From The Mailbox: my take on food photography

I realise that over the years, I’ve received quite a number of e-mails shooting questions pertaining to either the recipes I had posted here, baking do’s and don’ts in general, or at times, even questions beyond the capacity of this space. This will be the first installment of From The Mailbox, where I will address selected interesting and/or common questions asked.

As flattering as it is to receive compliments on the food photos I’ve posted thus far, it never fails to stump me when readers ask me what the secret is. I’m no food stylist nor professional photographer, but I really hope the following guide will help those interested in knowing what goes on behind the scenes.

Equipment & Setting: While it is true that I am currently using a Nikon D40 DSLR, it had barely been a year, and I have always belonged to the camp that believes it is not the equipment, but rather how you choose to use it that matters. So, is it necessary to own a DSLR to produce great shots? No. In fact, quite a number of my personal favourite photos were from my trusty 4-megapixel Canon Powershot A430 digital camera, like that of the two-toned cookies above. The one important aspect of the equipment however is its setting. All of my food is shot on the Macro setting, so regardless of whatever equipment you use, I would recommend using the Macro setting (it’s typically the one with the flower symbol), get nearer to your subject to get a tight frame, and you’re one step closer to a great shot.

Props & Composition: Anyone who knows me personally can attest to the fact that I’ve been a photography enthusiast before I started this foodblog. While it helps in terms of angles and framing, it is definitely humbling to find that food styling and composition was something terribly new to me, and living with my parents meant that I am restricted to whatever material/props our kitchen could offer. There are some foodbloggers who take an initiative to purchase specific tableware or cutlery as props for their shots, and this definitely creates a great ambience shot.

On the other hand, if you’re like me, just scavenge around the house for different textured/coloured fabrics, baking materials, books or anything that you can incorporate into the photo as a prop. Find a prop supporting the theme of your composition, or the nature of your bake. For example, muffins are best eaten warm and fresh from the oven. As such, for the banana crumb muffins shot, I chose the baking pan, a cooling rack, and a tea towel as props to deliver the ‘just-out-of-the-oven’ message, enough to pique interest. For the Mexican wedding cookies, on the other hand, the shot was taken in the late afternoon, and with the cool hues, it made for a perfect tea-time shot, and so I used a doily paper, plain-looking novel (removed its colourful slip cover to focus attention on the bake), a small journal and a ballpoint pen, to illustrate a reflective and relaxing ambience alone during tea.

Lighting: If there is one food photography tip I can never proselytise enough, it would be natural lighting. It is probably surprising to know that most of the photographs on this site (with the exception of outdoor shots) were taken on a small 16 by 22 inch trolley side table, by the window in my bedroom. In fact, if you were to look through all the photos, you would notice a distinct brown wooden hue belonging to my table! My bedroom is not exactly the brightest part of the house; anything shot after 3pm would be shrouded in darkness, and the best light comes between 12:30pm and 2pm, on a sunny day.

I NEVER take food photos with flash, simply because the in-built flash would result in flat texture, and harsh shadows. On days when I bake late, and the chances of it surviving the day for a next-morning shoot is slim, I reflect whatever light I have using el cheapo DIY reflectors: mirrors, white boards, and aluminium cake boards. Both the banana nut bread and lemon yoghurt cake above were taken in the late evening when the sun was setting, reflecting what little light I had using reflectors, and in the case of the banana nut bread, diffusing the direct light with a sheer white cloth.

Post-processing: After all’s said and done, I turn to Photoshop for that finishing touch. Photoshop allows me to take a dull SOOC (straight out of camera) photo , correct the white balance, and adjust the brightness and exposure, until I get the perfect final shot I want. I always keep my editing to a minimum; it usually takes a maximum of five steps to my desired photo. When I find myself spending too much time editing, I discard the photo, because it means it was not a good shot to begin with. It is not necessary to post-process if you’re on manual, but there are times when you just feel like pushing the line between a good shot and a great photo.

More food photography write-up elsewhere:-

17 thoughts on “From The Mailbox: my take on food photography

  1. ovenhaven Post author

    bie: Thank you, mister!😀

    thecoffeesnob: Awww, thanks, Laureen🙂 I just hope it will help the readers out there!

    grace: No problem, dearie!🙂

    happyhomebaker: No problem, sweetie. Glad to share! Btw, as it is, you already take good shots, HHB!😀

    Reply
  2. jean-marie

    Woah, all this while I always thought you just snap anyhow, and get good pictures! You mean you actually need to plan a shot? Sounds very troublesome! *salutes Zhullie*

    Reply
  3. prestocaro

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog from seriouseats.com and I love it! The pictures are wonderful and you have a clear voice. Thanks for the tips😀

    Reply
  4. ovenhaven Post author

    prestocaro: Thanks for dropping by prestocaro🙂 Glad that the tips could be of help!

    Helene: Aww, thanks, sweetie🙂 I’m glad the tips could be of any help!

    Reply
  5. Jon Silver

    This is so much my kind of food photography – great looking home-cooked food photographed naturally in natural light. Just shows you don’t need to take food away from its surroundings in the home or kitchen to photograph it well.

    Reply
  6. ovenhaven Post author

    Thanks for dropping by. That’s true; I believe when it comes to home-cooked food, natural lighting somehow appeals to the nostalgic in us. That something we see and live through every day should be captured as such.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: iPhone Food Photos revamped « Skinny Gals Can Cook!

  8. overconcerned

    I hope this becomes a regular feature! In my opinion, food photography is the hardest kind. Honestly, being a food pornographer is not easy😉

    This was really useful. I’m learning about food photography (I like to swipe my dad’s dSLR) so these pointers are great.🙂

    Wei-Wei

    Reply
  9. Valerie

    Hi, I’m so relieved to hear that someone else uses a Canon A430. I love this camera but lately I seem to have a case of food photographers block. My pictures just don’ want to turn out for me and I have a massive pile of wasted dead batteries.

    When I started my blog I used the superMacro setting. The only problem was that out of 50 pictures, only 2 or 3 were actually decent (I don’t own a tripod.) So flipped the wheel down a notch and began using the regular mode. The pictures came out much clearer, but they lacked the depth of field and control tha comes with SuperMarco. When you take your pictures do you use the regular macro setting or the super? What size do you usually go for? I’m still learning about ISO settings so I won’t make you get into that.🙂

    Sorry this is so long. It’s so good to know that someone else is using the same camera and taking gorgeous photos! Thanks.

    Reply
    1. ovenhaven Post author

      Hi Valerie, thanks for dropping by🙂 I just dropped by your blog, and you’ve got great shots there! I haven’t touched my A430 in such a long time, so I really hope I remember what I did.

      I only used superMacro for texture shots, i.e. to capture the texture / cross-section of the subject. Most times, however, I just stick to the macro function, and I find that it’s served me well. I can see you already have good angles and composition, so when you mention the photographer’s block, I’d suggest you play around with your lighting. If you find the sun glaring too harshly upon your subject, you can diffuse it by hanging a sheer cloth in the direction from which the sun is shining. Play around with a DIY reflector to manipulate the lighting as well. Lastly, try to get closer to your subject. With a macro/supermacro function, you really need to get close in order to create that perfect depth of field. Hope that helps!

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