Editor's note: Photography is part of what makes Foodspotting special, and many of you have expressed interest in ways to create better photos. We've asked one of our users, Clay Williams, aka Ultraclay to share his professional tips with you.
Greetings Foodspotters! After Amy's awesome field guide on iPhone food photography, she asked me to follow up with a similar post about shooting food with an SLR. It's a little more complicated than using an iPhone, but I'm going to try to keep it simple.
Let's start with my gear, I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II. It's full frame camera, so called because the sensor inside is the same size as a 35mm strip of film. Most DSLRs out there (like the Canon 7D, 60D and Rebel series, for example) have smaller, cropped sensors, which cut off between a third and half of the frame. It's a good idea to figure out which you have before choosing a lens.
The lens I use most often for food (and just about everything else) is the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens. It lets me get close up on the dish at the table, but also pull back to the rest of the table and even the whole room. Every now and then, I'll switch to a fixed 50mm f/1.8 if I want to get more light in a particularly dark room.
For basically the same reasons, I used the super-wide EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5 and the 35mm f/2 when I shot with a camera with a cropped sensor.
Shooting with a wide open aperture (the lower f stop numbers) also adjusts how much of your subject is in focus. A perfectly sharp area with everything else blurred out can look pretty cool, but it can get a little boring for shot after shot, so try to branch out a little where the light allows it.
Speaking of lighting, in a dim dining room, it may seem like using your flash is the only way to get a good photo. Please, don't do it. There are plenty of reasons not to use the flash in a restaurant, not the least of which being it usually won't make a better picture, but the biggest one for me is 'don't be a jerk.' As frustrating as it can be to fight with lighting in a dark or oddly lit restaurant, it's worse to get blinded by someone else's flash while enjoying a meal. It's not worth it, especially when you have so many other options.
The first among these options is raising your ISO. The higher the ISO you use, the brighter the image, but the trade off is that the quality of the image degrades leaving a lot of visual noise and very few sharp edges.
The acceptable range of ISO changes with every new DSLR released. On my old Canon 30D, anything above ISO 800 became sort of abstract. I shot the photo above at ISO 800 on my current camera and it's pretty clear.
Whenever I'm being seated at a restaurant, I try to get as close to a window as possible. The light coming in from outside is almost always better than the in-house lighting.
Next, take advantage of the tools at hand. Amy mentioned the use of well-placed candles. Even better, you've probably got a portable lightbox in your pocket. Your cell phone screen can be used to illuminate your dish for shots like this. If you've got one, a tablet is even better, covering a wider area and casting fewer shadows.
Besides figuring out if you have enough light, the color of the light can make or break your photo if you don't compensate for it. The warm lighting that makes us feel so comfortable when dining often ends up looking like the muddy orange mess, above. But with the right settings, it can turn into this:
Experiment with the white balance settings on your camera. The presets for tungsten, florescent, daylight, clouds and shade are relatively straightforward. Each adjusts for common light sources by adding more blue or red to compensate. I've found that playing with custom white balances help out a lot, but that delves too much into geekery for the purposes of this post.
You should also always shoot RAW. Even if you master the in-camera white balance settings, you're going to have to do some adjustments on the computer and the options RAW allows with color and exposure alone are worth the extra space your photos will take up on your hard drive.
Once you've figured out all the settings, you're down to the important part - the composition. In a restaurant, a lot of that is done for you when the dish is plated. The job of the photographer becomes to make sure you get the best angle. Here are a couple options.
Show some context, include other food on the table in the background:
Shoot from above and get a bird's eye view:
Get in close, let the food fill the entire frame:
Put the lens at table level for a plate-side perspective:
Get a cross section view:
There are any number of other perspectives that can result in great photos, the key is just to try as many of them as you can. Shooting everything from the same angle is an easy way to get bored with your work very quickly.