I’m on a mission to help beginners make their food photos look better, so we’re going to jump right in with some frequently asked questions. Part 4 will deal with basic editing techniques so stay tuned for that!
Food Photography Tips: FAQ
Okay, I’m pretty new to all this, and I’m still kind of confused about how to use ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Help!
There’s nothing worse than having to guess at camera settings. Sure, even basic cameras have automatic settings, but when you can learn to adjust them yourself, you open up a whole new world of possibilities. The thing about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed is that they must all be pretty balanced to get the shot.
Yes, editing software such as Photoshop, Aperture, and Lightroom can all help manipulate the final image. However, getting the best shot you can with the camera—then using editing software to make any final tweaks—is not only the best way to really practice, it’s the most efficient way to work.
Let’s look more closely at the hat-trick of settings commonly called “shooting in manual”: ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
ISO is a measure of your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the easier it is to get a properly exposed shot as light gets dimmer. Now, before you go max out the ISO on your camera, consider this: Higher ISO is generally associated with grainer shots, sometimes called noise.
Full-frame cameras (like my Nikon D610) with larger sensors are the most forgiving at higher ISO setting. Simply put, more sensor area means your camera can make the most of limited light.
Higher ISO is also great for lower light situations and vice versa. The catch is that higher ISO settings often mean slower shutter speeds which can make hand-holding tricky.
On the other hand, crop-frame cameras (like my Nikon D3200) have smaller sensors and are therefore less sensitive to light. What does that mean? Generally, you’ll have to shoot with a lower ISO, say 100 or 200.
If that’s the case, you may have to work a little harder to make sure your images are properly exposed, such as choosing a slower shutter and using a tripod. Lower ISO settings are also good for bright outdoor shots or action.
Let’s see what adjusting the ISO does since a visual may make the point for you.
Here I shot the same basket of onions from the same location at the same time of day. Note what happens as I adjust the ISO. These are all shot with the same aperture (f / 2.2) and shutter speed (1/400). Also, you can tell I didn’t use a tripod because the camera angle changes slightly, but I wasn’t trying to be super precise.
Note that as the ISO doubles, the resulting in the photo getting twice as light. Higher ISO = more sensitive to light which works well in this indoor shoot. Now, could I have adjusted the shutter speed to get away with the photo on the far left (ISO 125) being properly exposed? Yes.
I’d have to slow the shutter speed down from 1/400 to say, 1/40 or 1/50. I’d likely need a tripod since the long shutter speed is more likely to result in blur.
Here’s something interesting to note:
Using my photo editing software, I was able to auto- and manually correct the exposure to something that look acceptable. Again, I’d rather rely on the program to make minor tweaks or account for unfortunate lighting when I have no choice, not shoot using trial and error, then hope the software can fix it.
But, you have to do what you have to do.
In a nutshell, aperture (or f-stop) is how narrow or wide your lens opening is. Apertures come in a wide range and greatly affect the depth of field (or bokeh) a shot has. The best way to describe bokeh is that an object is in focus while the background of the shot is blurred…either a little or a lot.
Your options for aperture depend on the lens you’re using. For example, my old zoom lens had a range from f / 3.4 to f / 11. The Nifty Fifty lens I use most often starts at f / 1.8 and goes up from there. My 105mm macro lens starts at f / 3.
It can be confusing since the lower the aperture number the wider the lens, which means more light gets into the camera. Shooting on a low aperture is one way to make the most of lower light situations.
It also results in more bokeh, which can be great for side-on shots but tricky for overhead shots where the objects are all different heights.
The higher the aperture number, the narrower the lens, resulting in less light entering the camera and less depth of field. There will be less depth of field and more of the frame will appear in focus.
This works well for overhead shots, but in order to get proper exposure, the shutter speed generally has to slow down to make up for the smaller aperture letting less light into the camera.
The solution is often to use a tripod for overhead shots with medium to high aperture numbers, especially if your conditions are a bit on the darker side.
These are all shot with the same ISO (1000) and shutter speed (1/400).
Be careful when using aperture. Using a very low aperture value can make it hard to focus on certain objects, especially round or cylindrical things like glasses. And too much bokeh can make it hard to tell what the food actually is!
The shutter is the handy dandy part of the camera that closes when you actually push the button to take the photo. Just like you can adjust ISO and aperture, you can also adjust shutter speed.
Shutter speed is generally displayed as a fraction like 1/10 or 1/400 or in whole numbers like 1″ or 2″. A fast shutter, such as 1/250, means the shutter takes 250th of a second to close.
A slow shutter, like 1″, takes one second to close. Try playing around with just the shutter adjustment and actually listen. You can hear how fast or slow it closes.
These are are shot with the same ISO (1000) and aperture (f / 3.2). Notice how as the shutter speed slows, the images get brighter because more light hits the sensor. It also means the image is more subject as your hand moves. Using a tripod alleviates this problem quite a bit.
Generally, the darker the conditions, the slower the shutter needs to be to allow enough light into the camera to get the shot, and vice versa.
Lately, I’ve been shooting on aperature-priority mode, displayed as an A on your camera’s main adjustment wheel. This means I choose the aperture and the camera decides on the shutter speed.
Usually, I set the ISO ahead of time on that given day depending on the conditions or the job I’m doing. Then I pick the aperture I’d like to use and the camera figures out the shutter.
In the image below, I had my ISO set to 1000, then picked f / 2.2 as the aperture. The camera chose a moderately fast shutter to accommodate for more light entering due to a wider aperture.
The image below is unretouched, and I think it’s a pretty good one in terms of overall balance: ISO 1000, f / 2.2, shutter 1/200.
Do you use a tripod?
I have a tripod and use it about 20% of the time. I have a relatively small space to shoot in—on my dining room table or my couch—so a tripod usually gets in the way. I LOVE the freedom that hand-holding the camera gives me.
Now, there are some benefits to tripods: It’s easier to create consistent shots in a series when you want to work at the same angle / position, and you’re less likely to end up with blurry shots or things that are out of focus.
If I’m working with low light—say, my aperture is on a more moderate setting and my shutter speed is slower…typically below 1/60 or so—I prefer the tripod because I don’t run as much risk of any hand movement blurring the image.
Put another way, if low light forces me to run a slower shutter speed, I usually break out the tripod.
With all this taken under consideration, I tend to use a tripod if I absolutely have to, but I prefer to go without. A great tip is to hand-hold your camera to find the angle you want for a particular shot, then set up the tripod to duplicate it.
(Bill Staley told me he’s been using that method lately, and it’s really smart.) Investing in a moderately priced tripod that will last is probably wise if you’re serious about improving your photography.
Here’s the tripod I have. It does pretty much everything I need it to, has many adjustments, and is lightweight.
What’s the difference between RAW and JPEG?
RAW and JPEG are two types of image formats that DSLRs can shoot in.
Think of RAW like a digital negative that’s not processed. It gives you, the “developer,” more options when you’re editing that image. RAW images are intended to capture the subject most closely to how it looks in real life.
This all sounds great but just know that RAW files are very large and usually require some external storage device or they’ll fill up your hard drive. (You should be backing up to external- or cloud-based storage anyway, but it’s just something to note about RAW.)
JPEG is a common file format for images, but its downfall is that the image is compressed and doesn’t contain as much original data as a RAW file. Each time a JPEG is edited, the image quality degrades which is why it’s not really suitable for print projects.
When you upload photos to a blog or social media site, there is usually some compression that occurs anyway. So, if you aren’t keen on printing, you can simplify the process a bit and work with smaller files if you shoot in JPEG.
Think of JPEG like making a photocopy. Each time you press the “copy” button, the resulting
When it comes to setting your camera to RAW or JPEG, it’s helpful to know what your goals are. If you have any inkling that your photographs will be used for print, you should probably be shooting in RAW.
Click below to skip to other parts in the series.
Questions about anything in this lesson? Leave them in the comments below!
Pin Food Photography Part 3 for later!