5 Photography Tips (I Learned The Hard Way)
This post will serve as partially as a retrospective of my photography in 2015, and partially as a somewhat helpful guide to those who are looking to get into food photography. Most of the time I spend on this blog revolves around photography. Shooting the food, editing the photos, uploading the photos, realizing I don't like the photos, re-editing the photos, berating myself for focusing on the asparagus instead of the fish, and so on. On top of that, I'm constantly perusing Flickr, 500px, other food blogs, and magazines to see what they're shooting. In Stephen King's On Writing, he hammers the idea that you'll never be a great writer if you're not a reader—the same goes for photography. I'm constantly in awe of what national talent like Bonjwing Lee, Evan Sung, and Andrew Scrivani are able to produce, as well as local photographers like Jonathan Gayman, Jonathan Pollack, Jennifer Silverberg, Greg Rannells, and Emily McDonald.
I started the blog using a Nikon D70, then upgraded to a Nikon D7100, before ultimately making the jump in early 2015 from crop-sensor to full-frame. (In the Nikon world, that means going from DX to FX.) I sold my D7100 and all my lenses, upgrading to Nikon's D750 and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Like I said last year, and what is painfully known to all photographers: better equipment does not equal better photos. I picked the D750 because it's fantastic in low-light and since I shoot primarily in dim restaurants and poorly lit kitchens, that is important. I opted for a single prime lens because I like the challenge and simplicity of it—one main lens, no zoom. I also purchased two cheap, old used lenses: a 50 mm for portraits and a 24 mm wide angle lens for restaurant interiors.
I got the gear, and I kicked my photography studying into overdrive. Books, YouTube videos, local classes. I studied harder than I ever did in college. Even though I am very happy with the photos I've been taking lately, complacency isn't an option. I still don't have the ability to shoot like Bonjwing Lee in a restaurant. I still don't have the composition skills of Jennifer Silverberg. I can't capture the beauty and detail of a dish like Evan Sung.
One of my favorite things to do is find a photographer whose work I love and look at their first picture and their most recent. Here are two of my photos taken almost exactly 2 years apart:
A little different. I'm proud of that.
Studio Shots (Aka My House)
Shooting food at home has been a challenge from the start. I've moved my 'studio' all over my house. The kitchen has terrible natural light, so that was out right away. The living room worked some of the time, but the window panes left bad shadows, not to mention the fact I was hogging the room. A basement version using only artificial light left food looking sterile and boring. I finally found that the corner of my bedroom was the best place—two windows!—so I lugged everything upstairs, bought myself a new IKEA table, and worked from there. Here are some "home studio" shots from this year.
The cookies were shot in my basement using artificial light; the challah is primarily artificial light, but some natural light as well.
These 3 are shot entirely with natural light in my current studio set up:
Once again, expensive equipment does not equal great photos. I follow the Andrew Scrivani's (of the New York Times) method: natural light, baby. If the NYT's photographer doesn't need tons of lights, why do you?
Photographing people will always feel weird when you first start, but like all things, it gets easier. I find taking behind the scenes photos easy, but portraits are still uncomfortable for me. I normally have no problem telling people what to do—my family would tell you that I enjoy it—but when it comes to asking a chef to pose, I lose confidence. That's something I'm working on this year.
Interior restaurant photos seem like they'd be no brainers, but they're not. You have to find accents to highlight—which not every restaurant has—and you need to figure out a creative way to show it. I've taken shots of restaurant interiors since I started, but not many have made it on to the site. Part of that is because most were taken at night, making every restaurant look like some sort of dungeon. Diners tend to ruin those shots, as well, everyone staring directly at your lens like deer in headlights. The best way to do this is to go to a location during the day, even if you're not eating. Just stop by, take a few shots, and go. But you should probably ask the chef/management if that's okay first.
Another goal this year is to improve location photography and make sure to include it in more posts. I want people to get a sense of feeling not just for the food, but the restaurant setting, as well.
My bread and butter, so to speak. It's easy to take a picture of the food right in front of you—I'm sure you do it all the time on your phone. But can you make your brunch look as good as Ulterior Epicure does? Me neither.
Unless I'm shooting staged food, I prefer to shoot quickly and precisely. No one wants to eat with you when you force them to wait 5 minutes to eat their food. That means I have to look at the food and attempt to figure out what angles would make it look best. This can be harder than you'd imagine. Thankfully, at many fine dining restaurants, like Niche, the chefs have determined that for you.
Still, what is the lighting situation? There's no good solution in a dark restaurant. You can use your iPhone light (wrapped in a napkin to serve as a diffuser, helping to avoid harsh shadows) but then you're being obnoxious. Candlelight can be helpful, but you're SOL most of the time. In winter, for me, that means eating much earlier. Me and the elderly.
So there you go: food photography. What did we learn today?
Natural light is sexy.
It feels weird to take pictures of people.
No one likes waiting to eat. Take pictures faster.
Look at pictures by people that are better than you and try to do what they did.
Stop spending money on expensive stuff.
I've taken pictures in the dark. I've taken terrible portraits. I've pissed off all my friends and family by not letting them eat their food. I wasn't paying close enough attention to what the pros were doing. I wasted money on shit I didn't need.
This year, my focus will be on being a better portrait photographer, developing a better eye for composition, and continuing to learn to shoot video good enough to share.
If you ever have any questions about photography, I'll do my best to help answer them. Thanks for following Whiskey And Soba.