Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I've recently purchased a "nifty fifty" lens for my food photography. I've noticed that when I'm taking photos of my food, I just can't seem to get the focus down.

For example, when I get my shot set up, I might have 1 bowl of soup with another bowl of soup sitting behind it and just to the left. Underneath the bowl of soup that's in the front of the photo might be a towel laying on a cutting board. The problem is that when I take a shot from an eye-level angle, the towel and cutting board are showing up very clear and in focus, but the bowl of soup is not. How can I get the bowl of soup (and everything in the front of the shot) to show up clear and crisp?

If you provide an answer to my question, please answer with the understanding that I'm not really sure of all the "technical" lingo. I'm super new to this, and have found my photo shoots very frustrating with this new lens. I think I'll like it better than my spec lens, but I need some help learning how to use it.

I use a Canon EOS Rebel T1i 15.1 MP CMOS DSLR

Beef and Potato Curry

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Related: How can I get more of this macro photo in focus? –  mattdm Oct 30 '12 at 22:21
1  
Excellent question. Overall great photo, composition, color, exposure, etc. If you can nail the focus - which the answers here should help with, you should be well on your way to great food photography! –  dpollitt Oct 30 '12 at 23:07
    
I like your composition, you have a good eye. I think the problem, like others are suggesting, is that your lens is too wide open. You have a nifty fifty, I'll guess the f/1.8 version, so set the aperture to something f/5.6 or f/8 and try again, I think you'll get better results. –  John Cavan Oct 31 '12 at 3:56
    
At close distances you may have to stop down to f/11 or f/16 if you want everything in focus –  Matt Grum Oct 31 '12 at 10:58
    
Nice shot. In my opinion you should stick the focus on the garnish on the front plate - it appears to be on the frontmost piece of multicoloured fabric. Then experiment with stopping down as others have mentioned. I'm no food or product photographer but I find with wildlife, if I have the point of maximum focus exactly on the creature's eye, I can get away with a shallower depth of field than you'd expect. Also, if you're using a tripod, use live view with maximum magnification to get your focus exactly where you want it. –  vlad259 Oct 31 '12 at 12:32

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Rachael, it sounds like your aperture is set to a wide aperture (low f-number), allowing lots of light in, but at the expense of a very narrow 'depth-of-field'. This creates a thin slice of focus where anything before or after is blurry.

Let's assume you're 2 feet away from your subject when taking a photo with your 50mm lens. Most common SLR 50mm lenses have the widest aperture (size of the hole that lets light into) of about 1.8. It's what makes the 'nifty-fifty' a great lens - lots of light is good!

I don't know which camera you're using so let's estimate.

Using this online depth of field calculator you'll see that in the above situation your total depth of field is approximately .3ft or 3.6 inches deep. That creates a very narrow area in your shot that will be in focus. Now if you move the aperture setting on your camera to a larger number (smaller hole) your depth of field will increase.

Let's say you bump it up to f4. At 2ft away from your subject your depth of field is now .7ft or 8.4 inches.

The result however, is that your now letting less light into your camera and will need to adjust your shutter speed or ISO to compensate. I'd start with the shutter speed first - letting the camera expose for longer and see what happens.


This answer does a good job explaining depth of field terminology.

While a bit technical, this article does a good job explaining the correlation between aperture, focal length and distance to your subject.

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3  
Important to note: "large f-stop" here means a small f number. –  mattdm Oct 31 '12 at 0:38
    
edited as "large f-stop" is a particularly confusing way to say it! I prefer to talk about "wide apertures" and "narrow apertures" as numbers are neither narrow nor wide so there is less confusion. –  Matt Grum Oct 31 '12 at 10:54
    
Good points. Thanks for the edits. –  ckoerner Oct 31 '12 at 15:31
  1. Use a lower fstop
  2. Stack focus. Meaning take multiple images with focus point varying a little each time and then merge them together.
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When you put the camera up to your eye and press halfway on the shutter, the camera will pre-focus and either one or many of the focus points will light up(red) in the viewfinder. This is the camera telling you which focus points it plans on using if you fully press the shutter button. It also tells you which parts of the image will be sharpest and in focus the most.

In the standard fully automatic(green square) mode on the top dial - the camera automatically chooses what it thinks are the best focus points to use. This isn't always the best though, and the camera can get it wrong. You can alter which of the 9 focus points the camera will use by putting it into P(program) mode on the top dial - then using the four way controlled on the back of the camera to select a point. Do this while looking through the viewfinder and you will see different focus points light up(red) to indicate that they are selected.

Once you follow the above process, you can do one of two things that I would recommend.

  • You can select the center focus point, focus where you want the focus to be using that center point, then recompose the image to your liking. This is typically called the "focus and recompose method". It isn't 100% perfect, but it is one very popular option for doing this.
  • You can select a focus point that is closest to the spot that you would like the focus to be sharpest. In the example that you have, you probably would select either the middle point or whichever point falls over the front bowl that you would like in focus. Doing this, you do not need to recompose the image, as the focus point already falls over the desired subject.

Finally another option would be to manually focus. You are likely working on a tripod in most cases for food photography, and if you are working with a macro or near macro lens - manual focusing is almost a requirement. This way you can focus exactly as you desire, and know exactly what you are focusing on with confidence in each shot.

Overall, great image, I think you are on the right path to great food photography!

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This sounds to be a simple matter of you not focusing on the right part of the image. You don't mention what camera you have, but if it's a DSLR it will have the ability to spot focus.

Spot focus lets you manually determine what the camera autofocuses on rather than leaving it up to the camera to decide. You will be able to select it in your camera's interface.

The other alternative is to simply flick your lens to manual focus and focus, erm, manually on the soup bowl (or whatever else).

If you are finding that not enough of the bowl is in focus then you need to close the aperture (increase the ƒ-number) to give a deeper depth of field.

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Hi! I'm using a Canon EOS Rebel T1i 15.1 MP DSLR –  Rachael Abel Oct 30 '12 at 22:55
    
You should have no problems spot focusing in that case. –  ElendilTheTall Oct 31 '12 at 6:40

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