During the summer of 2013, I scoured the internet reading reviews of DSLR cameras, asked advice from camera-savvy friends, saved up lots of money, and went to a local photography store to purchase my first DSLR camera and lens. From the minute I held that camera in my hands, I was in love. I began to completely change my approach to photography, and the photos on my blog transformed:
Nearly all of my photography knowledge is self-taught, with the help of some friends along the way. After a few months shooting with a DSLR, I began to develop a routine and personal style of shooting photos.
I take a very minimalist approach with my photography, much like I do with my recipes. You’ll often see plain white or black backgrounds, as I want the sole focus to remain on the food. When I first started blogging, I only used natural light. Now I use a combination of natural and artificial light (it’s about half and half).
Natural Light vs. Artificial Light
Some bloggers swear by natural light and say it’s the only way to go. I disagree, and believe it’s a matter of personal preference. Natural light is limiting in many ways. There’s often a short window of time in a day where you’ll be able to get the perfect lighting, and if you’re a fast photographer or don’t have a day job, that’s often not a problem.
But if you like to take your time and don’t want to limit yourself to only doing photos midday, artificial light can be a lifesaver. Maybe you have kids and the only chance you get to take photos is when they’re fast asleep at 9 p.m. Whatever the reason, the choice is yours.
When I first started Katy’s Kitchen (my previous rendition of this blog) I only used natural light. I’d read from many bloggers that artificial light was ugly, and was afraid to experiment with it myself. Now, my schedule is all over the place and I’m rarely baking or taking photos at the perfect lighting time. I’ve begun to prefer artificial light for these reasons:
- Control: natural light is depended on the weather, and can often change drastically from one minute to the next. Artificial light, in a dark room, will remain constant throughout your photography session.
- Freedom: Some days I’m a morning person, and some days I’m a night owl. Artificial light allows me to take photos at all times of the day. I’ve even had 11 p.m. photo shoots before heading out to a local pub.
There’s no right way or right time to do a photoshoot, it’s all a matter of what works best for YOU. Just find what works and stick with it. As an artificial light source, I use the Lowel Ego Digital Imaging Light. It comes with a free light bounce and works like a charm.
Tools & Tricks
Here are some simple tools that will really help to make your photos pop.
I can’t stress how important it is to LOOK at photos of food. I don’t just mean scrolling through your favourite food blog and glancing at their photos. Really look, with a critical eye.
Ask yourself questions. How are the food and props arranged? Where do the shadows fall? Which colours make up the shot? What is blurry and what is in focus?
Analyze what you like in a food photo and which photos you’re drawn to, and then emulate this in your own photos. With time, you’ll become comfortable with a new photography style of your own.
Vellum Paper/White Curtains
At my old house, the best place for me to take photos was in the kitchen. The windows were large and let in a TON of light. Too much light. If I took pictures directly beside the window, I got very harsh shadows in my photos. This isn’t to say shadows are bad, but they’re just not my style.
Vellum paper, a thick translucent paper used for tracing was invaluable as a light diffuser, and allowed me to get the perfect soft lighting in my photos. Translucent white curtains also work fantastically as a diffuser if they’re in your budget.
Fortunately I no longer need to use a diffuser as my photography room doesn’t get direct light.
Homemade Light Bouncer
Cheap poster board with L-brackets taped on the back make great light bouncers and backgrounds. I used Averie’s guide and the whole thing cost me about $10.
Photography is all about playing with light, and to do so, you need to maintain as much control over the light as possible. Play around with the arrangement of your light bouncers to find which creates the best light. My favourite position is to make a “V” shape with the bouncers, and set them directly beside the food. This will get rid of shadows and brighten up your photos.
Backgrounds & Surfaces
- Posterboards: In the beginning, most of my backgrounds and surfaces were $2 poster boards. Every couple months I made something really oily or messy and needed to replace them, which started to get annoying after a while (2 years!)
- Fabric: My current background is a large sheet of dark black fabric that I ironed and draped over a table. If you spill crumbs on a fabric, a lint roller picks them right up. If you make a larger spill, you can just wash the fabric and it’s as good as new.
- Tablecloths and hand towels: Raid your linen closet, your friends’, and most importantly your grandmother’s. Every once in a while a thrift shop will have an interesting find. Tablecloths make great Christmas gifts too, and if you have a friend or family member pick one out for you, they might surprise you with their creative eye.
- White dishes: The dollar store is your friend. White goes with everything, and is perfect for me as it matches my minimalist aesthetic.
- Cutlery: The thrift store is your friend. Find some stainless steel cutlery, if you can, or raid a friend’s or relative’s cutlery drawer.
The Expensive Stuff…
If you’re starting a blog just for fun and have no intention of turning it into a business, any camera will do. There’s no need to go out and buy a fancy camera unless you have a lot of disposable income. If you do intend to turn your blog into a business as I have with My Dish is Bomb, you’ll definitely need to have a good quality camera and equipment. I didn’t start noticing many links to my blog until I became more comfortable shooting with my DSLR.
My first and current DSLR is a Nikon D5100 (I believe the current version is the Nikon D5200). It’s very user friendly, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read the manual. I tend to prefer internet searches, and learned how to use it by both trial and error and through Ken Rockwell’s tutorials. He has tutorials for multiple cameras, and they’re very informative. Check it out!
Canon vs. Nikon
Being a first-time DSLR buyer, I didn’t know much about what to look for in a camera. I chose Nikon over Canon because the Nikon felt more comfortable in my hands and was a slightly better price, with the lens I wanted. I’ve never shot with a Canon DSLR so I can’t say one is better than the other, but if you’re a first time buyer, go with what feels most comfortable and test both out in the store.
I decided not to purchase the kit lens, as I had a specific lens in mind before purchasing the camera. It’s a good idea to research lenses before hand, and think about what kind of shots you prefer. At the time I was obsessed with bird’s eye shots, so I wanted a lens that would keep everything in focus without forcing me to climb up on tables.
The NiKKOR 35 mm f/1.8 was a solid investment. As far as lenses go, it’s moderately priced and takes nice, clear images. It’s also a great lens for street photography and even landscape and portrait photography, as you’re still able to create a nice bokeh (blurred background with the subject in focus). I used this lens from 2013-2014.
In 2015 I added the Nikon 85 mm f/3.5 to my camera bag and have achieved fantastic results with close-up shots. When I’m using this lens, I must use a tripod or the pictures turn out blurry. It’s a heavy lens and I have a hard time keeping it still when taking close-ups. I now use mostly this lens in my photos, as I’m able to get much more detail than I could with the 35 mm.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
Lightroom can be a steep investment, but it is completely worth it. Any edits you make to your photos don’t affect the original copy of the photo — you must “export” each file to save the edits, and Lightroom still saves the original copy. If you mess up, it’s easy to go back.
It’s very user friendly, and also has some neat filters that I sometimes use for my personal photographs. You can also press the vertical bar key to see before and after the edits, which is mostly just a fun tool to show your friends how awesome you are at editing photos. Lightroom 5 is the current version.
Every once in a while I use GIMP (it’s free) if I need to do some specific work with layers that Lightroom doesn’t have the capacity to do.
My current tripod is a pricey, heavy duty tripod that has an extending arm I can use for the overhead bird’s eye shots. I rarely shoot without a tripod if I’m using my 85 mm lens. My 35 mm lens is a little more forgiving in terms of blur, so I’ll do a mix of handheld and tripod shots. I’ve used cheaper tripods in the past, but I wouldn’t recommend them as it’s important to have something sturdy for an expensive, heavy camera.
Making Photos Fun
- GIFs: This site helped me put together GIFS when I was doing them frequently. Be warned, there are many ads and popups, and it’s certainly a site that makes me wary of viruses, but it works. I don’t create GIFs anymore but they are a fun way to show movement in photos.
- Writing on photos: PicMonkey is free and easy to use. You can create collages, place overlays on photos, or do simple retouching. You’ll need to upload photos in JPEG format as it doesn’t edit RAW images.
Online Resources for the self-taught photographer
- Food photography basics by Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Food Photography & Styling by Recipe Girl
- 7 Beginner Tips for Improving Your Food Photography by Pro Food Blogger
- Focusing on Depth of Field by Donalyn Ketchum (BlogHer)
- Prop Styling by Gourmande in the Kitchen
- Food photography tips by Cookie & Kate
- Tutorials by Ken Rockwell (search for your camera, specifically)
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