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For the fifth episode in my Blogging Success Series (you can find links to the previous four posts on this page), I’m going to be delving into a subject that is very near and dear to my heart: photography. Non-bloggers, you might find something that interests you here! Also, I did a sister post to this post detailing my photography studio setup, which you can see here.
So just how good do your photography skills need to be? I am not going to lie; they need to be great. Eventually. Everyone has to start somewhere, obviously. Few people are born with stunning photography skills, although some people definitely seem to have a jump-start. How do the pros get to where they are? Practice. Lots and lots of practice. And practice is something that anyone can do, so you’re in luck. Thankfully, we no longer need to buy film to be able to shoot hundreds of pictures.
So why are pictures so important? Pictures sell. You’re scrolling Pinterest in your spare time…brown blob of meat with sauce…wonky slice of pie with yellowish hue…succulant blueberries glistening atop a melty scoop of vanilla ice cream…<click>.
For a case in point, which one are you apt to click on?
Facebook and Pinterest are my two main traffic sources. Both rely on good pictures. Scroll through Pinterest. Right now. Be your own experiment. Scroll through Pinterest pretty quickly and make note of what catches your eye. Why did it stand out to you? Chances are, something about the picture caught your attention. There is so much stuff available on social media these days, so in order to catch the eyes of your audience, your pictures need to be good. You’re actually competing with thousands of other bloggers, vying for the attention of the masses. Unless traffic means nothing to you, which is just fine. Even if you’re blogging for yourself and only yourself and don’t care a whit if no one ever reads your posts, make your pictures look good for the satisfaction and pride of a job well done (kudos if you caught the quote).
Do I Need a DSLR?
Now that we’ve established that you need to improve your photography because pictures are hugely important, you’re probably going to ask me if you need to invest in a DSLR (a big, fancy camera, in other words). My answer: no, but it’s extremely helpful. Two months after starting my little podunk blog on Google Blogger, I bought a mid-level DSLR (a Nikon D5200 ) kit for about $600. Before buying my camera, I used my mom and dad’s spiffy point-and-shoot. It took good pictures, but they weren’t good enough (you can see examples in this post-I’m going to redo them eventually). You might be able to pick up some of the slack with good editing, but a DSLR just makes things so much easier. I personally believe that one can get a much better base picture with a DSLR than a point and shoot (as a general rule), and the difference is pretty easy to tell. I’ve never regretted buying my camera; it’s one of the best purchases I ever made and I honestly don’t think I would be this far along in my “blogging career” so quickly without a good camera. Pictures really do sell. If a good camera is not in your budget, then by all means, do your best with what you have. You can still learn LOTS about photography and editing and put your knowledge to practice to produce better photographs.
Once you get a DSLR, consider buying a lens other than your kit lens. I made do with my kit lens for a very long time. Once I bought a prime lens, there was no going back to my 18-55mm kit lens. Prime lenses are very helpful for food photography. Prime lenses do not zoom in or out, but their apertures can be adjusted much lower than those of most zoom lenses. This means you can let more light in to illuminate your subject without having to jack your ISO way up (if my jargon is losing you, hang tight a minute and just trust me on this one: a prime lens is a good investment). Here is a link to the prime lens I have. It’s not a bad price at all, and it’s a great little lens.
Let’s talk manual mode. You need to use it. Please don’t get stuck on Auto for the rest of your life, because that’s just sad. Since learning how to use manual mode, Auto frustrates me to no end. I have no control, and the pictures don’t turn out nearly as well! This handy tutorial is what got me launched into manual mode. Manual mode is surprisingly easy, so you definitely need to give it a try and use it. You won’t regret it.
We’ve got the basics established, so now let’s jump into the nuts and bolts of some practical photography tips.
Lighting/exposure…proper exposure is the foundation of a good picture.
- Pictures should be nice and bright, but not blown out.
- Pictures should not be dark or shadowy (unless you’re going for a specific artistic effect, of course).
- Avoid sharp contrasts (bright highlights and deep shadows) that often come with light that is too bright. Reflectors are a great way to bounce light into crevices so you don’t have overpowering shadows. A piece of tinfoil wrapped around a sheet of cardboard makes a super-simple reflector.
- Use natural light where you can. While I don’t feel this is a hard and fast rule, it looks natural (without strange color casts) and it’s cheap. Windows make great places to shoot your photos (choose a window with plenty of sunlight; the time of day can make a big difference). Use indirect light, not direct sunlight. If the light you use is too direct, you will have blown out highlights and deep shadows. To avoid this, you can use tissue paper or a thin white cloth to help diffuse the light. You can also use reflectors and foam boards to create a nice, even lighting effect. Shooting outdoors can work as well, especially on a porch with a roof so you have plenty of indirect sunlight.
- As I said above, a good lens with a low aperture is a great way to get more light into your photos. I’ve found that it’s so much easier to get bright pictures with my 50mm prime lens than with my 18-55mm kit lens.
- White foamboards (you can get them really cheap at Walmart) make nice neutral backgrounds that help bounce light into your pictures, creating an even brightness.
- If you don’t have a good way to use natural light for your pictures (for example, if you live in the middle of the woods, like me, or have a habit of photographing at night), use artificial lights. There’s all kinds of lighting equipment out there, and someday I’d like to have the good stuff, but I’ve made do with some flexible lamps and a couple of really bright LED daylight bulbs from Lowe’s (about $10-15 each). I usually set up or two bulbs on one side of my food and use reflectors and foam boards to bounce the light from the other sides as well for a natural look with some shadows but not too many.
- To teach yourself to take adequately-bright pictures, submit your food pictures to Foodgawker. They’re really picky about exposure, so now whenever I take pictures I make sure to scrutinize my picture for brightness, thinking, “Foodgawker would call that underexposed.” If you have pictures rejected frequently for being underexposed, eventually you’re learn that proper exposure is important.
- Don’t be afraid to bump up the brightness in post-processing. I almost always bump up the exposure and/or lightness (I use Lightroom) in my pictures while editing.
Props…props add life to your pictures, but they shouldn’t be the focus of the photograph.
- Props can be very inexpensive. I’ve bought almost all of mine from thrift stores. Marshall’s, Ross, and TJ Maxx are some of my other favorite stores that carry nice dishes for great prices.
- I’ve found that plain white dishes showcase food the best, as a general rule.
- However, you need a few eye-catching pieces once in awhile, especially if you’re shooting bland-looking foods.
- Go miniature. Smaller dishes get fuller quicker (full is good) and tend to photograph better. My most-used prop is probably an extremely simple small white plate (originally Delta Airlines china, I believe) that I got from a thrift store.
- Learn what shapes work best with your favorite camera angles. Certain dishes, especially bowls, just don’t showcase food well and look wonky through the camera lens. I’ve found that smaller, more compact bowls work better than wide-rimmed ones.
- We want to see the food, and we want it to look normal (OK, maybe a little better than normal). Use whatever props help you achieve this goal.
- Plain backgrounds (white, charcoal, wood) showcase food well. I like to use white foam boards (available cheap from Walmart) because they don’t draw attention to themselves, go with anything, and reflect light.
- Tell a story with your photographs. If you’re shooting food, use ingredients tastefully arranged to help set the stage.
- Scrapbooking paper makes cheap backgrounds and/or placemats to add some color and texture. I use this all the time.
Food styling…a well-placed crumb can add extra depth to a shot.
- Make the food look like something you would want to eat. It is your job as a food photographer to make food look edible. The only sense you can use is that of sight: you don’t have the senses of taste or smell to help your cause. Therefore, the food has to look good. This could mean carefully arranging a few key chunks of ingredients in a bowl of soup so they’re visible instead of submerged, letting the ice cream melt a little bit so it’s drippy and shiny, or choosing the most perfect cookies to photograph.
- As a general rule, keep things neat and clean and wipe up accidental spills.
- Sometimes imperfect can be drool-worthy, though. There are times when you should wipe up the drops of milkshake that accidentally ended up on the tablecloth, but then there are also times that you should conveniently distribute a few crumbs in front of the cookies. You can even take a bite out of a cookie or brownie and then photograph it so people can see the texture inside (and yes, texture is most definitely the reason you would sample the merchandise…it has nothing to do with the fact that they were so good you just could.not.resist.).
- Display some ingredients with your food. Ingredients can add interest when arranged tastefully in the photo. However, I am not a fan of line-up-all-the-ingredients-and-snap-a-quick-picture. That looks kind of amateur, in my opinion.
- Progress pictures can be a good idea, especially if the end product isn’t that interesting-looking. Take pictures as you’re cooking, but make them unique and tasty-looking. Please don’t take pictures with the same angle of the same pot of food after you add each ingredient. Again, amateur. If you need good inspiration for process pictures, check out Pinch of Yum. Lindsey does a great job.
- Find out how to take pictures with good angles – good angles being angles at which you can see the food well where it looks natural, not distorted. Angles are one of the biggest keys to good photography, in my opinion. Good angles seem to come more naturally for some people than others; some people are born with a good artistic eye whereas some people need to work a little harder at conditioning themselves to look for good angles. Whether you have a naturally gifted eye or not, you could probably use some improvement in this aspect of photography, so make a point of studying the work of people you admire to see what kind of shots they get. Where are they in relation to their subject matter? When you take pictures, photograph the food from many different angles. Check your pictures on your camera as you take shots, and move around to find angles that make the food look natural. As a general rule, fill the camera frame with your subject, but don’t get so close that the food gets distorted (you will have to stand farther away from or closer to the food, depending on what lens you’re using). Maybe you also want to have a shot or two with open space above the subject where you can write text for a title picture for the post. The best way to learn better angles is to take lots of pictures, look at them all with a critical eye, and decide which ones look the most attractive. Ask for help from experienced photographers. Send them some pictures and ask them for their honest opinions: which pictures do they like the best, and why? As I said before, submit pictures to Foodgawker. The folks over there are good about telling you which angles are good and which ones aren’t. Hint: if your pictures get accepted, your angles probably aren’t that bad.
I keep mentioning Foodgawker.com. Foodgawker is a photo-sharing site for food bloggers…think Pinterest, but for professional foodies. You can see my gallery on Foodgawker here (it’s interesting to see the progression of my photography over the past year). Head on over and scroll down the main page – there’s plenty of inspiration there! The folks over on Foodgawker are very good about letting you know why they rejected your picture, so submitting pictures is a great tool for improving your photography. If your photos get accepted, they’re probably not too bad (and it gives you a little traffic!).
I firmly believe that editing is usually necessary to bring pictures to their full potential. I also believe that edited pictures should still look natural. In other words, I shouldn’t notice that you edited the picture: the editing should complement the picture, not overpower it. There are free editing programs available (one of my favorites being Picmonkey.com), and they can be OK, but they’re not going to be a good fit long-term for a blogger. I started out with Corel Paintshop Pro X3, which is basically a cheap off-brand of Photoshop that I got for Christmas one year (my dad found it on Ebay or Amazon for $20-30). It worked for what I needed it for, and I would say it was a good value for the money. I’m not sure that I would describe it as super user-friendly, though. I never did figure out most of its capabilities, but maybe that was just me. I kept hearing good things about Lightroom, which is a photo-editing software produced by Adobe. I got it for Christmas last year (my dad is great at finding deals on this kind of stuff, thankfully), and I LOVE it. It is so easy to use, and my editing process has been streamlined times two. I can edit pictures with professional results, resize, and watermark – all with the same program, and all very quickly. I highly recommend Lightroom for any editing needs you might have.
Free Graphic Design Programs
For graphic design needs (putting text on pictures, making collages, making buttons and banners, etc.), I go to Canva.com. It’s free! Picmonkey.com is good too, but it doesn’t have as many options. Both are very user-friendly.
It’s a good idea to have a watermark on your pictures so people can’t steal them. There are many different ways to watermark; I have my preferences, but please do whatever you feel comfortable with. Some people have told me that I need to have a larger watermark that covers more of the picture for security reasons, but I don’t like to cover up the food with a distracting watermark! I created a simple, small image (with a transparent background) for my watermark using Picmonkey.com. Whenever I export a picture from Lightroom after editing, I put this small graphic somewhere on the picture. I make the graphic semi-transparent, both so it isn’t so distracting and so it isn’t easy to remove from the picture.
I hope this post gives you some ideas for ways you can improve your photography. As always, feel free to comment below or contact me if you have any questions or want feedback on your own pictures!