These are the most common problems we see in GWS:
- FOCUS. With food you are working up close. That means macro. Most cameras have a macro mode - the icon looks like . Macro allows the camera to focus when close to the subject instead of photographing the dirty pots in the background.
- MOTION BLUR. This happens when the shutter speed is too low - the shutter is open too long and the camera records the movement and shaking of your hands holding the camera. There are two solutions:
- Use a tripod. this will eliminate motion blur, but is probably impractical in the typical goon kitchen.
- Put your camera in AUTO ISO mode. The camera tries to use a fast shutter speed, but if the lens is "slow" and the ISO is set to a hard low value like 100 then it has no choice but to use a slower shutter to get correct exposure. With the ISO setting on AUTO the camera is free to raise the ISO when it needs to in order to maintain a nice fast shutter, eliminating motion blur.
- If you're still getting motion blur (unlikely) or the images are just too "dirty" looking (noisy - very common) then it's time for more LIGHT. Again, two options:
- Constant lighting: turn on all the lights in the room, or move the food next to a large window. Maybe get a desk lamp in there to brighten things up.
- Camera flash: as a last resort the flash will give you a fast shutter and clean images though it also gives that nuclear flash effect we know so well.
Special notes for DSLR users
- Fancy cameras with fast lenses are fun, but don't get carried away. Don't shoot wide open unless you can get all of the interesting parts in focus. That means use Av mode and wind it up until you're getting good Depth Of Field. Use the DoF Preview or review your shots and adjust as necessary. Razor thin DoF that only shows a fraction of the dish is a classic newbie bad habit and it's very frustrating for viewers who are actually interested in the food and not your lens.
- Use different angles. Get above the dish. For the love of god don't shoot every frame side on.
More Advanced Concepts
ISO, Shutter speed, and Aperture all make up something called the "Exposure Value." Most modern (circa mid 1970-present) cameras have built in meters that calculate this for you. Point and shoots will ask you for an ISO, and will vary shutter speed and aperture to generate a "correct" exposure. A "correct" exposure for most modern cameras is one that renders the average light intensity level across the entire picture (matrix metering) at 12% gray, that is, pure white being 0%, pure black being 100%. If you have a "spot meter" or "center weighted" meter function, it will only evaluate the center area at 12% gray.
Sometimes you want to deviate from "correct" exposure. These are cases when the majority of the picture is either in shadow or in highlight (low key, high key). In the former, your meter will try and render your shadows as gray, forcing you to lose highlight detail. The latter, you loose shadow detail because your meter underexposes your shot.
Given an exposure value, you can vary three things and they will result in the following effects.
- ISO: Higher for more light sensitivity at the cost of more noise, lower for less noise or grain at the cost of light sensitivity. Common values are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200 and the difference in exposure value between each of these steps is called a "stop."
- Shutter speed: Faster (smaller numbers) speeds "freeze" motion, including hand shake, at the expense of lower caught light (you need to compensate by increasing either ISO or aperture, or both). Slower blurs movement for surreal water effects, and implied motion at the expense of increased hand holding movement, requiring a tripod, and in some cases, the inability to take a shot because the exposure value is too high and you need a neutral density filter to cut the EV down (this is highly unlikely with food photography), this is most used for crazy beach shots that make the water look like fog, or busy touristy shots that make the tourists disappear. Shutter speed is your best tool for action shots:
Roasted chickpeas and pistachios
ISO:200, 1/60s, f/9, bounced flash
- Aperture: Measured in fractions of the focal length, this tells you how "wide open" your lens is. Common values of "f-stop" are f/4, f.5.6, f/8. Opening up your lens catches more light at the expense of "depth of field". Conversely, "Stopping down" your lens gives you more "depth of field" at the expense of less caught light. Depth of field is the amount of an image that is in focus. When your lens is in focus, there is a plane of perfect focus that lies parallel to the surface of your lens. Focus falls off from that plane at a rate proportional to the f-stop. There is something called the "hyperfocal" distance, but that's mostly for landscape photography, and is the distance to focus your lens so that "everything" is more or less in focus from 0ft to infinity. Aperture is your best tool to use for keeping the viewers attention on one particular item, feature, or component and letting the rest of the picture blur away into dreamy buttery "bokeh." The pleasantness of out of focus areas is called the lens' "bokeh." Bokeh smoothness is a function of number of aperture blades (more is better) and whether or not they are curved (curved is better), straight blades will render point highlights as "sunstars."
Norwegian Smoked Salmon and Caviar Cream Cheese on a Plain Bagel from Russ and Daughter's
ISO: 100, 1/1250s, f/1.8
Razor thin depth of field can be had by opening up your lens' aperture as wide as you can. You can also get narrower depth of field by using a "longer" lens.
For most DSLRs (APS-C sized sensors), anything longer than 50mm in focal length is considered a "telephoto." The longer the focal length, the narrower the depth of field. This comes at the expense of perceived space. The wider the lens, things that are far apart in the frame appear really far apart, conversely the longer the lens, the closer together things look as a function of distance from the camera. This effect is called "telephoto compression." To capture things as you'd "normally" see them people use a "normal" lens. 35mm for most DSLR's, 50mm for full frame DSLRs or 35mm film cameras. Anything shorter than about 30mm is a wide angle lens while anything wider than about 18mm while keeping straight lines, straight, is considered an ultra wide angle. Some of the shorter focal lengths bow the straight lines in pictures causing extreme distortion. The best use of telephoto lenses for food photography is if you want to compress distance, admittedly, this isn't often, but sometimes you do. Normal lenses are predominantly used for food photos, but sometimes you want to use a wide angle for perspective distortion. Wide angles can be used to "fit everything in" but this is a really bad use for them. Their best use is to get really close and use perspective to add distance and space on the plate often using the distortion to draw attention to one particular feature or item, careful consideration should be used when considering composition with wide angle lenses as there will often be a lot of unused or negative space.
A caveat here is that there is no such thing as a "wrong" composition, there are just better compositions. You compose images as you, personally, perceive them to look best in the frame. Many of these rules are really just observations from people in order to quantify something someone liked about someone else's picture into a rule. Consider these as guidelines to think of for making your own visualizations better. I'm no expert in compostion, I've just a lot of reading on it. I'll supply example pictures and a bit of what I was thinking when I composed the image.
- The "Rule of Thirds" is a basic tenant of composition.
The gist is that you want to mentally divide the picture into 9 segments, by dividing horizontally and vertically into thirds by placing things like horizons and subjects on lines of thirds or on their intersections. This "creates more tension, energy and interest" and yada yada, whatever, it just looks good that way.
The left half of the napoleon occupies the top third whereas the right half occupies the right third, the apex is placed on the intersection of the two thirds, the negative space between the two napoleon halves is filled with the microgreens.
Though sometimes you want to:
- Break the rule of thirds by centering the subject. This is best used in cases of high symmetry or for "empowering" the subject, which basically means you're giving the subject the majority of the attention in the picture.
I chose a top view because there wasn't any particular texture that would lead itself well to a side-on view. The top view has a bit of symmetry in the circular shape of the bowl, it also highlights the asymmetry in the toppings and condiments. Another nice thing about a top view, most of the interesting things lie in the plane of perfect focus.
- Leading lines are basically lines in the picture that "lead the eye" through the picture. You can do all kinds of things with them. You can place a line of sushi rolls in the center of the frame and use them as a leading line into a smooth bokeh background, you can use the edge of a plate and place it in a corner to lead the eye with a swooping leading line.
The curved line of strawberries leads the eye from the in-focus corner, to the out of focus opposite corner. The chopsticks lead the eye from the lower right hand corner to the subject.
- Fill the frame: If there's nothing else to look at, fill the frame with the subject.
I didn't feel that shooting this served in a bowl would add anything to it, so I just shot it in the pan, seeing as how everyone has seen a pan before, I filled the frame with the cioppino.
- Balance. This rule just means that if you put something on one side of the frame you should have something on the other side to balance the interest.
The curry fills the bottom half of the frame where as the rice and naan gives the eye something else to look at, balancing the image.
- Selective focus. In a multiple component dish, what should be in focus? What shouldn't or doesn't need to be? I tend to think that things of interesting texture should be in focus, things that are commonplace or those that are of boring texture can be placed out of focus. In the above image, I felt that most everyone has seen rice and naan and the subject of interest was the curry so I chose an aperture that still made the naan and rice recognizable as being on the plate and focused on the curry.
One nice thing about food photography as opposed to wildlife or landscapes is that you, as cook, have control over how the food looks not only in the frame but on the plate as well. If you plate with the picture in mind, there will be less to think about when it comes to picture composition.
- Ambient light, when luminous enough, will provide a more natural looking picture. IMO the best light source for shooting food photos is overcast daylight. In this case, the sky is one gigantic softbox of diffuse light of one temperature which is easy to properly white balance. But you can't always shoot during the day in between storms, one inevitably runs across the problem of dwindling ambient light and has to resort to faster glass with sacrificed depth of field, or light sources.
- Hot and cool lights are basically light bulbs in light sockets, hot lamps are incandescents, cool lamps are compact florescents (CFLs). These are probably the cheapest way to get into added light, and they're very beginner friendly. No triggers, syncs, cables, etc. What you see is what you get. What you definitely don't want to do is mix light source types. If you pick one type of bulb and use more than one source, use the same type of bulb in every socket and turn off ambient sources that are of a different type.
- Hot shoe strobes sit in the accessory shoe of your camera and are fired by an electronic switch that is flipped whenever you engage the shutter. Modern flashes are very intelligent. They fire off an initial burst in order to gauge how powerful it needs to be to properly expose the image then they fire off another burst which is synced with the shutter and is perfectly bright enough. With older flashes you have to bust out your thinking caps with guide numbers, flash power fractions and distances in order to get a proper exposure. Many hot shoe type flashes can be controlled with a wireless commander. This means that you can use your flash off camera for dramatic side lit shots or supplement with multiple sources. If you use a flash with an ambient light source or a hot/cool light, you should have a colored gel to velcro over the bulb so that the temperature of the flash matches the temperature of the other light sources, more on this in "White Balance."
- Studio strobes. I know little to nothing about studio strobes, and something tells me that if you're reading this, you don't need them, so I won't even try.
- Diffusion and Bouncing. Since bouncing is most often just another type of diffusion, I'll group these together. The most used form of bouncing is off the ceiling. This mimics a ceiling light source and produces very natural results. You can also bounce off of poster boards (white or colored). You can also diffuse light with an umbrella or a soft box in order to have a less intense source of light.
Modern cameras try their hardest, but under many circumstances, pictures just look weird. Why? Often it is because the camera incorrectly set the white balance. Various light sources may appear white to the naked eye but once on film or captured by a sensor, have weird shifts in color. Incandescents can appear intensely orange, florescents can appear greenish, shade can be a very cold blue, etc. Each of these can alter how delicious your food shot's will look. White balance sets the intensity of the primary colors with respect to each other such that if you were to take a picture of something gray, it would actually be rendered as gray, not amber, not greenish or bluish, but gray. The easiest way to correct the white balance is to get a gray card and take a RAW picture of it in the same lighting conditions as the picture you want to fix, then in Adobe Camera Raw, use the white balance tool on the gray card to set the white balance. Then save this as a preset and apply it to the other picture (you shot that in RAW, too, right? oh you didn't...) You can also fix it with the a curves adjustment layer. On the left hand side there are three little dropper tools. Use the middle one to set the white balance, if you have exposure problems, you can use the black one to set shadow levels and the white one to set highlight levels. Or you can do it the hard way, adjusting the curves.
Curves may look daunting, but once you get used to them, they're not so bad. Lets start with the RGB curve. This sets the intensity of the highlights and the darkness of the shadows. Overlaid, you should see a histogram. That histogram tells you about your current image, how intense certain light levels in your image are. More stuff on the left hand side means that there is a lot of shadow, more stuff in the middle means that there are a lot of midtones, more on the right means there are a lot of highlights. Through the middle from corner to corner there is a line. You can add points and increase or decrease the amount of shadow, midtone, and highlight you want in your picture. In order to increase contrast, you want to darken the shadows and increase the highlights creating an S-curve. Vice versa if you want to decrease contrast. You can also adjust the curves of each of the primary colors, Red, Green, and Blue. The power of the curves adjustment layer is that you can adjust the white balance in the highlights, midtones, and shadows separately and use layer masks to fix multiple light source color balancing issues. Here are a few tips:
- Subtracting red makes things cyan, so if you try and remove a light blue cast from something, and it's just making things yellow and not removing all of the blue, try adding a bit of red.
- Subtracting green makes things magenta. Likewise with light red casts, try adding a bit of green.
- Subtracting blue makes things yellow. And with warm green casts, try adding a bit of blue.