Saturday, November 10, 2007

our approach to food photos

balsamic reduction

As much as it flatters me when I get emails asking what my secret to taking pictures is, I rarely have a good response. I don’t think of myself as a real photographer, I never learned accepted techniques and I barely know what half the buttons on the camera do. If you like my photos, you’ll probably agree you can get far without this information (though I suspect you could get further with it).

poached egg

The majority of food photography advice I have read boils down to two main points: don’t use flash and style the food attractively. Honestly, these days I rarely do either.

babka

While I of course use available light when it is, uh, available, in the evenings, when most food for this blog is cooked, I’m at a loss. Though for a long time I used a combination of available light/long exposures, a tripod and remote switch for evening pictures, I was only satisfied with the results about half the time. Often less.

saffron

These days, we’re using the Canon Speedlite 430EX flash, and it is making a world of difference. Sadly, not all flashes are created equally, and this has little in common with the ones that come built-in to cameras. It only shoots of the amount of light it determines you need, and can be angled or filtered in any direction. It’s also not cheap. But it works well enough that I often look at a picture and cannot remember whether I took it at night or in daylight. That is simply amazing to me.

rice pudding

A little food styling can go a long way. I’m not really into props or overly composed food. It’s not a pinafore–its dinner. I think plate smears and lightly rusted spatulas are honest, and I find that warmly appealing, but much of this comes down to personal taste. That said, white plates (as opposed to our sage green ones that seemed such a good idea at the time) that are not too patterned and a little garnish or a fork propped just so can add a lot to a picture. I have a lot of photos that make me cringe because I haven’t even done that.

peach

However–and if you’ve read nothing else in this post, I hope you read this–the only thing that will ever make a difference in the consistent quality of your photos is practice. You can’t learn it from a blog post, a book, a manual, it doesn’t come embedded in pricy prosumer technology*–you simply need to take pictures of every single thing that you see.

caramel

Try as best as you can to identify what you like about what is before you, and find ways to make that the very essence of the picture. That’s why photography is an art and not a science–you’re letting your image tell a story about something. Look at the picture–is this what you wanted? How can you make the part that charmed you speak louder? Take it again. And again.

cherry

Soon enough, your pictures will really start telling a story and people will ask you how you do it, and you’ll shrug, because who thinks about this stuff?

ricotta pancake

“Wow, Deb, that’s so cool. So you don’t edit your photos at all?” Ha, ha, HA. Not even close. On the computer, I might crop, white balance, lighten or darken an image, but I do try to keep my edits to a minimum. The better a picture is, the less you have to do. When I find myself editing a lot, I know it’s because I didn’t take a very good picture to begin with and have been forced to compensate.

coals

* “I can’t afford an SLR, does this mean I can’t take good pictures?” No. Wait, let me say that louder: NO! People, $10,000 in photo equipment does not a good photographer or photograph make. Good framing and composition in a photo is as evident in a five year old point-and-shoot as it is in a $2,000 digital SLR. Yes, I did just say that we have a kinda expensive flash that makes a joyous difference in the ease of our evening photographs. We do love our four year old Canon Rebel so much that we think of it as a member of our family. (Sometimes, I even pet it.) But neither can make a bad picture a good one.

The Sum of the Smitten Kitchen’s Photo Equipment: [Updated July 2009]

  • We used a Canon EOS Digital Rebel 300D (which is no longer available, the most current camera in the Rebel line is the XSi), a great starter DSLR, exclusively until May 2008, when we upgraded to a Canon 40D (the 50D is the most current one in this line), a mid-level “prosumer” camera. Why Canon? Well, I am sure you don’t have all day! Alex had previously owned a film Rebel, and we liked that we could use lenses almost seamlessly between them. We were also more impressed with the Canon line of lenses — there were just more out there than other brands, at more price points. But, it all comes down to personal taste, and it’s definitely in any budding photographer’s interest to find out if renting any camera they’d like to buy is a possibility before making such a big commitment. New Yorkers: We rent stuff all of the time from Adorama (and no, they’re not paying us to plug their rental department!). They have great weekend (esp. holiday weekend) deals, plus, you can contribute a percentage of any accrued rental fees on an item towards the purchase of it down the road.
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens — I recommend that people skip the kit lens entirely, buy cameras body-only and use this lens instead. It’s sharp, lightweight, great for low-light conditions, seriously inexpensive and a perfect lens to build skills on. It’s our “grab and go” lens. Wait until you see the price — you won’t believe what you can do for so little.
  • Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Lens — This is my baby, because I love taking detailed close-ups.
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Telephoto Zoom Lens — This is Alex’s baby, but we mostly use it when we’re on vacation, or you know, places where the view in the “distance” is more than across the street.
  • Canon Remote Switch RS60 E3 — For use with the tripod for long exposure, low light pictures because even the clicking of the shutter button can blur a low-exposure photo. Plus, you can play “kid photographer” with your food … “Gimme a smile, no, a bigger one!” *Click!*
  • Canon 430EX Speedlite Flash (though the 430EX II is an update of this) — Discussed above, this thing is pretty freaking cool for times when you have no choice but to take pictures at night. It’s also fantastic for people pictures — seriously, it makes people look like magazine-ready.
  • The Tamron AF 17-35mm is our starter wide-angle. We like it okay. However, it’s great for scenery and vacation shots, thus it always comes on vacation with us.

Better Food Photography Advice, elsewhere:

egg shells

Lastly, a Question: Alex, the CTO, CFO and Assistant Photographer of Smitten Kitchen wants to know if I were to sell prints of some of our photos, would anyone be interested?

One year ago: Cranberry Sauce, Three Ways


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