Five Tips from the Food Photography Workshop

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the last Health Blogger’s Community photography workshop of 2015. It was something that only came about the day before, so was the icing on the cake to a few days visiting Stuart down in Oxford. The event was run by Fab, taught by Anastasija of Grandmother’s Figs, and the lovely ladies of Wellicious kindly hosted the event in their beautiful HQ, with an oh-so tempting offer of discounted products.

Five tips for food photography. How to use full manual mode on DSLRs, using lighting, composition and props to create beautiful blog and Instagram photos
Overnight oats and food styling by I Was Promised Donuts -check her out!

For bloggers, photography is one of the most important aspects of what we do, with images being vital in conveying a message to our readers. It is the first thing that readers are likely to notice, the key feature that hooks people in reading further. Beyond the blog, many of us rely on image sharing on social media to promote our ventures, and keep our friends, family and followers updated on our lives. Many people out there have made businesses from Instagram alone. Photography, is undeniably important to us in order to capture other’s imaginations.

Still, really good photography is a tricky skill to master, and I think few people will ever really feel as though they have perfected their shots -it is a constant learning process. Practice is, of course, the best way to improve, but workshops are insanely useful. Anastasija was very knowledgeable and took the time to break down and emphasise the main lessons and tips to us. From learning how to work your settings, to braving the most awkward angle for the perfect shot, Anastasija explained it all. We all learnt a lot in the three hour workshop, so I have summarised some of the best tips here for you today:

Five tips for food photography. How to use full manual mode on DSLRs, using lighting, composition and props to create beautiful blog and Instagram photos

Natural lighting is key
With the nights drawing in and weather becoming overcast, good lighting is often harder to come by than not. When possible, Anastasija recommends aiming to shoot at either 10am or late afternoon, just a the lighting becomes soft without being too dark. Grabbing a reflector (any white object that reflects some light back, such as a whiteboard works great) will help to increase light and produce soft shadows. If you happen to be in a situation where the light outside is too bright, hang a thin curtain, piece of tissue paper or sheet over the window to reduce the harshness. Moreover, don’t be afraid to work outside if your house is just too dark. The natural (or urban) environment creates beautiful, unusual backgrounds and shadows from trees can really work in your favour.

Incidentally, shadows are an important aspect linked to your lighting. Think about where you and your food are positioned with regards to your light source. Side light produces good clear shadows that highlight your photographs to a dramatic effect, whereas having the light behind you yields colourful, yet simple results. For a really bold look, shoot with the light behind the object. This is probably the hardest to get right, but can look fantastic.

Switching to manual
Manual mode opens up a whole new world of opportunity. If you are keen on photography, but don’t have a DSLR, see if you can borrow one or consider investing. You can get second hand models for really good prices without compromising on quality. My camera body is getting on to ten years old, and it’s only limitations compared to newer models are its weight and the fact that it can’t film. The three main aspects to manual mode are aperture, ISO, and shutter speed (exposure).
Aperture is measured in F numbers, and a high aperture has a low number, which produces a blurred background. A low aperture that will have a high F value (up to 10 usually) will have all aspects of the photo in sharp focus.
ISO is the level of sensitivity that your camera has to light. In good, bright lighting, a low ISO of, say 100, will be needed. Using a lower ISO number is preferable, as higher ISO numbers yield grainier results. However, on darker days, switching to a higher ISO to avoid putting the harsh inside light on can be a great asset.
Finally, we have shutter speed. This is probably the easiest to understand and adjust, as on most cameras it is controlled by a wheel. Fast shutter speeds of a small fraction of a second reduce blurring, but let in less light. Slower shutter speeds are good for lower light conditions and ensuring that you capture all the detail of your photograph, but you will likely need a tripod or steady surface to reduce shaking.

Five tips for food photography. How to use full manual mode on DSLRs, using lighting, composition and props to create beautiful blog and Instagram photos

Props
As a photographer, your biggest secret weapon is props. Having a arsenal of bits and pieces that you can use for styling your photographs is so useful. Think beyond the crockery -pick up cutlery, cloths, boards, utensils and things that can form your background. At home, I have a wooden board covered in a marble-effect adhesive and utilise kitchen towels. After the workshop, I headed across the street to Tiger, and exciting shop from Europe that sells lots of craft, kitchen and bedroom accessories for a really good price. If you happen to spot one, go in and be prepared to feel like a child in a sweet shop! Other good places to look are flea markets and charity shops, be be prepared to find inspiration in unexpected places. Having a suitable variety will give your photos enough variety to be useful, whilst still giving a consistent look.

Styling
Speaking of consistency, play around with your styling to develop your own signature look. Are all the objects in your photo symmetrically placed and evenly sized? Or have you played with placement and contrasted the elements captured? Don’t be afraid to crop items half, or totally, out of the final image. Take advantage of the unique aesthetic appeal of the ingredients that make up your final dish. Not only can these be beautiful in their own right, but can make explaining your recipe much more straightforward and appealing. A particularly useful tip for one-pot meals, salads and less-exciting meals is to add finishing ingredients and garnishes on the top. This makes the dish really pop and look even more appetising. Another thing to think about is colour combining. In general, contrasting your meal to your crockery or background make the photograph seem to come alive and stand out. However, matching the background can also be really powerful. Think of glossy dark, red grapes against dusky slate.

Five tips for food photography. How to use full manual mode on DSLRs, using lighting, composition and props to create beautiful blog and Instagram photos
Food styling by Full of Beans

Composition
The final tip is composition. On Instagram and your camera, you may have noticed a 3×3 grid. A general rule is to have the subject of interest in your photograph along the lines just to the side of the centre. Play around with new positioning -ingredients scattered along a diagonal, food offset to one side or even partly out of the photo. Some photographers create busy photos that still somehow don’t overwhelm the senses, but also try a more simple composition, with just three objects to play around with. Remember, that not everything needs to be in your plate or bowl -make the entire photo your canvas.

A massive thank you to everyone who made the day happen, to Om Bar chocolate, The Giving Tree, and Vita Coco for sponsoring the day, and to the photographer’s whose set ups I photographed here.

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