Saturday, January 9, 2010

Food Photography-Part One: Angle and Aperture

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote about getting better at food photography. So where to start? I find it’s best to pick a goal and then figure out a way to work towards it. My goal: to take a great picture of one of Mrs. GWC’s kick-ass cakes. The timeline: three months. The plan: learn one or two basic skills every other week. Post my successes and failures here for others to read. Maybe beginners will learn something and hopefully more experienced people will give me some pointers and critique!

I will try to do this with as little equipment as possible. Want to make it accessible for people without lighting gear and meters and all that stuff. I am planning to do most of the shooting with natural window light, but will also see if I can replicate the look with artificial light, because let’s face it: sometimes the sun isn’t shining through the window and I still want to take a picture! Oh, one last preliminary thing: I will be shooting all real, edible food! None of this prop fake food nonsense…what’s the point if the food isn’t real? I’m not trying to sell the stuff; I’m trying to show how delicious it looks (and besides, I can’t eat fake food afterwards!) So here it goes!

Angle and aperture are the most basic elements to learn. The camera angle is probably the most important compositional decision to make in food photography. It decides the entire look of the picture. The aperture (aka the f-stop) dictates the depth-of-field of the photo. Together, angle and aperture set the framework for everything else: any additional props, settings, food styling, etc only “make sense” after the photographer chooses the angle and aperture.

Again, where to start? Ah-ha! Food magazines! We have tons of those around the place, so I started looking through them and finding certain looks used again and again. The most popular angle seems to be at about 30 or 45 degrees looking down, sort of like the way food looks to someone sitting at a table about to eat (well that makes sense!) So I grabbed the last piece of homemade coffee cake that was left in my kitchen and put it on a plate and got started. These pics below are at about a 45 degree angle:

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

All of these were taken with the same settings: aperture priority mode (I set the aperture and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed), camera on a tripod, ISO 100, and +1 1/3 exposure compensation. How did I pick +1 1/3 exposure compensation? Basically just took a shot, looked at the back of the camera and adjusted as I saw fit. Looked at the histogram to make sure the whites were not blown out. No light meters or strobes used anywhere. Focal length of the lens was about 35-50 mm and varied for different setups. I used a 17-50 mm f/2.8 zoom lens for all of these.

setup

setup
[hey, who moved the fork?]

Above are the setup shots to show the sophisticated lighting scheme I was using! Those white reflector things are just shirt boxes standing on edge, placed where they reflected a little light to illuminate the cut sides of the coffee cake. Remember that lighting and staging and all of that stuff is not the point of this exercise. Could I have picked a better model than a two day old piece of coffee cake? Probably, but that would involve leaving the apartment to buy something else at the food store and I was feeling lazy! Plus, it gave me incentive to finish the pictures quickly so I could eat it! Here are the pictures taken with the above setup, at about a 30 degree angle from the table:

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

So let’s talk about aperture. Aperture is the size of the hole in the lens that the light passes through when you press the shutter. It is measured in terms of f-stop, and each full-stop increase in the aperture size (which is a decrease in the f-stop number) lets in twice the amount of light. For example, going from f/11 to f/8 is a decrease in the f-stop number, but doubles the amount of light that enters the camera. If we then went to f/5.6, this would let in twice as much light as f/8, and four times as much light as f/11! That’s just the way it works! Want to be even more confused? Digital cameras don’t just give you full f-stops, they also let you choose 1/3 stops. This means instead of going from f/2.8 to f/4 (one full stop), you go from f/2.8 to f/3.2 to f/3.5 to f/4…whew! The best thing to do is to just memorize the full-stop numbers (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32, see a pattern?) and call it a day! Alright, this is starting to sound more like “guy with calculator” than “guy with camera” so let’s move on!

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

These shots above are probably at the most extreme angle, pretty much head-on. This angle really shows what a big or a small aperture does to depth-of-field in the picture. Depth of what? Depth-of-field (DOF) refers to how much other stuff besides what the camera is focused on remains in focus. Shallow DOF means amost everything else is blurred, wide (or deep) DOF means that a significant amount of the stuff in the image in front of and behind the focal point remains in focus. Larger apertures (f/2, f/2.8, f/4) have a very shallow DOF. Smaller apertures (f/8, f/11, f/16) have a wide DOF and lots more is in focus in the picture. Other things like the focal length and how close you are to the subject also affect DOF, but that’s a topic for another time. Notice how in all of the above pictures, the shots at f/11 and f/2.8 have very different depths-of-field? Look at the fork in the background. Which aperture gives the most pleasing results?

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

This is what I am calling a bird’s eye view, and is another popular angle to use. As you can see from the setup shot below, it’s not really bird’s eye, but more like 85 degrees or so. This is a nice angle to get table setups and multiple plates in the shot.

setup

So that’s it for part one. What did I learn?

I was really surprised at the fact that I had to use such high apertures (f/11) to get the effect I wanted. No wonder why most of my prior food photography looked weird, I was using a way too shallow DOF! This is very different than shooting people, where I find myself shooting at f/2.8 and f/4 commonly. So f/11 will be my go-to aperture and I will adjust up or down from there. When you’re shooting so close to the object, f/11 still gives you good DOF for the main subject (the food) while allowing stuff in the background to have just a little pleasant blur, but still remain identifiable (like the fork above).

As for the angles, they are all useful for specific purposes. I think the 45 degree angle will be the most useful for all different types of food. The bird’s eye will showcase a table scene really well, and can be used in more formal settings. For cakes, I think the lower angles are the best, but we’ll see soon!

As always, comments are much appreciated. I also have a new facebook page here, so sign up if you want to get notified when I update the blog or if you want to hear about other photography-related things that I find interesting!

3 comments:

  1. I agree...the f/11 45 degree angle was best. When photographing food, I think it is important to get the background in too. The plate, the pot the food is cooking in, the placement of the food in it's surroundings is very important. Just taking a picture of food doesn't make you want to eat it. Placing it at the angle it is at when you approach it at the table seems to work best and makes you want to dig in and eat. That coffee cake looked damned amazing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I liked the f/5.6 photo looking down. Not only did the cake look tasty, but you could see the colors of the plate. However, the f/11 head on was so good, I could almost taste it. Keep up the good work and I may let you photograph my meatballs!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think you should take some photos of N's awesome rainbow cookies. She should make a large amount so you will be sure to be able to try lots of different configurations. If you have to bring the leftovers in to work the next day, well, then I guess we all win.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts with Thumbnails