Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Photography + Food Styling:
Twelve Must-Read Tips

Three years ago I thought that I was a good photographer. I had a nice DSLR and I knew how to use it, even on manual. But as I began taking pictures for my then, very new blog, my artist's eye told me something was wrong. My photos were not good. Actually, they were bad. They were dark and cluttered. Even worse than that, they just weren't....right. And I had no idea why.

Since that time, I've spent three trial and error filled years learning about food styling and food photography. I've learned that there is a big difference between just taking a picture of some food, and actually composing a photograph with props, framing and good lighting.
Today, a few years on, I still struggle with my photography. Being a blogger is like running a small magazine all by yourself. You come up with the concept, then you execute your concept, making sure to photograph every step. When that's complete, you become the writer, working out the how-to's and instructions, before dreaming up a compelling post intro and title. Finally, it's time to photograph your work, and it has to be great. The cute concept and even the flowery introduction won't mean anything if you haven't taken strong photos to share on social media and to head up your post. And sometimes, even now, I find that really tricky.

But these days, after years of stalking other bloggers on Instagram and having fun (and frustrating) times experimenting with my own photography, I have a few rules to fall back on. And I'm excited to share with you all that I've learned, because a lot of these lessons took me a LONG time to understand and internalize.

Now I love to read blogs about blogging. The truly amazing thing about bloggers is that they don't keep all their best tips and info to themselves. The blogosphere is a place of sharing, of learning. I love that I can use other blogs to help me learn code, in order to make my own blog prettier and easier to use. And today I hope that I can share some information that will help those of you who are interested in food styling, to create and capture better photos.

These are my ultimate tips and tricks for food styling and food photography. I'll explain my suggestions with lots of photo examples. So let's dig into my personal photo archives and finally reveal.... my worst work. This is gonna be fun.

1. Cut the Clutter
My food styling was born out of a 'more is more' approach. I thought that my photos needed a lot of pretty elements to make them interesting and catchy. I was wrong. I ended up with weird, unnatural settings that didn't make any sense in life and definitely didn't make sense on film. Let's take a look, shall we?
What is going on in some of these pics? Why is that french toast being served on five plates? And why are there evergreen sprigs sprouting out of my cake? I don't even know what to say about the 'bar cart' that is clearly set up on my ottoman. There's a lot going on... literally. 
This photo of my springtime sangria is another good example of too much clutter. Again with the plates! It's not only the overload of dishes that I dislike about the picture, it's that everything is in focus. I'm not utilizing simple photographers tools like depth of field to help highlight my subject. A glance at this pic and we can't really tell, is the blog post about sangria?... or limes?... or maybe plates?

Truly, I could have posted a hundred example photos for this rule. In my first year of blogging I was addicted to cluttered photos. I've since learned that it's harder to make a simple photo stunning, but when a clean, minimal set-up does come together, those are some of my strongest pictures.
In the photos above, I've learned to calm down with the props already! The salted chocolate caramels stand out all on their own thanks to the bright, neutral palette and the depth of field (more on DOF below) . I've also used texture and pattern (more on that as well) to create visual interest. In the second photo, I've relied on similar tools, choosing simple and natural props that look like they belong and also lend texture, colour and depth to my photo.

2. Aim for Light + Bright (And Know Your Light Source)
When you're talking about photography, there is no bigger subject than light. Light and photography go together like goldfish and water. There is no photography without light. So it's safe to say that I can't even begin to really dig into this massive topic, but here are a few tips (and some horrible photos too!).
I have very few good photos of Christmas cookies. Year after year, I find myself baking late into the night and then even when the December sun does come up, there isn't always enough natural light to shoot with. Thus, my holiday cookie pics are perfect examples of low light gone wrong. In the above picture, you can see the typical problems associated with not enough light: the colours are off and parts of the image appear too cool, blueish, while other areas are too warm, yellowish. In addition, the focus isn't as sharp as it could be, and parts of the image are ever-so-slightly blurred. Finally, the picture is plagued by weird shadows. Low light catastrophe!

Ok, so sometimes indoor photography can be tricky. An obvious solution is to shoot outdoors, and I do a lot of that in the summer months. But even these sunny shoots are not without their problems. Take a look:
In this pic I'm attempting to capture the beauty of Chris' freshly foraged mushrooms. We start off in the shade, but the photo is dark and dull.
No problem, we'll just move into the sunlight! Now we have an over-exposed picture. The light is too bright and has washed out many details.
Now, we've got it! We moved into a semi-shaded area (under a tree, I think), where the sunlight was filtered nicely. Filtered light (like the light that comes through a thin, white curtain or even the leaves of a tree) will illuminate the subject without causing wash-outs or major shadows.
When taking photos, it's very important to think about where your light is coming from. In this picture my light source is behind my subject, which means my subject appears dark and gloomy and as if that weren't bad enough, it is actually glowing from behind. There are many ways to play with light, and knowing and understanding the light source is a great tool to manipulate, but when your starting out, I think it's best to just remember: keep the light on your subject, not it's backside.

3. Find Your Style
This is an important step for any product/food styling and photography that you do, especially if you're cultivating an IG or blogger presence online. When I started blogging, my style was all over the place and my pictures lacked a look that flowed from one blog post to the next. It was very difficult for me to achieve any harmony; until I made one major change. I stopped using Instagram and Pinterest. I had to put blinders on for awhile, and this caused me to actually use my own imagination. Dreaming up styling shots reminded me of the way I used to come up with art projects as I kid (it all came from one place, me) and soon I found my IG feed looked way more cohesive, it looked like my life and it represented my style. The following pics are some of my 'copy-cat' photos:

Ah, my red snapper. One of first real attempts at food styling and photography. It's not terrible. The set-up is interesting and the picture is kinda artistic. But here's the real problem, it's not me. I can't remember exactly, but I think I was 'inspired by' something that I'd seen on Pinterest. The same goes for the canning shot of my summer dills. It's dark and weird and doesn't represent my home or my style.

4. Showcase Yourself
This is a fun styling tip that I've only recently started utilizing. It's a great idea to incorporate yourself into your shot. It doesn't have to be a full body pic with your smiling face staring into the lens, putting yourself in your photos can be as simple as photographing your subject in your hands. I have found that I get the best response (the best traffic, the most clicks) on any photo that includes just one of my body parts. As weird as that sounds, putting your hand in a picture creates visual interest (it's just one more element in the photo) and it gives the picture a human element. Your viewer can now see and understand, you made this, you are going to show them how to do this etc.
My caramel candies started a whole new genre on the 11th apartment. Candy making became my new hobby and the posts that came out of this were some of my most well-received. But the cardinal post lacked an interesting picture to captivate my readers. The caramels were so orange and plain; and I found styling and photographing them pretty tough. It wasn't until this summer, when I took the following photo for IG that I finally found my caramel cover photo:
My Christmas cookie photo from this past December incorporates some of the tips and tricks that I've just covered: include yourself, work with a neutral and uncluttered palette and shoot outside in filtered light.

5. Keep It Simple, Just Not Too Simple
Isn't that an annoying title? It's like answering a question with, 'well, yes and no'. Who says that?! Ok, but seriously, this styling tip is all about balance, and balance is an important styling and photo achievement. The answer to cluttered photos isn't empty boring photos. Even the clean, minimal pics that are the current stars of Instagram feeds everywhere have a lot of detail and interest points if you look closely.

It takes time and practice to find balance, but the best part about experimenting is that you end up with all kinds of usable photos, even when you don't get the photo.
The above pic is a good example of just that. I made these strawberry and cream marshmallows back in the summer and wanted to have a nice, clean cover photo. I spent the better part of an afternoon crumpling up wax paper and sprinkling icing sugar to get my perfect, minimalist pic. And I got some nice photos, but when I sat down and began editing, it was pretty obvious, I hadn't taken the photo. This was a strong blog post, and I still didn't have a strong photo that would make my marshmallows a social media star. 
So the next day I started over and I set up a sort of 'marshmallow picnic'. I used subtle props like glass jars and edible flowers. I even made a little dessert table-esque sign that read 'strawberry marshmallows' and although the card is out of focus, it's an important element in the final photo. This pic became my cover photo, while the first pic was great addition mid-post.

6. Experiment with Depth of Field
Depth of field refers to the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in sharp focus in a photo. (I got that from google). Now, here's what depth of field means to me: when I set out to take a photo, I style my shot and then before I begin shooting I think, how much of this do I want in focus and what do I want in focus. Playing with sharp vs blurry will help you to highlight your subject and direct your viewers eye. You'll also find that you can add props without distraction and create rich, inviting photos that people respond well to.

Even a relatively uncluttered photo can look a bit haphazard when all the elements are in focus:

Case and point, my strawberry fig jam photo session. I have some great props in the fresh green figs, but I'm not using them to my advantage at all. The jam jars and figs are just sitting there in a straight line, there's no depth, no interest and oh yes, the lighting is bad. Yay!
But we can improve. My lavender honey is one of my favourite examples of use of depth of field. The honey is in sharp focus, and the few simple out-of-focus props in the background (butcher's twine and fresh lavender) not only look natural, but they help to create a warm, neutral colour palette for this summery shot.

Here's another good example of use of depth of field. My rose water marshmallows were meant as a mother's day post on candy making. Once the marshmallows were ready, I went to the florist and purchased some incredibly perfect roses to use as  background props for my shoot. When I started photographing however, I was so in love with the gorgeous peach and purple flowers that I decided to put the focus on them. The result was a unique cover photo that represented all aspects of the post, the candy, the rose flavouring, and additionally, the fact that it was spring time and mother's day. 

7. When in Doubt, Shoot from Above
This is a simple trick that I go back to time and again. Styling and shooting from above creates a flat, almost two-dimensional scene; and a lot of food photographers on IG use this trick to create well styled scenes without a lot of fuss.  #flatlay

Got a lot of one thing (say, cookies) to photograph? Shooting from up high (standing on a ladder or table top) will allow you to capture lots of detail in one image.


8. In Low Light, Stay Away from White
Bright and light photos that have a clean white background are IG favourites this year. And aiming to have clean, minimal and beautiful pics is a great goal. However, if you're forced to shoot in low light (shout out to me! I live in a basement!) white can cause problems. Actually, white will just down right misbehave. It will turn all kinds of colours, from yellow and green to blue and orange and beyond. And while the white surface really isn't to blame (it's actually the cast of the artificial bulbs that you're using), it's a good idea to avoid a lot of white in any scenario where you're light source is less than desirable.
To shoot indoors, I have a good daylight bulb that I've put into a paper lantern, to create a sort of DIY photographer's soft box. It works pretty well, especially in combination with natural light. But on cloudy days, I have to rely solely on my artificial daylight bulbs, and that means that when I shoot with a white backdrop, sometimes I capture a slightly greenish white backdrop. I know it's subtle, but a critical eye will notice that the white areas in the above photo are actually more green/yellow than they are white. 
But look what happens when I use a grey surface area (backdrop) with white accents. Suddenly, the whites in my picture look clean and bright, and the colour of the entire photo is much better. And my edible flower 'stained glass' cookies actually look edible!

9. Direct Sunlight = Scary
It's funny, as a photographer you crave light, you chase light, you dream about a studio that is perpetually filled with clean, white, beautiful light! A place where taking bright, light-filled photos no longer seems like the hardest task on the planet! And yet... direct sunlight is not your friend.
Last winter I blogged my preserved lemons. I spent the afternoon preparing the lemons, making sure to take lots of 'how-to' photos as I worked. I finished the lemons in the late afternoon and I thought that maybe I could take some styling shots. Well, I took some. The above photo is an example of the harsh, warm light that we get as the sun begins to set each day. Even filtered, this light is not great for food photography and I had to wait until the next day.

When, in the lovely morning light I took this picture! Soo much better. You can see how much whiter the light is. There's none of that ugly organgey glow. Just clean white light and a very pretty shot.
Shooting away from the sun.
And check out this recent photo of Chris' birthday cake. I finished the cake in the afternoon, and we went outside to take a few quick pictures. Beginner photography tips will tell you to keep the sun at your back when taking a photo. This way the sun will be facing and illuminating your subject. It's good wisdom, but when that late day light is strong and the shadows are long and harsh, it's worth breaking the rules. If you can't wait until the next day (for softer light), put your subject with their back to the sun, and shoot directly into the light. Shooting towards the light source (if done properly) can help to diffuse strong, unforgiving light, and can give the photo a very ethereal look.
Shooting into the sun.
10. Balance Strong Hues with Grey's and Blue's
Hey, have you ever tried to photograph something red? Isn't it fun?? Especially when your entire subject is just bright, saturated, red colour?? In case your new to food photography, let's just get right down to business with this one. Here's an example:
Look at that beautiful jam. It looks RADIOACTIVE. It looks like something that I had in my weird science kit when I was a kid. Red is all fine and good if you're taking a family photo and someone has a red shirt on. No big deal. But with food photography you are sometimes faced with a unique challenge: your whole subject is one colour. That happens to me a lot when I photograph my canning. And it's always the worst when the canned goods are red.
There may be some comfort in knowing that red is notoriously difficult to photograph, especially in natural light and especially with a digital camera. Red things often look too vivid and over-saturated, resulting in that nice radioactive look. Behind the Lens blog has a good article on why this happens (in short our camera tries to function as the human eye would and the human eye is most sensitive to the colour green. For that reason our cameras have the most green sensors, followed by blue and red comes in last).

A quick google search for 'why can't I freakin photograph anything that is red?' or something similar, will result in a lot of technical suggestions that are complicated and do not always solve the problem. So over the years, I've come up with some tricks for capturing my weird-science jam on camera.

This summer I made a few batches of rose petal jelly. I was so excited to have actually made an edible jam out of something as ephemeral and beautiful as a rose, but even though I was super excited about this post, I knew it was going to be a tough one to photograph. I started by taking the jelly to the park, along with some props like bread, knives, spoons and some fresh flowers. But when I got to the park, I started out slow. I took lots of bad photos. The wood grain of the picnic table was too warm, the sun was too bright and all of it resulted in the jelly itself appearing WAY too bright. 
Eventually, the sun went behind some clouds and the entire area looked much cooler. With the annoying sun tucked away behind lovely, light-filtering clouds, I saw my chance. I quickly moved my entire set-up to a very worn out picnic table that I noticed at the park's edge. The wood was weather beaten to a light grey, and this muted colour, combined with my white tea towel and silver spoon, created a perfectly cooled down palette. My red jelly finally looked edible!

To photograph red, experiment with a palette of blues, greys, cool browns, and white accents. When you do your in-computer editing, if the red is still appearing too vivid, you can cool the photo down using the temperature controls. The blues and greys will still look natural and normal with this slight edit, and the red will calm down.

11. Add Interest with Colour, Texture and Pattern
This tip is kind of an addition to my first rule, 'cut the clutter'. You want to have interesting photos that capture people's attention. So how do you do that without adding in one too many props? For me the solution is colour, texture and pattern. Try arranging your shot on a piece of coloured fabric. I have a nice piece of blue chambray that I use again and again, as well as a length of lilac coloured canvas, and recently I purchased a piece of grey linen that I'm in love with. These fabrics create simple, colourful backdrops.
To bring your food pic to life, consider adding a little bit of pattern. Here I've used a paper napkin from Ikea, and with this one tiny paper product the shot now looks bright (the white accents), colourful (the contrast of cool blue with the warm tones in the pie) and interesting (the pattern itself).

And the candied flowers, above, stand out in a simple way, thanks to a piece of lilac coloured fabric. 

And don't dismiss pattern and texture found in nature. I love shooting on worn wood, marble and stone, and even grass.

12. Keep Trying, Keep Experimenting
Although the least technical, this is probably the one piece of advice that I myself must ALWAYS follow. Food shoots, or any styling shoots for that matter, don't always come together the way you want them to. Sometimes you can't create the wonderful image that you have in your mind's eye, and other times you just don't have a clear image or concept to start from. I'd say that about 90 percent of my shoots start out poorly. I'm still relatively inexperienced. I set things up the wrong way. I can't quite imagine what will look good in-camera. But it's not a big deal. I keep rearranging my shot, I try different light, different settings and I just keep taking pictures.

Last winter I blogged some posts on enjoying winter through Scandinavian style. I created simple Scandi crafts and foods, and these cookies were part of that. The problem? The cookies were so simple that they were difficult to photograph effectively. I took some nice enough pics, but they weren't stand-out shots. But I kept working with my props, rearranging things and adding in new things. From the photo above to the photos below you can see my progression. I had to scrap the cookies entirely...
But eventually, it all came together! And I had my shot.


The 11th apartment had it's third birthday this winter, and looking back, I almost can't believe how far the blog has come. It's hard to put into a few short words all that I've learned. When you begin a project like this, it's fair to say that there is just so much that you don't know you don't know. It takes time to learn the little things; things like choosing a blog font (and sticking with it), or using the same colours consistently to help with branding. And I learned after quite a long while, that you need to lead each post with your best photo, that's your attention-grabber, your first impression. Seems pretty obvious, I guess. But when I started blogging, it seemed to me that I didn't want to give the whole post away in that first paragraph, or even worse, on social media. I thought people should read right to the end of the post, and then their reward? An amazing photo! But it doesn't quite work like that. ;)

Thanks for reading; I hope you've learned something from my many mistakes! Please don't hesitate to ask me any questions. For daily photos, follow me on Instagram @the11thapartment or @shaydacampbell (if you wanna see all my annoying travel pics!).

5 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for sharing these wonderful tips on photography and food styling. Loved reading this helpful post. Hosted a food event in my backyard and had hired a Port Macquarie Photographer for the event.

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  3. SHAYDA, however do you stay so slim with all these cookies and yummies in your home? Thanks!

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