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First of all, I don't know anything about taking food pics, and I just started about 3 weeks ago. My website is at http://www.simplyfreshcooking.com/.

I'm wondering how to make the best out of the lens I currently have, because in doing research, it seems that I probably don't have the correct lens for taking excellent food pics.. but I can't afford to buy a new lens right now.

Any advice would be so helpful. So far, I've learned how much a white board helps with shadows, and I'm in the process of getting a tripod so I can begin to learn how to use the camera settings.

Any tips for a serious newbie?

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Possible duplicate of photo.stackexchange.com/questions/2544/… –  ElendilTheTall Mar 31 '12 at 19:59
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In terms of a lens, even the cheapest canon lens, the 50mm f/1.8, would be a huge, huge step in the right direction. But I really do understand not being able to afford lenses. –  rfusca Mar 31 '12 at 20:26
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Could not agree more with @rfusca. This lens can be had for $100 and it will be a huge improvement. –  Jakub Mar 31 '12 at 23:37
    
@rfusca with a reversing ring or even without it? –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 1 '12 at 8:46
    
@Anisha - most food shots don't need macro –  rfusca Apr 1 '12 at 14:37

4 Answers 4

The one thing that food photography, especially for the web, is not about is a lot of expensive equipment. The gear you have right now is entirely adequate, at least in terms of camera and lens. (That said, you may want to buy a 35mm or 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8 at some point in the future, not because they're "better lenses", but because they will let you really restrict how much of the dish is in focus—and they're relatively cheap as these things go.) For a lot of types of photography, a kit 18-55mm lens would be inadequate, but with food photography you're almost always working in very tight to the subject, so you don't pay a huge penalty for the smaller maximum aperture. And if you're shooting primarily for the web, your final images are going to be small enough that the slight softness and imperfections of the kit lens are going to be mostly eliminated when the image is resized.

Food photography, though, can be a fairly involved process. What you're doing is normally the job of two professionals: the photographer and the food stylist. The stylist's job is to create the Platonic ideal of the dish and its environment; the photographer's job is to capture that Platonic ideal in pixels (or on film).

Food styling often means cheating a bit. That cheating can range from building a dish on a scaffold that would never be used in an actual plating (like filling the bottom of a soup bowl with glass marbles so that the chunky bits of the soup are forced to break the surface) to misting fresh ingredients to make them look fresh, to oiling cooked elements to make them look juicy. (Believe it or not, WD40 is sort of the industry standard, although you could probably get the same sort of effect using a plant mister or a pastry brush and a light safflower or canola oil without the petroleum smell/taste.) It's not so much a matter of outright lying—you're trying to compensate for the fact that there is only one of the five senses in play in a picture. You may need to undercook and over-char some foods to make them look "real" and appetizing; the food as it's actually served would look overcooked and greyish in a picture. You probably don't want to get too extreme with this, although it can go pretty far (some of the most mouth-watering food pictures ever taken were of things that would not only taste horrible, but would be unsafe for consumption). The food is the bride on its wedding day; the fact that it's never actually looked that way before and probably never will again doesn't matter.

The photography part is mostly about lighting (composition is largely folded into styling). It's not just about getting the exposure right and eliminating unwanted shadows, it's about getting the highlights where you want them. A single, simple reflector (like the white board you mentioned) is good for the gross adjustment of contrast, but you'll usually need to add little pockets of light and shadow here and there. White, black and silver reflectors see a lot of use in food photography—little bits of card, with those triangular fold-out picture stands you can get in most craft stores glued to the back, come in very handy. You can keep them just out of the frame, or hide them behind things in the picture. They're cheap and easy to make, and you really can't have enough of them or have enough different sizes.

The object of the game is to have all of the marvelous colors of the food come through in the picture, and to make everything (with the possible exception of mahtso—even cakes and breads need a little life) look something other than dry. Dry is a killer.

Lighting is easiest if you start with something above and behind the food. That can be window light (through what are variously called "sheers" or "net curtains"), a softbox (if you get commercially serious) or bounced light from a lamp or a flash. That will tend to lend an overall sheen to the entire dish, which is often desirable. It's not a hard-and-fast rule (there are very, very few of those in any genre of photography), but it's a good, safe place to start.

Above all, look at what other people are doing. Look at magazines like Fine Cooking and Fine Dining, along with foodie web sites, and try to see where the lights have to be coming from in order to give the highlights and shadows you are seeing. Pay attention to how the pictures are composed—that tends to follow trends, and being too far away from the current expectations can have a negative impact on how your own photos are received, no matter how technically or artistically good they may be.

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+1 An excellent answer. Always enjoy your insight. –  Jakub Mar 31 '12 at 23:57
    
Just... make sure you don't eat the food. –  muntoo Apr 4 '12 at 2:22

You really don't need any more equipment, especially for a web site, what you do need is:

  1. To learn how to compose interesting and mouth watering pictures - pick up several good looking cookbooks and look at the pictures, from what angles do they take the picture, how do they arrange the food, etc.

  2. Learn how to light direction and quality effect the photo - look at the pictures again and try find the light sources by looking at the shadows (hint #1: never use the camera's built in flash, hint #2: the best light is window light a little before sunset, hint #3: a big white piece of paper or some aluminum foil in the opposite direction than the light source can reflect light and reduce shadows).

    -- the previous two items are the most important, do not continue until you master them --

  3. Get he right exposure - the camera will not correctly expose a scene that is mostly light colors (milk, cream, white plates, etc.) or mostly dark colors (dark chocolate) you should learn to correct the auto mode (I wrote about it on my blog shooting white objects, shooting dark objects).

    -- the third item is tricky, but it is just technical stuff, again, don't continue with the list until you master it --

  4. After you master the previous 3 items, shoot raw and learn how to edit, if you get the first 3 items right you will only need a little bit of editing (a little color correction goes a long way) if you mess up the first 3 items editing isn't going to help much.

  5. Get an external flash (a cheap one like the $40 YN-460 is enough), a flash is harder to use than natural light so do so only after you're happy with how you light your photos, the flash will expend your optimal shooting time from about an hour a day before sunset to all day and all night.

  6. Off-camera flash, light modifiers, multiple flashes... - after you master the use of your flash you will see light is the most important thing in the photo (after composition) - especially if you downsize your photos for the web (problems with the lens quality are only visible at large sizes)

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What you have is enough to take great photographs. Please don't buy more gear thinking it will make your photos look great. I learned this lesson the hard way; with my wallet.

First understand how to get proper exposure. Exposure Triangle
Also, a must read in my opinion: Understanding Exposure, look for it on Amazon.

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I did buy Understanding Exposure when I first started taking pictures based on a recommendation - but I really did not like it. The author uses simple analogies that just don't work and the tone was way to patronizing for my taste. It's a matter of personal opinion though, obviously. –  SoftMemes Mar 31 '12 at 20:42
    
@Freed I agree. But I noticed, for a lot of novice photographers, this is a great starting point. One thing about books, you can buy it, take notes, and resell it. Money you lost (or invested) is knowledge gained. However, words on paper are nothing if you don't pick up the camera and practice (take a lot of crappy photos; that's OK!). –  Alen Mar 31 '12 at 20:55
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I just never think that dumbing something down until the message gets lots is a good foundation to build on. +1 for taking pictures, but you'll do the same thing wrong a thousand times if you don't have the framework for understanding what your controls are. –  SoftMemes Mar 31 '12 at 21:03

Recently DRTV took up the Cheap Food Photography Challenge. If you're familiar with DRTV, its more of the same. If you're not, then I warn you - these videos aren't too serious... (Well, not serious at all actually)... But this should give you some good ideas by the end.

If you like a laugh too, I recommend checking out the rest of the DRTV videos. They are hilarious... :)

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