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.

 

Camera Equipment

canon-5d-miii

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.

Pasta Sauce on Simply Recipes

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.

Roasted In Shell Sunflower Seeds on Simply Recipes

 

Software

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.

before-photoshop-salmon after-photoshop-salmon
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.

the-studio

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-studio-box

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.

photo-example-b

 

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.

props-and-plates

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!

 

Final Notes

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:

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.

39 Comments

  1. ATigerintheKitchen

    Fantastic tips…thanks! I’m very new to this, too. Like you, I hated all the pictures I was taking until another blogger took me aside and told me two magic words: Natural Light.

    Thanks for this post…I learned even more. Cheers!

  2. J2Kfm

    thanks for the information and tips.
    i’m prone to shoot using my digicam, a Panasonic Lumix LX3, as it has fast shutter speed, wide aperture, and works well in low light setting (esp in restaurants). the latter’s important as I blog mostly about my food endeavours all around Malaysia.
    though sadly, no setting up can be done, as I’m sure I’ll look silly carrying a big sheet of white cardboard, or props around. :)

  3. frances

    I was directed to your site by my friend because of my interest in canning crispy pickles (the ice bath). I stayed on the site because of your photos. What a fabulous job you have done, they are beautiful!!

    Kudos to you

    Thanks Frances! ~Elise

    • Murad Shah

      I was directed to your site by my friend because of my interest in canning crispy pickles (the ice bath). I stayed on the site because of your photos. What a fabulous job you have done, they are beautiful!!

      Kudos to you

  4. Andrea

    Wow, this is s helpful because I do have issues with backgrounds and such. I guess I need more wooden cutting boards. :D The natural lighting is a great idea, however, I live in Canada and just right now it’s raining. Not so good for photos. Thanks for the advise, it sure is helpful. Keep up the good work.

  5. Kevin

    Hi Elise,
    Thank you so much for the tips. I came across your blog when I was looking for some homemade ice cream recipes. I believe it was for homemade peach and your recipe was great.
    I too just started a blog (1 post only right now and just launched it before Tnaksgiving). My pictures aren’t that great at the moment and so your tips are excellent. Most of my shots have been taken in the kitchen with normal kitchen lighting and sometimes flash. I don’t have Photoshop yet to “FIX” my photos, so it is on my Xmas list.
    Great site and continued succes!!

  6. Nathan Hall

    Being a digital imaging trainer, I would have to say that you have done very well! The only other pieces of advice I would give to other photographers wanting to do product shots is to possibly invest in a inexpensive lighting kit. You can purchase a relatively inexpensive set of “hot lights” (lights that stay on – much like a lamp – instead of flash) with, stands and color-balanced flourescent tubes for well under a hundred dollars. Diffuse the light with a cloth or plastic panel (you can do this with the much cooler-to-the-touch flourescents) and now you can get consistent results all the time. Using natural light is nice, but often inconsistent (especially for those who live more north!).

    And one more thing, unless you are really going to get into color management and adjustment layers, Photoshop Elements 4 is an excellent program (much better than version 1 or 2) with most of the most useful tools (like healing brush, layers, etc.) for a fraction of the price. It also is a little bit easier to use as well. After saying that though, if you plan on getting into photography more seriously, go all the way to Photoshop.

    Nice to see someone use good lenses though. :) (the 85mm lens is quite nice as well).

    Good job, Elise.

  7. Christine @ Fresh Local and Best

    Elise, Thank you so much for the detailed information and the helpful links to other great photographer’s tips! I’m finally getting around to researching the information I need for my first DSLR, and I find your tip on purchasing the lens separately very helpful. Also, after reading this post, I’m less likely to purchase ‘too much camera.’ Initially I was thinking about a 7D, but I think the Rebel will do the job well. Thanks so much! Christine

  8. barb

    many of your posts regarding photoing food applies to when I have to shoot our jewelry. Luckily we have the same camera. Your photos have always inspired me to try your recipes.

  9. Kerissa Barron

    Great post Elise! As someone who is a horrible photographer but desires to be at least less so, this is a very helpful post. Hope all is well!

  10. David Moreau

    I’ve been using a newer camera, the Panasonic Lumix DX 7, for shots of food. With lots of bells and whistles, it has a setting for food photographs as well as great macro lens and has admirable RAW capabilities.

  11. Nicole B

    Thanks for this post! I’ve just started my own blog and basic trial and error has been my method. The biggest challenge I face is not having any natural light. Most of my cooking is done after work in the evening and especially as autumn is starting to set in, its dark by the time I get home. I’ll see what I can do with investing in a lighting kit!

    • Photo guy

      Google “cowboy studios.” They make inexpensive kits for exactly what you are trying to do.

      Here’s one with light bulbs, so you can see exactly what you’re getting. http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Photography-Portrait-Continuous-Umbrellas/dp/B003WLY24O

      Here’s one with studio strobes, http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Studio-Monolight-Lighting-Carrying/dp/B002IY98RC

      And here’s a very simple softbox that you can use with the flash you already have. http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Photo-Speedlite-Softbox-L-Bracket/dp/B003C0ZG2W

      The trick to food photography is that you want your light to be far away (even with one of these kits, the set up should be moved back several feet) and you want your lens in close.

      Keeping the light far away means you’ll get less fall off…easier to control your highlights and shadows.

      And as Elise said, you want soft, directional light…window light or a recreation of it.

        • Photo Guy

          No problem. A couple more thoughts…the camera that Elise uses has a “full-size” sensor. This is a good thing. It is what allows you to achieve the shallow “depth of field” effect where a single point is in focus and the background appears blurred. Here’s an example that I found on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/38506301@N02/8553482922/

          The full-size sensor is also what makes the camera more expensive than an entry level camera body, but it’s worth the extra money. Don’t buy a used 5D mark II. The mark III is a tremendous upgrade for a long list of reasons I won’t go into here. But get the mark III.

          The 24-70mm lens Elise uses is the perfect combo with that camera. Shooting at f/2.8 and towards the 70mm end of the lens range accentuates the shallow depth of field effect.

          And, again, you want to use light to give shape to your photo. Picture yourself on the face of a clock. You’re at 6 looking at your subject in the center of the dial. Your light source can be at 3, 4, or 5 or at 7, 8, or 9 and with a light kit you can vary the height of the light.

          So, say you’ve got a lovely hamburger you’re photographing. Put your softbox off to the left (say, at 8 on the clock face) and above shoulder height. That will allow you to capture the shape and texture of the burger.

          Photo Guy

    • jeffry helms

      All you need is “white light” for a inside shoot etc., Try a high shutter speed with a low aperture and a low ISO-if possbile-, people are so greedy!

    • Elise

      Hi Rebecca, it depends on the composition of the shot you want to take, and how much light you have. Sometimes I shoot with the aperture wide open if I’m really hurting for light. Sometimes I want a shallow depth of field for aesthetic reasons. But usually I keep the f stop between 4.5 and 6.3, even though I’m using a lens that will take it to 2.8 if I want.

      • rebecca

        THanks, I can shoot 1.4 and up depending on the lens, I think I just shoot too shallow because I know I want to blur the background, but I blur too much.

        • Photo Guy

          If you are doing a lot of food photography, invest in a tripod so that you can compose your shot and then play with different f/stops.

          Alternatively, if you keep the f/stop the same but back off your subject a bit, your depth of field will increase.

          In other words, f/2.8 at six inches away from your subject has less depth of field than f/2.8 at three feet. This change is more noticeable with a short telephoto lens…70mm, 85mm or 100mm.

          You won’t really see the difference with a 35mm or 28mm.

          There’s a long, boring explanation for why this is, but just go with me on it. Use the 24-70mm at 70mm and photograph something (a tennis racket, a shoe, a book) from different distances, same f/stop…three feet, two feet, one foot, on down to the closest possible distance…and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

          Backing up a bit can solve the “too shallow” depth problem.

  12. Richard Warner

    Thanks for the photography tips. I’ve art-directed a lot of food photography over the years and the whole idea about making food an interesting subject and industry is all about having a very creative food photographer and food stylist. In a way it all about presentation. But the proof is in the pudding. [No pun intended]

  13. Rachel J

    Great article! I’ve been working on going from “not that stellar” to at least not embarrassingly bad (working with a 10 yr old point & shoot no less!). I love these tutorials. Thanks for the list of links and all the great recipes over the years. I’ve “de-glutened” quite a few of them & they’re always a hit with the family.

  14. Jamie

    Great write up on camera’s and light. It is similar to how I feel about cooking – you can turn out great food with less than stellar equipment if your technique is good (and you understand the behavior of your ingredients).

  15. Marion Olson

    Your photographs have always been so tasty, and your props are really spectacular.

    Every time I see one of your recipes displayed on that gorgeous blue Valencia plate, I check eBay to see whether there might just be one available at a reasonable price. So far it hasn’t happened, but it certainly keeps me coming back for the recipes!

    • Elise

      Hi Marion, I think with that pattern one has to redefine “reasonable”. If I can get a salad plate for $25 I think that’s a great price. I have finally amassed an entire set. The way I did it was by setting up an alert in eBay for that pattern. I also did find a few Valencia plates on Etsy, that were much more reasonably priced than they would have been through eBay, so you may want to check there too!

  16. Anne@FromMySweetHeart

    Thanks Elise for sharing this fabulous and greatly informative post! I especially appreciate learning what lenses you use. I’m bookmarking this to go back and look at the many links you’ve shared. I’m so eager to improve my photography every chance I can. Thanks for all the help you’ve offered here! (and your photos are beautiful!)

  17. Chris

    I enjoyed this article and went back to older recipes. Yep, there are the props and backdrops. Even the stack of plates had some of the recipes/dishes in them. And, it proved to me that you actually cook everything you photo! At least, that’s the appearance. And I believe it to be true because your recipes are all so pleasantly described. I have found many, many new favorites and “keepers” from your site, and I thank you.

  18. abrianna

    Lightroom is great for editing photos…so much you can do with it. I like natural light too, but flash is not the enemy. I have a Nikon D5100 and it allows me to control how much of the on camera flash I use. Go to the menu and look for bulb settings and then you can adjust the flash strength.

    Besides white poster board, you can also use a white bed sheet to reflect light or to drape over a window to elect natural light. Sometimes, depending on the lighting you can use a sheet at the window and then white poster board on a side to bounce light.

  19. David Moreau

    I would also suggest another camera: the Panasonic Lumix 7. It has excellent macro capabilities and even has a setting for food photographs. It runs about $400.

  20. Wayne

    Wonderful post. I love your first video on your youtube channel. Did you find the video capabilities on the DLSR easy to work with? We were considering that route but opted for a canon xf-100 for our videos (which we are still learning!). I love the idea of the dual process of excellent photos and filming. Love your food photos by the way!

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