Photography on Simply Recipes
Updated. Originally posted November, 2006.
Over the years, many readers have emailed me with questions about the cameras and lenses used to take photos on Simply Recipes. I thought I would take a minute to describe the equipment, software and a little of the process I use here. I’ll start with the cameras I use even though any photographer will tell you, it’s not the equipment but the eye of the photographer that’s important. I couldn’t agree more! Though good equipment does help when you have challenging lighting, which is often the case in the kitchen. At the end of the article I list lots of links to tutorials and resources if you are interested in learning more about food photography. If you have any questions about my process I haven’t addressed here, please ask in the comments. I’ll answer them if I can.
When I launched Simply Recipes in 2003, I had a simple point and shoot digital camera. In 2005 I started shooting with Canon’s entry level DSLR camera—a Canon Rebel, with a Canon 50mm f1.4 lens and a 60mm macro lens. In 2007 I started using a Canon 5D with a Canon 100mm macro lens. I later upgraded to a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. These days I am shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III and the same 24-70 lens. This camera is probably overkill for my purposes, but it has two main advantages. It takes beautiful shots in low light conditions (the usual conditions for the method shots in my kitchen) because of its high ISO range, and it’s very easy to use for shooting HD video, something I hope to do more of. I usually shoot in “AV” mode, or “aperture priority”, which alters the amount of light coming into the camera and affects the depth of field of the focus. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of “manual” mode, yet. Still working on it!
As you navigate through the site, the older recipes tend to have photos that were shot with older models of cameras, though I occasionally reshoot recipes from the archives. Photos of the more recent recipes are shot with either the Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III. I’ve also recently starting doing video, using the spectacular HD video capabilities of the Canon 5D Mark III. As I create videos, you’ll be able to see some of them here on the Simply Recipes YouTube channel.
If you are in the market for a camera and are looking for the next step up from a point and shoot, I do recommend the Canon Rebel, a camera model I used for several years. It’s an excellent, affordable, entry level digital SLR camera, the SLR standing for “Single Lens Reflex“. The main advantage of an SLR is that you can swap out the lenses depending on your needs. With the Rebel I recommend a Canon 50mm f1.4 (or its much less expensive sister, the Canon 50mm f1.8), and a Canon 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens for the close-up shots. With the Canon 5D Mark III I use a Canon 24-70mm lens. It’s a pricey lens, but I absolutely love it and never take it off the camera. It’s a great lens for food photography.
And then there’s the iPhone. What an amazing device it is! All the more useful because unlike the big DSLR cameras that are heavy and you have to think to lug around, your mobile phone is usually with you, ready at any moment for a photo, should the opportunity arise. I know some photographers who take absolutely stunning photographs with their iPhone. The photos of the sunflower and seeds on this recipe were shot with my iPhone.
Whenever possible, I shoot in Camera RAW format, which allows the greatest flexibility in post processing. With a RAW file you can make adjustments that result in a jpeg to use on your site, or a high resolution file for print, but without damaging the source file. The workflow software I use is Apple Aperture, which I don’t actually recommend. But I invested in it years ago, and now it’s what I know and use. Many of my food blogging colleagues use Adobe Lightroom with which they are very happy. And some friends use Capture One, which has good reviews as well.
Once I’ve reviewed the photos I’ve shot in Aperture, I then edit them in Adobe Photoshop. I may increase the exposure, adjust the color balance or white balance, and adjust the contrast to get the final photo I want. I may also crop the photo or add a watermark.
Left – before Photoshop, Right – after Photoshop
Photoshop is a professional tool, with a steep learning curve. Years ago I subscribed to the tutorials at Lynda.com to learn this software. Lynda.com’s tutorials are self-paced and very well done. For $25 per month you have access to a library of thousands of tutorial videos, and many are provided for free, just so you can see how useful they really are. Lynda.com also has tutorials for Photoshop Elements, a more basic photo editing tool.
Lighting and Staging
A few years ago now, when I was first starting this site, I asked the lovely Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini for advice regarding taking photos. I hated what my photos looked like, and hers always looked so gorgeous. She recommended that I
1) never use the camera’s flash, and
2) use indirect natural light whenever possible.
I have since learned that lighting is pretty much everything. Whenever possible, I take photos in the middle of the day, to take advantage of the good natural light. By mid afternoon my home is almost completely shaded by a neighbor’s redwood trees, making capturing photos with natural light more challenging. I usually shoot with the light from the window behind the subject, and bounce light back into the shadows with a large piece of white poster board. I have white shear material draping over the windows to soften the light. I’ll shoot anywhere in the house (or garage, or backyard) where I can get good light.
I’ll use a small table or box and put a background on top of it, depending on what I want the background to be. I have a couple of marble tops, several cutting boards, a large piece of slate, and a World War II foot locker that is a drab olive green and wonderfully scuffed. Here I’m shooting on slate.
The resulting photograph gives the illusion that the salad is shot on a slate table, but in reality, it’s only a 16″x16″ slate tile. The light from the window is coming in from behind the salad, creating highlights on the salad.
Props and Plates
One of the coolest things about food photography is that you have a good excuse to buy props! Antique sterling, old and worn transferwear, steeply discounted Limoge porcelain, shabby wooden chopping boards, anything goes if it helps the food look good.
Right before the food is ready, I peek into my pantry closet where I keep a rather large collection of plates and bowls, to pick out a few that I think may look with the food. Most of these plates I’ve acquired over many years of visiting thrift shops, flea markets, and antique stores. Small plates work best, as do muted colors, and a matte (not too shiny) surface. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. One of my favorite plates to shoot with has a bright cobalt blue hand painted design. Chocolate brownies look great on that plate.
Please feel free to ask questions about my photography set up or the plates or props I’m using in the comments. If I can answer, I will!
When I started taking photos of food in the early days of Simply Recipes, the results weren’t all that stellar. However, with some decent equipment, and a lot of advice, I’d like to say that the photos around here have been improving. If you are interested in food photography, here are some terrific resources:
- LearnFoodPhotography.com – an entire site devoted to helping us improve our food photography
- Photographing FOOD – a useful set of PDF ebooks by professional food photographers and stylists, each issue is $5 (excellent value)
- CreativeLive – great video tutorials on photography, design, software and more
- PicMonkey.com – free photo editing service
- How to Edit Your Pictures to Look Professional on Your iPhone – a detailed tutorial on how to edit your photos with Snapseed by Laura Bashar of Family Spice
- Photography Tutorials, Tips, and Gear from Diane Cu and Todd Porter of White on Rice Couple
- Photography posts and tutorials from Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman
- Food Photography Tips, Tricks, and Tutorials from Taylor Mathis of Taylor Takes a Taste
- Learning the Visual Elements of Design by Sylvie of Gourmande in the Kitchen
- Food Photography Styles and Trends by Stephanie of Desserts for Breakfast
- 10 household items that can improve your food photography – so creative! From Pinch of Yum
- Matt from Writefood on Food Photography
- Inspiration from Keiko of Nordljus who takes breathtaking photos
- Adobe Lightroom tutorial – from Marc of No Recipes
- Food Photography Post Processing Tutorial (Lightroom) from Melissa Hartfiel
- Why Lightroom may be the only photo editor you need – from Kevin and Amanda
- A comprehensive list of resources and tutorials regarding all aspects of food blogging, including photography, from Lori, The Recipe Girl
- Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling – Book by food photographer and blogger Helene Dujardin
- Focus On Food Photography for Bloggers – Book by food photographer and blogger Matt Armendariz
Note: Most of the equipment mentioned in the article is linked to a page on Amazon where you can buy the equipment. I do receive a small commission from Amazon from sales made from these links. The commissions go to support the operations of this website.