check what the settings are, change to manual, dial those settings in and start tweaking them until you have the image and lighting that you want!

So I will leave you with all that…. good luck and if you have any questions always feel free to let me know!

Simone van den Berg

Food- and travelblogger from the Netherlands. Loves good food. Loves to taste good food the world over.
She also loves to share travelstories, delicious recipes and ok, cat pictures too. She sometimes feels the need to get really healthy for a while, always mingled with periods of insanely delicious sweets and other decadent treats.
Lives together with Tom and their two cats; Humphrey and Buffy.
Profession: Food photographer

47 comments

  1. My only question would be: what if I just own a small digital snapshot camera (autofocus, autoflash, auto-you-name-it) and my meals being prepared – and therefore: photographed – long after sunset? Most pics of my plates look like something the cat… well, you know!

  2. Despite being totally confused, your sandwich looks absolutely gorgeous! I am starting my photo class on Saturday: can’t wait! (hopefully I will not be super overwhelmed with all the new terms)

  3. It’s always nice to read about tips on photography as I’m still very much a beginner, I was wondering what kinds of reflectors you would suggest. Any more tips when useing a P&S? do you do any editing afterwards with your photos to adjust composition further?

  4. Thanks for your generosity in trying to explain this issue. I deal with it every single time I put my camera on. I think I ‘see the light’.

  5. Great tips, Simone! Now it might take me a while to digest all that… but one day I’ll figure it all out!

  6. A brilliant post, I mean it! I knew about most of the things you talk about, but I found the last part about using the settings from automatic mode in manual especially helpful. Funnily enough, I hadn’t noticed why the light in a series of photos of the same subject changed dramatically sometimes… great tips! And I have to get rid of my fondness for short field depths… 😉

  7. Great tips! There’s so much to a dslr, I’m still learning.

  8. Thank you, Simone. I am on a learning curve. I have a DSLR and definitely want to buy a tripod for starts. I was also thinking I should buy a lens for close-ups. I have a 28-135mm zoom right now. My problem is that I don’t always have time to cook during the daylight hours. I am thinking about buying (can’t remember the name) a couple of diffused lighting lamps and a box. I look forward to more tips!

    • You probably mean the Lowel Egolights which are – or so I hear – fabulous! I am planning on buying those myself. Taking shots in the dark remains to be a challenge if you don’t have proper light…

  9. A great tutorial Simone and very well explained!

  10. Your photography advice/tips is wonderful for all of us food bloggers. Thank you!!!

  11. Thanks for the tips Simone. I’m only using the compact camera, is it always good to take a close-up shot?

    • Well, you don’t always have to take a closeup shot. It depends on how you want it to look really. I am a fan of closeup shots, so I would always do it, but ultimately that is a personal preference I would say!

  12. I might have to read this a zillion times before I get to understand it, but what i have realized is i need equipments.. lights, reflectors etc. Depending on mother nature and praying that it is not cloudy or raining when a recipe is planned is not good enough:-D Thanks Simone. Bookmarked.

  13. You’ve just convinced me to buy a reflector. I’ve always wondered if they really made much of a difference, but you can definitely see it in your photo!

    Great photography tutorial!

  14. I really need to take a photography class. Great tips!

  15. Heehee…. I wonder who that bloggie is that emailed you? She sounds like someone that would bother a doctor in a party to ask about a medical condition!… oops… was it me? Hehe! Thanks for the tips Simone. One question – what do you change to manual? The lens or the camera body? Sorry I had to ask!

  16. Simone, this is a wonderful summary of all the components that you have to juggle to get the light right. I’ve bookmarked it! Thanks for such a clear explanation!

  17. Great tutorial Simone and the photos help a lot.

  18. Hello dear Simone, I haven’t been around for a while!!! Glad to see you are keeping busy!!! I struggle to get back in to work mode!!! Thanks for all the helpful hints!!!!

  19. Simone, this is golden, thank you so much for all these tips! And perfect timing too, as I’m gradutating from compact to SLR, and your advice on focus will definitely come in handy!

    But I wanted to ask: do you always use natural light for your pictures? You always have such gorgeous colours, I assumed you used some or other photography lights… What about nighttime pictures?

  20. Fabulous post Simone. Very well done 🙂

    Happy New Year! Hope you had a great holiday season. I haven’t gotten around to commenting enough. Shame on me.

  21. I need all the help I can get when it comes to photography, so I love your little tutorials. They are so helpful. I basically stole my brother’s nice camera and snap away mindlessly and hope something works out! Hopefully I can take a course or two in the future.

  22. That’s real torture to see all those tempting sandwiches!!! Thanks for the great advice.

  23. Wow. Thanks for all the tips. I’m still using a point and shoot and it’ll be a while yet before I can upgrade, but I appreciate all the info.
    (And I would be happy to have that first sandwich, by the way!!!)

  24. What an awesome tutorial! I love the sandwich too – looks delicious!

  25. Fantastic tutorial! The differences made by such small tweaks is truly striking, I love seeing the comparison. 🙂

  26. Thanks so much for this tutorial! I’ve been struggling so much to make my photos look better. Your tips will certainly be helpful!

  27. Hey Simone, did you hear my silent NY resolution to oversome my photographic laziness & learn more. I love your ‘packed with info’ post, and the tutorials are great. Today is a dready dark rainy day…will try & experiment! Thanks a ton!! Have a great 2010!

  28. wanted to stop by and say hello ;]

  29. I have so far to go in understanding and controlling my camera and my shots but you just took me one step farther along – very clear and very helpful! Where can I sign up for Junglefrog Classes? Great post, Simone, thanks!

  30. Thanks for this! I’m in the market for a new SLR (I only have my old kodak point and shoot, and it’s on its last leg. 😉 and I’ve already bookmarked this post so that I can jump right in, so to speak, without having to study the damned thing for days on end before I can turn out a decent picture. Thanks, thanks, thanks!

  31. Thank you so much for taking the time to detail these photographic tips! This is very helpful! You’re a dream!

  32. Thanks so much for the tutorial! I would love to improve my pics and I have no idea how so this helps a lot!
    By the way, in case you might be interested, I am giving away some organic spices and grains I brought back with me from Lebanon

  33. This post is priceless for all of us…. thanks for sharing!

    The lunch shot is beautiful, as always!

    Sawadee from Bangkok,
    Kris

  34. I was reading some blogs on food photography and somehow I ended in your awesome blog. I was attracted by all the sharp photos you have. Wat a good camera you have!

    Will visit your blog more often and learn more from your photography skills.

    Great blog indeed.

    : )

  35. Brilliant tutorial Simone, very helpful!

  36. Great easy to understand tips. Thanks a lot. I went to a camera show on Sunday and now I have my eye on two cameras and a new lens.

  37. Those are some wonderful food photography shots.

  38. This has by far been one of the most clear and helpful explanations so far. Unfortunately, the way my schedule works out, I’m forced to shoot in the dark more often than in natural lighting.
    The sandwich looks delicious by the way.

  39. This is such a helpful post! I just upgraded to an SLR camera, have some success when playing around, but had many questions (most of which you answered here). Thank you!

  40. Great post! I’m just beginning to dabble in food photography and this is just a great layman’s explanation of the resolution of all of the problems I have been having! I can’t wait to take a pic of my dinner now! Thank you!

  41. Thank you so much for this great post.

  42. thanks for all the tips!!! I’m definitely going to invest in a better camera.

  43. Thanks for a very helpful post! Your pictures are amazing

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