Ever wondered how food bloggers or cooking apps like KptnCook take photos of food and make them look so damn tasty?
Contrary to popular belief, KptnCook doesn’t have a photography studio filled with photographers, food stylists and assistants. Nor do we spend thousands on fancy equipment and props to make our images look as delicious as they do. To be honest, the most expensive thing in our kitchen is our camera!
Many food bloggers such as Kitchenista Diaries and Joy the Baker taught themselves how to take photos of food, and you can too. All you need is a camera, a passion for food and a little patience and sunlight!
KptnCook’s Chief Design Officer, Eva and Culinary Expert, Tanya share their tips on how to create your own food photography shoot at home.
If you’re just starting out, it’s ok to use a point-and-shoot camera or your iPhone – the camera in the iPhone 5 and 6 is excellent. If you’re serious about food photography and want to invest in a camera, you’ll spend between $500 – $850 USD (500€ and 800€) for the camera body. But this is really worth it if you want to get to pro level at some point. At KptnCook, we are very happy with our Canon camera – we don’t feel there is a huge difference between Nikon and Canon. At the moment, we are using the EOS Rebel T2i (EOS 550 D in Germany), which is a great entry-level camera. The 70D is higher quality, and a 5D Mark is what we all dream of!
To show you the quality of the iPhone and the EOS Rebel T2i we have captured two images below.
When you take pictures from a bird’s eye view, the results on the iPhone is actually pretty close to what a DSRL camera can do regarding light and colour. A big difference is the image quality, details and sharpness; meaning if you would like to print large posters of your food, the iPhone isn’t ideal. But if it’s for social media like Instagram, iPhone cameras are great.
From a 45° perspective the differences between DSLR and iPhone becomes more obvious. The built-in-lens of the smartphone allows no flexibility with focal points and depth of field. In this case, the blurred background in image 3 brings the food into focus, something that can’t be captured naturally with the iPhone camera. (Only with retouching apps, but the effect is not the same.)
The perfect lens for people who are interested in taking high quality food photos is a 50mm lens, which does everything you need (well, almost!). And because it has a fixed focal length (without zoom function) you get great quality photos for a fairly good price. We use this lens and we’re super happy with it.
Tip: When buying a Camera don’t go for the kits (body and lens), buy them separately to get the lense, which is best for you.
Three Pillars of Photography
It’s important to know a little about the technical side of photography to help you take control of your photo shoot. Starting with shutter speed.
Shutter speed is the rate at which the shutter opens and closes in order to let more or less light through your lens. It’s written in fractions of a second. For example, in poorly lit situations you need a longer shutter speed, i.e. more light, such as 1/20s. In brightly lit environments you would need 1/100s, i.e. less light. Everything faster than 1/80s can be shot without a tripod, otherwise the image looks shaky because of your subtle hand movements.
Aperture / F-Stop
Aperture and shutter speed are closely connected. Where speed is the length of time the shutter opens, aperture defines the size of the lens hole. Both together (ISO is the third one, but more about this below) control the amount of light that goes through the lens.
Aperture strongly affects the focus of your image and adds dimension to it. For example, with a small f-stop such as 1.2f you get a beautiful blurry background and only a small area of your image is in focus. Technically, it means that the aperture is open very wide and lots of light comes through. A bigger number though such as 8f means the aperture is opening very small, less light comes through, and, as a result, your image is sharp in the foreground and background.
A. Small f-stop number, wide hole, lots of light > leads to a mainly blurred image with a small sharp focus
B. Somewhere between A & C setting
C. High f-stop number, small hole, less light > leads to a large sharp area of the image. You may need to use a tripod to keep the camera steady.
Check out this example:
With the blurred background on the left (also called Bokeh), the viewer’s eye is drawn to the food, where the image is clearer. This is an effective way to guide your audience to the best part of your dish. Unlike the image on the right, which is entirely crisp and clear, the viewer gets an idea of the full scenario rather than just the dish.
This is the third way to control the amount of light in your photos. It defines the sensitivity of the camera sensor. You should aim for a low number, but you need a good light situation. The higher you set your ISO, the grainier your images will be, which is fine if you want to post small photos. For big juicy food shots, though, we recommend using a low ISO like 100 to capture more details and less grain.
Like an orchestra is made up of a range of musicians and instruments, the composition of your photo is very similar – it’s how you arrange each element i.e. the cookies, the napkin and the glass of milk. It is an essential part of taking appetising images.
Rule of thirds
To get into the swing of things, start by playing around with the rule of thirds. Though it’s not a rule per se, it will help you frame your shot. Imagine your frame is divided into a nine-part grid. The idea is to place the hero of shot – this might be a cookie, a bowl of pasta, or a chopping board – along the lines like this:
The next step is to decide what angle you want to take your photo. In German, this is called the “Schokoladenseite”, which directly translates to the ‘chocolate part’ but means the sweet spot. When deciding what “sweet spot” you want to go for, think about what you want to show in the image.
There are three main perspectives, which are used throughout food photography. At KptnCook we decide which looks best for every dish. Below you will see the three main angles KptnCook uses:
A modern approach to food photography. It leaves some distance between the viewer and the food, making the image appear like an abstract collage of colors and textures. It brings attention to the whole composition on the table. If you take a picture from further away, the surrounding becomes part of the rather graphic composition and can tell a deeper story. You can create hierarchies by using objects with different sizes, colors and shapes.
This is perfect with a large shutter to make your food really jump out. Create hierarchy by defining sharp and blurred areas using a large (wide) aperture. In this image, you can see that the light reflects nicely in the leaves and the spoon too.
Perfect for foods like the juicy layers of a burger. Shooting it from above (90°) means you don’t see what’s inside the burger. Capturing the layers of the burger is an essential part of showing your audience what it’s made of; therefore you want to shoot it head-on.
Good quality lighting is the most important factor for good photography and the very best is indirect sunlight. Indirect being the key word. It gives your images a warm and natural glow, colours appear as they are, unlike direct sunlight or your kitchen lights (we beg you not to use your kitchen lights for extra lighting!), which create heavy dark shadows and brighten the food in all the wrong spots.
As you’ll be taking photos of food, it’s handy to find a good spot in your kitchen, close to a window with indirect sunlight.
TIP: If the light that comes into the kitchen is quite bright, hang a thin white sheet in front of your window to soften the light.
Most Important Tip of All: NEVER USE THE FLASH ON YOUR CAMERA, no matter how tempted you are. It makes food look like something from outer space. Set up your shoot during the day to avoid any temptation.
A key to nice light in you image is to brighten up the opposite site of your lightsource by placing a reflecting white paper sheet or board. With this trick the shadow becomes softer, natural and balanced.
Although daylight is the best, it’s hard to control. You have sunny and cloudy days, and especially during winter in Germany the sun is down by 4pm, so you have a narrow timeframe for shooting.
In order to be consistent with our setting throughout the year, we use soft light boxes. Of course, you want your artificial light to look as natural as possible which you can achieve with a few tricks. We bought two daylight lamps with soft boxes for under $100, and they work perfectly for our set up.
A. This is your light source, it should be coming in from one side.
B. This is your dish
C. To illuminate the dish from the opposite side (so you don’t have dark shadows), use a reflector. You can do this with a white piece of cardboard or invest in a reflector or even use a second light source placed further away.
- 1 camera
- 1 50mm lens
- 1-2 light boxes (optional)
- 1 reflector (recommended but optional, use a white sheet of paper or board instead)
Stay tuned for the next post about Food Styling in our Food Photography Series.