Really, it’s all Heidi’s fault. I stumbled upon her photography portfolio one day last year, and was a goner. From there, I found 101 Cookbooks and began reading it and discovering new food blogs at an epidemic rate. My food blog favorites folder soon scrolled well beyond the confines of my screen… full of sites with amazing photography or writings of food you would hide so you could have indulge in their wonders all by yourself. I joined Flickr groups and found even more food that was so beautiful, it would be a crime to eat. I started making food just to take photos of it, pawning off most of it to family and friends. All my meals were eaten cold, after I’d taken all the photos that I could. Finishing a meal meant quickly hopping over to my computer to touch-up the photos and crank out the recipe to get it up on my food blog. Desk lamps disappeared from other rooms to be come my “studio” lighting. My tripod became a barrier to prevent anyone else from entering the kitchen. The dining room table was buried under stacks and stacks of finds that “would look great in pictures” and of course meant that most of our dishes no longer matched. I read this and like so many others, instantly recoginized myself as a fellow mad food blogger.
And then, I had the idea to write this blog. Because frankly, while food blogging is strangely and immensely satisfying, there are hundreds of others out there that are better cooks and better writers than I am with food blogs. But there is very little information on food photography, and the little tips and tricks to turn good photos into great ones. There was a gap, a need. And, I’m not one to let a hole go by unfilled.
I started by sketching out the myriad of categories that I could cover. My chicken scratches soon covered five or 10 pages in my notebook. Pumped full of excitement, I started looking for domain names, getting hosting set up, finding cool templates… and then I realized… I needed to start writing the articles. And I panicked. Who am I to tell people how to take better photographs? There are so many amazing, fantastic photographers out there! How am I going to do this? Even with my limited knowledge and skill, there’s so much to share, how do I even find a point to begin.
And then, I took a breath, popped open my editor, and started typing. And words started to flow. The best place to start is at the beginning. You aren’t going to get very far in food photography without a camera. So, let’s start there.
First, there is no one right camera for food photography. Different styles and situations call for different cameras. No camera will make you a great food photographer, but you definitely will fail with the wrong one.
If you haven’t yet, go digital. The quality of most consumer level digital cameras is more than sufficient and you get instant feedback. It’s by far the best way to improve your photography. As you take shots, you can immediately see your errors and get the right reinforcement to stop making the same mistakes. With film, unless you are a fastidious note taker, you will quickly forget what you did on each shot and it will always be a guessing game. Not to mention, you will be taking lots of photos that you throw away and in the end digital is far more economical.
For most food photography, I recommend using a 35mm camera, and learning some very basic manual control. You don’t have to go use the full manual controls, unless you are so inclined. Of course, the more you know and control yourself, the more likely you are to get the exact shot you want, and not what the camera thinks you might want. But, this post isn’t actually on using your camera… it’s on making sure you have one. Let’s get to it.
35mm Digital SLR Body
Investing in a good digital SLR 35mm camera is easier than it’s ever been. While there are a lot of different brands out there, stick with Canon or Nikon and you’ll never have problem finding lenses or the files working with various software packages. If you already have a film camera, you may just wish to stick with the same brand so you can continue using your lenses.
Get the best body you can afford as it will probably be with you for a while. I know if I have extra cash to spend on camera gear, I usually pump it into new lenses.
On the low end, you can get a new Canon Digital Rebel XT (aka 350D) for about $800. The body is lightweight, and it offers full manual control as well as plenty of automatic options. Or, for about the same price, you can find a refurbished Nikon D70 or Canon 10D or 20D (what I shoot), both of which are slightly beefier than the Rebel. You can find some great deals on eBay through legitimate resellers like Adorama. Canon has recently released the 30D, which has very minor upgrades to the 20D (like a slightly larger display), so you are likely to find 20Ds in the market now at a good price as people upgrade.
If you can afford a bit more, the new Canon 5D (what I want!) and Nikon D200 are both excellent choices that will give you pro-quality photos.
Point and Shoot
It’s hard to get this kind of shot with a point and shoot, but you can still get great photos, and it’s far easier to bring a pocket sized camera along with you to dinner. Most modern PS cameras give some type of macro mode and low light mode, both of which will help in a restaurant. I have an older Canon Elph which has taken some great shots, but that I need to replace because newer models are so much better… higher resolution, smaller form factor, faster lenses. Some point and shoots allow you to switch lenses, but I don’t recommend them. Just go ahead and go 35mm if you want interchangeable lenses.
Make sure that the camera supports at least 5 megapixels, and if you are comparing zoom levels between cameras, only look at the optical zoom. Digital zoom is simply interpolation by the camera’s software and your computer and photoshop are much better at that than your camera will be. But, luckily, you don’t need a lot of zoom for food photography!
However, you will need to get close to the food, so make sure that the camera supports focusing at just a few inches from the subject. The Canon SD430 let’s you get as close as 1.2 inches and the Powershot A610 just a tiny centimeter. Nikon’s super slim Coolpix S3 focuses at a minimum of 1.6 inches.
“Canon Powershot A610 5MP Digital Camera with 4x Optical Zoom” (Canon)
“Nikon Coolpix S3 6MP Slim-Design Digital Camera with 3x Optical Zoom (Includes Dock)” (Nikon)
The other major factor in buying a digital point and shoot is size. You want it to be comfortable to hold, but easy to take everywhere. Too small, and it really will become a pain to use… to big (ie, doesn’t easily fit in your pocket or purse), then you may as well bring your 35mm.
If you are interested in shooting medium format, you really don’t need my advice on camera gear! I definitely want to get there some day, but that will be years and years from now. The Mamiya ZD looks fantastic.
So, those of you out there shooting already… what are you using?