Foodie Photography 101

As is fairly obvious from my umpteen food reviews, I take a lot of pictures of food. For such a static target, for a number of reasons, the plate isn’t so easy to photograph. Mostly this comes down to light and distance. Restaurants are often dark and food is fairly small and right in front of you. This distance factor throws it into the realm of macro photography (subjects at very near distances).

I use three different cameras. I’ll go over them all here, in ascending order of size, weight, and quality. As a general rule of thumb the bigger and more expensive a camera is, the better the pictures. It’s also worth noting that all food photos below were processed in Adobe Lightroom and are not “as shot”. I’ll discuss this at the bottom of the post.

The cellphone camera is ubiquitous these days, but for me only an option of last resort.

This sushi pic is about as decent as a good (iphone 4) camera will take, and even with post-processing, that isn’t very good.

And in a dark restaurant, you’re stuck with these hideous flash shots. The flash on these tiny camera has a range of about a foot and an ugly falloff. If you have to use the cellphone, try and hold it very steady, and home it’s lunch time and the window is behind you (keep the light behind the lens).

Next up, and pretty acceptable, is a snapshot camera that is good at macro photography. I use a Canon S90. This is older and has been replaced by the S95 and S100. Any of the three are good, the newer ones are better. They are among the only small cameras to shoot in RAW mode and to focus well at short distances. The S90 is small enough to pocket and I use it for casual meals.

A typical flash shot from the S90. It’s not bad. The camera has a small aperture and hence a very large depth of field which makes for easy focusing (but a flat look). It’s very useful to zoom the camera in and pull physically back so the flash doesn’t get too close to the food and easily blow out the image (overexpose).

My third camera is my “real” camera, the amazing Canon EOS 5D Mark II. But any Canon or Nikon DLSR should do fairly well. While the DSLR is much larger and heavier, it takes a MUCH better picture. Not only is the resolution higher but it handles low light far better. Still, shooting food with a SLR isn’t easy.

This is a typical bad result. A normal lens can’t focus on something less than two feet away and so you have to step way back. Without a flash (and a normal flash doesn’t work well on food) you can easily end up with a soft image like above.

The solution to this distance problem is a macro lens. I usually use the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. This is a very sharp prime lens (on a full frame camera 50mm is good for food, it might be even better on the more common crop sensor cameras, but you might have to pull back a bit). This lens is even cheap for a macro at $284, as many of Canon’s macro lens are two or four times that. It’s only problem is the non-USM focusing that’s slow as a dog. Food, fortunately doesn’t move.

But in a very dark restaurant (and despite the appearance of this color and exposure corrected photo, Pizzeria Mozza is very dark) one ends up at f2.5 and a high ISO. Combine that with the very short distance to the plate and you get an incredibly small depth of field. Hence, crust in focus, pizza blurry.

This and the light problem are nicely solved by the bulky Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring. Ideally, you’d want a light box (a big soft glowing box) but this is not practical in restaurants :-), but the white LED light from the flash ring is less directed than a regular flash (which will also do in a pinch).

It makes for a honking big rig, but with the macro lens and the TTL flash exposure adjustment it takes great close up pictures in a pitch black room (the flash can be used as a focus light too).

Hence this lovely photo, with just enough depth of field to give the dish some character and depth. Still, you have to watch the distance and f-stop, even with the flash, but you don’t have to pump the ISO up as high as without it.

Which finally brings me to Lightroom. Significant discussion of post processing is outside the scope of this post. Photoshop and many other products can allow you to clean up your images, but none do it as easily and quickly as Lightroom. Going through a 60 photo meal can be tedious, but with Lightroom you can do a decent job in five minutes, then quickly batch upload via a vast array of plugins.

To give you an idea how important this is. Check out this image right out of the camera, taken using the 5D and the macro lens, but no flash.

With light three clicks I fix the white balance, the exposure, and correct for lens aberrations. I see so many food bloggers uploading dim orange photos. There’s just no need.

Hopefully this quick little tutorial helps you get the most out of your food photos. Even if you don’t have a big fancy camera, the trick of pulling back and zooming in with a snapshot flash helps both exposure and dealing with the “too close to focus” problem.

Find all of my food reviews here.

7 comments on “Foodie Photography 101

  1. Udom says:

    Hi Andy, I came upon your blog while browsing thru Chowhound. I want to commend you on your site and awesome food pictures and reviews. I am a blogging novice and we seem to share the same interest (good food!). I have a question regarding taking food pictures, sometimes I find that if I go to nicer restaurants, I am very hesitant to use a DSLR (or even a point and shoot for that matter) since I am not sure what the etiquette/protocol is for situations like this. I end up using my iPhone 4 (no flash) and of course the resulting image is bad. Do you have any tips/suggestions from your personal experience? When I say “nicer” restaurants, I usually mean darker restaurants where too much flash may be a distraction to other patrons…maybe like Saam perhaps?

    • agavin says:

      I have only once been called out on my flash photography (and I do it nearly every time I eat out — which obviously is a lot). At Melisse once the staff asked us to tone it down, and we did. I try these days when I have the big flash to face the wall so it isn’t shooting out into the room. Occasionally, I have run into a restaurant with a no photo policy. At Sushi Zo (annoyed me) and at é by José Andrés. At the later they told me in advance that there would be no photography, which caused me great emotional duress 🙂 I brought my camera anyway and they let me take it without the flash, which I don’t mind. Probably 6 out of 8 diners were photographing.

      That being said, in a dark restaurant non flash photograph is totally hopeless without either a tripod of a DSLR. Just forget it. With careful settings you can do it handheld with the DSLR and get very good results. A cellphone never, but a snapshot on a small tripod could do it by manually setting a long exposure and a small F-stop.

  2. Udom says:

    Thanks for the helpful insight Andy! I know what you mean by “great emotional duress”; a lot of times I feel my experience is not complete until I have good pictures of the food!

  3. I actually still can’t quite think I could be one of those reading through the important tips found on your website. My family and I are truly thankful for the generosity and for providing me the possibility to pursue our chosen career path. Thanks for the important information I obtained from your website.

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