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I have a little secret to share with you - you don't actually need to be a trained photographer to take good pictures nowadays. But you do need a good eye for composition, at least one good lens and a good camera. And that means a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera.
I use an older Nikon D50 DSLR that my husband got years ago and I quickly adopted as my own. It's old and very weak compared with the current models but still serves me very well. When I upgrade, I will opt for either the Canon EOS 6D or the Nikon D7100 as those are the choices that my blogger friends who take amazing photographs all seem to like.
But if you're just starting out and are not independently wealthy, the Canon EOS Rebel would also be a good option.
In order to do food photography right, it's important to have a macro lens - this allows you to take those mouth-watering close-ups. You have two options:
1. Shell out the serious money and get yourself a true macro lens. If you go that route, I'd recommend purchasing either a Nikon 50mm f/1.4G or a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, depending on which brand you use.
- OR -
2. Get a much cheaper and very serviceable Nikon 50mm f/1.8D lens or a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. I have one of these and find that it's pretty great for everything except extreme closeups and shots where you want a really deep depth of field (blurry in one area and sharp in another.) If you're on a budget (and most of us are!), this might be a good option for you. You can always upgrade later on.
Although natural light is the best light (bonus points for it being completely free!) it is not always available... You may not get great light where you have to take most of your pix or you may end up doing photo shoots after dark - it's pretty hard to get around the need for artificial light in the winter months. But the good news is that you can buy things that are almost as good as natural light and are always available.
One essential is this tabletop fluorescent light by Lowel EGO that is designed specifically for digital photography. I learned about this from Lindsay at Pinch of Yum and although I was a little skeptical about turning all the lights off and just using this at first, I am a total convert! It beats the pants off the crappy, yellow light cast by my kitchen overheads and allows me to shoot decent photos after dark or on rainy days. Now to reshoot eight years worth of poorly lit photos... You may even want to get more than one of these lights to give yourself more flexibility.
Thankfully, these can be very cheap. You can either buy a set of these collapsible reflectors or just use a few pieces of white foam or cardboard to bounce light back at your food, thereby improving your lighting! My food photography teacher, Phil Mansfield (a great guy who is the staff photographer for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY) offers this basic advice: shoot into the light and bounce that light back onto what you're shooting using reflectors.
This three-legged companion can help you make the best of less than ideal lighting. By allowing you to shoot in perfect stillness, it gives you a little more play so you can use a slower shutter speed and let more light in in a low-light situation. Plus, everything just ends up looking better when your hand is not jiggling. And there's this psychological component to it, too, I think. Knowing that you'll set up the shoot with a tripod makes you take more care with your styling, your props, your lighting, etc. Weird but true.
I use a cheap Slik Sprint 150 tripod which is plenty tall and reasonably sturdy but still lightweight if I have to take it anywhere. And I recommend using a sand bag or a stone bag to weight it down so that it does not wobble or topple over with your camera on top of it. Kind of a must with small kids around but a good idea for anyone.
Photo Editing Software
Even if you're taking good photos, your job will almost always require some manipulation of those photos to make them look the best you can. Professionals call this "post-production" and it includes things like cropping, rotating, adjusting lighting, contrast, midtones, saturation, etc., to make the image really pop. These tools make all those things easier.
Adobe Photoshop is still the gold standard for photo editing - it's the most powerful tool available to manipulate your images and will give you more fine grained controls than anything else out there. Photoshop Elements is probably more than enough for you and it's a bit cheaper than regular Photoshop, too.
The tool people seem to love (but I have not tried) is Adobe Lightroom. I may have to invest in a license soon. If you're interested in giving it a shot, here's a great tutorial on how to use it from Marc at No Recipes.
Aviary via Flickr
I have a Flickr Pro account that I use to store my photos (well, that's one of the places I store them - always have a back up - more on that below!) and I end up doing some of my image manipulation in Aviary, the online tool they offer. They used to partner with Picnik which was definitely more powerful but Aviary is certainly more convenient than opening up Photoshop or Lightroom if you're in a rush.
When I first started blogging way back in 2006, graphics were not such a big thing. But with the rise of Pinterest and Facebook, they've become a necessity. The good news is that you don't need to be a graphic designer to put together something that looks nice. There are a lot of tools available - many of them free or cheap and I'm sure there will be more. Here are a few of the ones I like.
I've had a copy of Adobe Photoshop for about ten years and still use it fairly often in combination with the other tools below. I took a one-day class many years ago that helped me get started and even though I barely scratch the surface of its functionality, I appreciate everything it offers me. You can buy a copy of Photoshop Elements more cheaply than full Photoshop and it does pretty much everything you'll need to do.
Canva is a pretty awesome web-based tool for creating graphics. It offers you the ability to choose from their many, many layouts (many or most of which are free) and pop in your own photos and text to make professional looking graphics. I find their font selection kind of limited but imagine that they'll end up expanding it.
PicMonkey is another of my favorite online tools. Their free selection is fairly robust and they've got a lot of cool things to choose from and are always adding new fonts, backgrounds, filters, etc. I particularly love how their tool lets me choose from either their fonts or the ones installed on my computer since I've added a lot to my font library.
If you're going to take a lot of digital photographs, it's best to have a safe way to store them.
First of all, you'll most likely want to get a larger memory card for your camera, especially if you take your images in RAW format or shoot videos. This SanDisk Extreme PRO memory card should do the trick nicely.
Back Up Drive/External Hard Drive
Then you'll want a back up hard drive to store them on. I use a WD Elements portable hard drive - it's small and connects via USB and gives me a whopping 2 Terrabytes of storage (you can get one that offers more storage, too, of course.)
But since hard drives can and do crash and burn sometimes, it's a good idea to also store your files somewhere else. You can do this in "the cloud" if you wish. I use Flickr Pro or you could use Google's Picasa (it's free).
Or you can use one of the paid back-up services like iDrive which I used at my old job - I like that it gives you the choice of whether to back-up certain files and is unobtrusive - it just runs in the background. I've also used Carbonite but found it a bit clunkier and more annoying.
I'm not an expert in this but I have gleaned some lessons either the hard way or by reading about them from people who are experts. Things like:
- Use small bowls and plates - it's much easier to make food look abundant if you're not filling a football field-sized container.
- Think about the story you're trying to tell with your photo and your food. Do you want to show a perfect muffin or would it be more compelling to show a half eaten muffin surrounded by crumbs? Bea at La Tartine Gourmande is really good at this! She's also got great, very charming props.
- Be intentional about the mood you're striving for. And it need not be all sunshine and light - darker lighting can create great atmosphere.
- Don't be afraid to mess things up - while perfect is impressive it can also be kind of boring and probably does not tell a very interesting story.
- Including a human touch can bring your image to life - a hand in blurry motion, a fork swooping in for a bite, etc.
- Tasty Food Photography e-book by Lindsey at Pinch of Yum. This may have been the best $29 I ever spent!
- There's also the wonderful book, Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by Helene Dujardin if you prefer something you can hold in your hands and thumb through.
- White on Rice Couple has a fantastic series of blog posts about the fundamentals of food photography - they cover pretty much everything - it's an education. Start here.
- I enjoyed this short video about New York Times food photographer, Andrew Scrivani's process. Thanks to my photographer friend, Dion Ogust for sending me the link.
- Lindsay at Pinch of Yum has some great tips on this.
- This post from Alida at Simply Delicious is also good.
- Just for fun, here's a snarky essay on 10 food blog trends that should stop (spoiler alert: stripey straws are one of them) by my friend, Sean of Punk Domestics.
- Use Real Butter
- La Tartine Gourmande
- Apartment 2 Baking Co.
- Dash & Bella
- Jennifer May Photography - my friend here in New York's Hudson Valley who does incredible food photography, including some of my favorite cookbooks and who sometimes gets assigned to shoot the photos for restaurant reviews or stories I'm writing for local food publications (so fun!)
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