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Low Budget, Low Maintenance Food Photography

Written by Hannah of Rise and Shine.
I'll get down to food photography tips and tricks, but first let me rattle on about why I have to think so hard about this subject, if you will. I'm not exactly poor and lazy (maybe a little of each) but I surely don't have a lot of money or time to burn. Or space, for that matter. I live in a small house so my "studio" is a little corner of the basement between the camping gear and the litter boxes. Another little hindrance of mine is location. For much of a Duluth winter, the sun shines only after I leave for work and sets before I get home. Shooting in natural light isn't always an option for me. On top of all of this, I have a pretty fierce streak of perfectionism that keeps me from letting things be. A very good example being my participation in the Daring Bakers club. I started a "low-key" blog with the intent of it being specifically for posting my DB challenge results and I didn't even own a camera.

My husband took the photos as I pretended not to wring my hands over his shoulder fretting about my "vision." It's been a year and a half and I now own a camera, I post weekly, I am constantly tweaking things on my blog, and I secretly do care if I make it onto a traffic-driving site like foodgawker. People want to take better photos for many reasons, and I alone have many reasons. Attracting blog traffic and getting recognition is the least important to me, but does make the work I put into it more rewarding. Producing a visual art that I am proud of is very important to me, as I want the experience of looking at my blog to be a pleasant one. And most importantly, I love the process. Love it!

Maybe you share some of these feelings and want to take better photos. Maybe not, and if that's the case, more power to you! I am by no means an expert, or even really that good at food photography, relatively...Have you seen those elaborate studio shots on foodgawker? I can't accomplish that if I try. But I've learned a few super simple things that have helped me to make a better blog.

Tools: This is my "studio" when I can't shoot outside. I use these Lowel EGO Digital Imaging, Tabletop Fluorescent Light Units. They are lightweight and all I do is plug them in (and let them warm up for a few minutes for best results). I had to save up because each light cost me $110. For my backdrops, I use 2 pieces of foam core craft board that I drape with a large piece of creamy white cloth. I also have a black cloth that I use at times and both have a matte finish, so there's not light glaring off the fabric. I have collected a few platters and dishes in both black and white and I have a few silver pieces of dishware that I use rarely in photos. Initially, I tried to incorporate color and texture and props in my photos and it didn't work for me. The furthest I stretch now is maybe a beige napkin under a plate or something. Once I started keeping things super basic, my photos got better. Besides my lights, all my supplies were purchased at thrift stores and cost me very little.

For a camera, I use a Canon Powershot sx150. It was $200 new, which seems like kind of a lot of money to me. Though, not even close to the cost of a big fancy camera. Most photos that were obviously taken with a really nice camera were using a DSLR-type and most cameras of this kind run about $500 to $1,000.

The other tool I use is PicMonkey.com, which is pretty much like Photoshop, but probably easier to use (I've never used Photoshop, but believe me, PicMonkey is easy) and it's free! I choose to pay $5 a month for an account on the site, to gain access to an expansive amount of photo altering tools because I also play around with non-food visual arts. With the PicMonkey basics, you can crop and rotate, increase contrast, alter exposure, adjust the color and resize your photos. The list goes on to creating collage, turning photos into black and whites, Polaroids and more, adding frames and text, fixing mistakes (such as cleaning up crumbs or erasing a chip on a plate) and creating a bunch of awesome visual effects. For the most part, this website has allowed me to pretend like I have a fancy camera when I don't.

When it comes to composition, or setting up a shot, I keep things very simple. It's a black or white background and the food. There are just a few things I try to keep in mind.
Color Balance: If your food is pretty much all one color, try adding a complimentary color to the photo. I usually do this with the food versus the props, but you can use a plate of a complimentary color, or a napkin under the plate. On this Green Eggs and Ham photo, I like the balance of the pink and green. To mix the prosciutto into the eggs would have made a very yellow/green photo. Sometimes this means assembling the food not in the way you would serve it at the table, but in a way that makes a good picture.

Lighting: To have a good amount of contrast between lights and darks makes for a nice photo. When I can, I shoot outside, but only in the shade. To shoot under direct sunlight creates harsh lighting and too many reflections off the food. See the photo of the enchiladas at the top of this page? It's one of my favorites, and I took it out my back door in about 5 seconds. My porch is gray wood so I set the pan on the ground, stood above it, took one picture, then went inside and ate dinner. When using my studio lighting, I'll usually set one light off to the left and behind the subject a bit, and the other directly off to the right and maybe pulled forward a touch. I always have to move stuff around a bit while looking through my camera to see what will create nice lighting. I have found more shadow is better looking than harsh points of reflection off the food. You can live without electric lights, though, don't get me wrong. I took this photo of brioche next to a window in my house when it was too cold to bring the food outside. It's a different effect, for sure, but has nice contrast nonetheless.

Rule of Thirds: Once you're taking the photo, you must choose how to position your subject in the frame. Dead center is fine, especially from an aerial view. Also, to take the photo from the vantage point of one sitting at a dinner table about to dig in is appealing. From here, I know a trick of considering the "rule of thirds." Imagine a tick-tac-toe grid over the photo frame and position the focal point at any of the four points that the lines intersect.

Creating Triangles: This is a trick from the visual art world; keep the eye moving around the entire art piece, or in our case, photo. This is easily done by spreading color points throughout the photo in a subtle triangle shape (think stars creating a constellation). If you've got a garnish, bits of a bright vegetable, or slivered almonds, use a tweezers to pick a few up and space them out in a triangle and it will usually make a difference, albeit a subtle one. For us closet perfectionists.

As you can see from my photos, I prefer lots of light in my pictures. Foodgawker usually rejects my photos, stating "overexposed" as their reason. Or "composition" (meaning they don't like the camera angle or the way it's set up). While I do enjoy the accomplishment of getting my photos posted on these food forum sites, I stick to my guns and do what I like. I like bright, light filled photos, and I'm no studio photographer. And that's okay!

For you with a goal of getting your photos posted on sites such as foodgawker or tastespotting; a few words:

The two sites I listed above are not the only two food blog forums out there. There are many more such as foodgazing, which is the one that I started with. You won't get much blog traffic from the smaller sites, but for me it felt good to get myself out there.

These sites accept photos in a square shape only, and will crop them as such. It helps to keep this in mind when shooting and crop to your liking before you go on the site to submit a post. The photos also must be sized no bigger than 500x500. These things can be taken care of on PicMonkey.

These food photo sites require a high degree of contrast and clarity/crispness in photos. They choose to pin your blog post entirely on the photo, not on the recipe or the idea.

They don't like super close closeups. They often tell me my photos are "too tight." Because I love super close closeups.

Due to my limitations of various sorts, I don't have an incredible record for getting pinned on food forum sites. My record on foodgawker, for example, is 19 accepted and 44 declined. I don't try to do things differently because of this. Like I said, stick to your guns and do what you love! Tell yourself the mantra of the perfectionist: "Not everybody has to like me." Especially foodgawker for cripes sake...

Happy food blogging! Were some of my tips clear as mud? Let me know and I'll try to answer your question!

daring baker duluth
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It's discouraging, isn't it?! I'd give it a go if I were you...it is kind of fun once you get the hang of it!

cmahan
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Joined: 10/28/2013

There are more and more of these smaller photo food sites popping up all over and many of them are quite popular. FoodGawker and TasteSpotting are popular because the majority of those people are folks who hate Pinterest. I belong to a few different niche groups and I can't believe how many people out there just hate Pinterest. I haven't submitted any of my foods to either site. Mostly because I am too scared and feel like they are going to reject me anyway since I don't use a lot of props and still can't seem to get my lighting right no matter what I do or how many Photoshop/Lightroom tutorials I watch.

pizzarossa
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Joined: 02/15/2012

Hannah, thanks for a great tutorial! I don't think we ever stop learning and picking up new tricks, and it's wonderful to have hints from a real person who takes real photos in a real situation.

One thing I've learned about trying to get accepted to foodporn sites is that they all want different things, so you simply cannot expect to please every editor out there. As you say, please yourself first Smile

Marcellina
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Joined: 05/21/2009

Great information! Often I read tips on food photography and it's way above me, my equipment and my time available. This is perfect!