Food Photography: Cameras

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Cameras are the medium for great food photography and this post discusses the camera I use and how I came to decide it was the right camera for me.

But before I begin, let me say three things:

  • This post is about taking photos of food that you blog about, not about taking photos at restaurants.
  • I am by no means an expert photographer, but I had to do a lot of digging to figure out what camera would work for me. I want to save you some time, so I’m explaining how I came to the decision of the camera I use.
  • Don’t wait to start blogging until you feel you have the right camera. Start sharing your recipes and photos now. Believe it or not, some of my most pinned and viewed recipes have (in my opinion) the WORST photos. If your recipes are good, people will read them.

Food Photography: Cameras

Learning about photography

If the words aperture, shutter speed and ISO mean nothing to you, then there’s something you should do before you think about buying a camera – take a photography class. Your local library, camera shop or university likely offers free beginner photography classes. Find out if you need a camera to take the class or if you can just stop in and take notes. While some of it may seem difficult without the camera in front of you, a good beginning photography class will explain what those settings are and why they matter.

In order to make an informed camera purchase, you’ll want to know the capabilities of aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. These things will vary depending on what camera you purchase. My locally-owned camera shop had free classes from professionals who provided great instruction along with handouts so I didn’t have to furiously jot down notes.

In the smallest of the smallest nut shell…

  • Aperture (also referred to as the F-Stop) is the size of the hole of the lens that lets light into the camera, expressed as a fraction. Think of it like your eyeballs – when it’s dark outside, your pupils are huge so they can take in as much light as possible. When it’s bright outside, your pupils are small so that you don’t take in so much light. The smaller the F-Stop, the less light you can let in, and the larger the F-Stop, the more light you can let in.
  • Shutter Speed is how fast the camera takes a picture, or the rate at which the shutter opens and closes. Faster shutter speed means less light taken into the photo, while slower shutter speed means the camera has more time to allow light into the photo. Slow shutter speeds require a tripod, otherwise your photos will be shaky and blurry.
  • ISO determines film speed and therefore shutter speed. The higher the ISO number, the faster the sensor will register information. However, too high or too low of an ISO creates grainy, under/overexposed photos.

Books are also available to teach you these things at your own pace. I highly suggest Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling (affiliate link) because the author discusses cameras specifically related to food photography.

Types of cameras – camera phone, mirrorless and DSLR

Instagram created a new world for food photographers. In a restaurant with low light? Instagram’s filters can help with that. Hipstamatic, Afterlight and other apps also got in on this trend, providing brightness and clarity features so that you can create great quality photographs.

I used my iPhone camera for food photography when I was out and about as well as on Solid Gold Eats for the first few months of blogging. While the iPhone takes great photos (arguably better than my new LG G2), there were times in which I needed more detail, better lighting and more options. Phone cameras are limiting in this sense because you can’t control the exposure, aperture or ISO settings.

This leaves you with two options – mirrorless (point and shoot) cameras or DSLRs. Here’s a great article about the differences between the two: https://www.udemy.com/blog/mirrorless-vs-dslr/

Either are great options for food photography, but I chose a DSLR because I wanted the possibility of using different lenses in the future. The price of both types of cameras are comperable, so for the same price why not buy something that can be upgraded later instead of having to buy a brand new mirrorless camera each time? Yet if you know exactly what you’re going to use the camera for, maybe a mirrorless camera is what you need. There are plenty of food bloggers who swear by a mirrorless camera (or even an iPhone camera) and take great photos.

In one of the Google+ communities I belong to, I asked fellow food bloggers what they used. Edward said:

“My current camera is a 4 year old compact, what my mother calls a “press here, dummy” camera. It has very few settings that can be adjusted and just doesn’t give me the capabilities to frame good shots that I want, such as white balance and aperture adjustments. One reason I plan on going with a DSLR vs a high-quality mirrorless camera is the fact that if I get a Pentax body (used entry level ones sell on eBay for <$150), it is compatible with my father’s old lenses from his 35mm camera, so I can get free, quality lenses.”

DSLRs are bulky. You’ll want to buy a bag to put it in that protects the camera body and your lenses. Mirrorless cameras are so light and small that you can put them in your pocket or purse. That factor could make your decision for you. Many food bloggers have told me they simply don’t use a DSLR because of it’s size and weight.

Video – are you a budding YouTube-ist? I know very little about video, but if videography will be a component of your blog, then maybe you want a DSLR that has HD video capability. Why buy a video camera AND a camera if a DSLR can do both?

Shooting RAW is important for photographers. Essentially your camera compresses large images into smaller, more manageable images for your SD card. Shooting RAW will take a very large file with lots of information in it. If you ever want to print a poster size image, you’ll want to shoot RAW because it will provide you with the best quality of an image. If you use Photoshop, you’ll also want to shoot RAW because you’ll be able to tinker with the photo more. Not all mirrorless cameras support RAW images.

In the end, I purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera and DIGIC 4 Imaging with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (affiliate link) and am very pleased with the stock lens it came with. Eventually I will buy more lenses, but I’m content with what I have right now.

Food Photography: Cameras

DSLRs

The biggest question you’ll ask yourself is if you want a Nikon, Canon, Sony or other manufacturer. My solution? Get your hands on both and try them out. Pay attention to how they feel in your hand and how the menus, settings and buttons work. Looking at additional lenses? Compare costs and specifications between brands. Here’s a great article about differences between the manufacturers: http://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/canon-and-nikon-vs-everyone-else-buying-your-first-dslr–photo-12291

I purchased a Canon because I liked the way the menu worked, where the buttons were and the reliability/quality of the brand. It was that simple of a choice for me (along with price).

Canon makes several DSLRs that range from $600 to more than $4,000. Navigating the options can be confusing, but Wikipedia has a great chart explaining megapixels, ISO options, live preview features and more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Canon_EOS_digital_cameras (Again, learning what these terms mean can help you make a more informed purchase).

When choosing a Canon (or any DSLR), think about the lenses you’ll be buying and if your camera supports them. That’s a big difference between the Ti and T series. After that, I believe so much comes down to how you’ll use the camera. Do you want video? Do you want a touch screen? Do you want HD video capability?  It can seem daunting, especially if you’re thinking “I just want to take photos of my pancakes, damn it!” but don’t give up. Research each camera thoroughly. Visit your local camera store or electronics shop to get your hands on them and try them out.

Food Photography: Cameras

Lenses

Your DSLR will come with a lens, which is referred to as the “kit” lens. It will work great for food photography to a certain extent. If you shoot food up close, then the 50mm lens is fine. If you shoot tablescapes or kitchen scapes, then you may want a lens that offers more, like a 100mm lens. I found that for everything I shoot, whether it’s an iron skillet on the stove or a close up of a muffin, the 50mm kit lens works fine.

Macro lenses are great for food photography. Imagine a photo of a bowl of sugared cranberries, and everything is out of focus expect for one cranberry on top. That’s what a macro lens can do – focus in on a very small area of a photo. This is great for getting shots of salt and sugar crystals or for when you need to focus on detail. Eventually I will purchase a macro lens.

Again (for the umpteenth time), you can’t make any informed lens purchase if you don’t understand aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings, as these are some of the determining factors in lens variations.

Additional equipment

Tripods are extremely handy for food photography. If you’re shooting in low light or manual settings, a tripod can stabilize the image much better than your hands.

Lighting equipment was never an issue for me until it became December in Indiana. Since I work mostly at home on the evenings and weekends, it became impossible to get a photo after dark even with great camera settings. This post discusses how I came to decide on the Lowel Ego Light set: http://solidgoldeats.com/2013/11/19/food-photography-using-lowel-ego-lights/

Using the flash

It’s widely known that a camera’s flash can make food look unappetizing. It creates harsh contrasts and often makes the food look worse, not better. Is there an appropriate time to use flash with food photograph? Possibly, but I guarantee that if you try to use the flash you will be disappointed. I’ve read blogs where people talk about specific flashes, like ring flash, and claim they are great for photography, but I still find them to provide too harsh of contrasts for what I like. Instead, consider an alternative light set up.

I’m sure I’m missing some points here, so please leave a comment with your questions or input. I’d love to hear about what camera you use and why. In the future I’ll have blogs with tips for editing, composition and props and more. Find all of my thoughts about food photography here: http://solidgoldeats.com/food-photography/.

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  • http://www.ifyoucanread.com/ Edward Antrobus – If You Can R

    Thanks for quoting me in your article.

    • solidgoldeats

      Thank you for providing one!