Ikuradon - Salmon Roe with Rice at Ichimiann in Torrance, CA
First off, let me say that most of what I shoot is on-location. I don't really shoot as much at home, with ideal lighting, and a specific place where I shoot my own food. I shoot at restaurants like many other food bloggers. Our cameras are often considered our weapon, or definitive feature, but I think we can be civil about it. I try to use my camera to take a quick snap of what I'm eating, and then move to actually eating.
It’s pretty much a no-brainer but the easiest thing to do to improve your food photos in a restaurant is: Lighting.
Nope, just because you have a big camera, a digital SLR, or an expensive Canon G11 or S90 camera doesn’t mean you will have good photos. The best thing you can do is sit where the lighting is, such as next to windows, or just go when its daylight. I sometimes just resign to not even taking photos at a super-dim restaurant. Most of the time I’m trying to enjoy my dinner with my date, family, or friends anyways, so a camera really just muddles the dinner.
Flashing (not that kind) is generally inconsiderate of other diners, but if you’re in a place where people won’t care, then I say flash away. If you have a remote flash device, or something you can use to bounce flashes off white ceilings, go ahead and be my guest. Just expect some annoyed diners next to you. I say if you’re at a relatively casual restaurant you can get away with this, but rule of thumb is – don’t use flash.
Next, focal length. For most small digital point-and-shoots, many of which are more than adequate to take excellent food photos, the problem is zooming in. Zooming in increases your aperture (think of it as the size of the hole that light goes through in the lens). Even most SLR (which means single-lens reflex, for your information) kit lenses have variable apertures that change as you zoom in. Most kit lenses range f3.5 – f5.6, which means you get a very small aperture as you zoom past 35-40mm. If you zoom in all the way, then may get a photo like this red raspberry leaf at Monterrey Spice Company.
Ideally if you have a digital point-and-shoot, just shoot as zoomed out as possible if you’re in a dimmer setting, and crop the photo.
Duck confit at Canele.
As for SLRs, there are a few lenses/focal lens I recommend. If you can swing a 24-60mm or 24-70mm f2.8, it’s worth using if you don’t mind a massive zoom lens while dining out. I used to use this, but found that it’s not as practical as a smaller prime lens (meaning fixed focal length, or non-zoom). The next lens of choice is often a 50mm f1.8 for savvy, budget-conscious shooters, or a 50mm f1.4 for those who need that extra half-aperture (mostly useless as it just makes photos fuzzy and unclear) or think that it will really help them shoot in low light and have the willingness to spend 3-4 times as much as the f1.8.
Problem is, with cropped sensors, you’re getting an effective focal length of around 75mm! That’s a pretty un-useable focal length of shooting food photography, especially since your depth of field (the part that stays sharp or non-blurry) is razor thin. I tried using this focal length for a while but ended up ditching it after trying to deal with this difficult lens during lunches/dinners.
I’m much happier with a 35mm f2 lens, which I purchased off of Craigslist for a reasonable price. It’s an older, louder lens than the 35mm f1.8 which Nikon released for the price of $200. This lens is virtually identical to mine except that is focuses on Nikon’s lower range of SLRs.
Lastly, get creative! Shoot from different angles, with different subjects. Shoot people as well as food. Be funny, spontaneous, and interesting. Sometimes we're too business-like when shooting food photos.
• Rest your elbows on the table to stabilize the photos.
• Sit next to windows for optimal lighting.
• Try not to shoot a dish more than 2 ways. It gets annoying.
• Enjoy your food more than shooting it. You’ll last longer this way.
• Don’t get too food-porny unless the dish is really that attractive. Closeup on sludge does precisely the opposite of whetting appetites.
• Use your white balance by either setting it manually with an available “white” (i.e. napkin or menu), or use a preset, which will invariably be better than Auto White Balance. Even most point-and-shoots have white balance settings – use them!
Post processing tips:
In general I don’t like to fiddle too much with my photos though many people can do this quite successfully on Photoshop. I mostly use Picasa for basic editing and occasional use Photoshop for anything more serious.
If you don’t have Photoshop, using iPhoto or Picasa can help you if your pics don’t come out as ideal. First tip – levels. Bump up your levels if the photo is too dim. Then, sharpen. Most cameras, if you’re shooting with JPEG, don’t have the sharpest in-camera processor for this. Finally, adjust saturation and contrast to stylize the photo. Don’t mess with hues or colors unless you didn’t white balance your photo.
Crop and save at optimal size before posting on Flickr, Photobucket, or whatever. Try to resize since you don’t want people trying to surf your site to have to load 18 megabytes of photos every time they load the URL.
My recommended cameras:
Nikon D40/D40x/D60 – Definitely older now but no less useful for good food photography. I generally don't like to get the earliest model of a camera because they're usually not as revolutionary as camera companies want you to think. You could easily slap on a Nikkor 35mm F1.8 for a mere $200 (or less) and take stunning photos.
Nikon D5000 – The “quiet” mode makes it one of the most quiet cameras in the market. Could be elegantly used at your friendly-neighborhood Michelin starred restaurant, when paired with the excellent 35mm f1.8 lens.
Nikon D90 – Probably my favorite overall camera, with its gorgeous 3 inch screen (which has 920,000 pixels, which is as good as the $7,300 D3X professional grade camera). I use a D50 since I haven’t had the opportunity to splurge on the D90, which has excellent low-light capabilities in its sensor. I would argue that the D90 is the most ideal camera for shooting food photography since it combines a great sensor with wonderful ergonomics in a smallish package. A D300s, D700, or D3/D3X is overkill for food photography, unless you’re a pro/semi-pro.
Canon S90 – Overpriced but its F2 lens makes it the ideal compact camera for low-light photography. If you cannot fit an SLR in your purse or pocket, which is most people, then this might be a sensible option.
Canon SD780 - I like its miniature size and HD video capabilities. Not bad if you are on a budget.
Canon SLRs – generally I don’t recommend them because they’re more expensive than Nikon SLRs. You can use the difference of price on lenses or a meal at Urasawa. While certainly very good, I prefer Nikons since they’re better to use (easier button layout, better menus, more comfortable in hand), but Canon SLRs do have the advantage of being able to autofocus any lens made after 1986. Nikon’s lowest line of SLRs can’t autofocus a lot of lenses. If you were to get a Canon SLR, I like the T1. The 50D/7D is too stodgy, big and overpriced, the 5D MkII is professional grade and probably out of reach budgetwise for most people. If you can swing that much on a camera, you’ve got other priorities than food photography.
Other sundry cameras – Sony point-and-shoots are decent. Canon’s larger point and shoots might even be better than the SD line, at a cheaper price. Fujifilm’s known to have some good low-light cameras but they’re also more expensive. Nikon’s point-and-shoots are okay, especially the lower line, for the money. Pentax SLRs are pretty great, especially their line of prime lenses. Olympus and Panasonic are decent, though not head-shoulders better than anyone else (except some of Panasonic’s high-end cameras). If you use medium format on food photography I might hurt you for wasting the film (maybe Holga is okay). I would LOVE to see someone lug a 4x5 view camera (used for landscape) into a restaurant. I would snort out my milk or sangria in laughter.
Lenses: 35mm on cropped sensor; kit lenses are swell; 24-60mm or 24-70mm. Sigma makes some good macro lenses and zoom lenses that are more reasonably priced than Nikon’s or Canon’s. If you get a $1600 24-70mm f2.8, you must not be shooting food photography for fun. Email me at mattatouille (at) gmail (dot) com if you want a more tailored lens recommendation. I won't promise the quickest response, but I'll try to work with what you have/what you want, and we'll go from there.
In the end, the point of food photography is for us to enjoy once more what we've consumed at the table. It's about showing others what we've delicious (or sometimes not) eaten at restaurants, eateries, bakeries, coffeeshops, and joints. I hope all of this makes it easier for us to do that, as fellow foodies, bloggers, and gourmands alike.