Take a look at your camera settings. Is the dial set on auto? What about your ISO setting? Is that on auto too? If you’re trying to get a picture of your daughter scooting across the room, then auto it is. But if you want a great shot of food and your camera is on a tripod, ditch the auto settings and learn how to take advantage of that great camera equipment.
After a recent conference where I was on a panel discussing food photography, an audience member approached me afterwards with questions. Soon, we had her camera out and I was showing her how to really use it. What struck me at the time is that once you have a process for how to set your camera, it becomes much easier and you won’t have to spend nearly as much time “trying” to get the right shot.
This post is applicable to anyone with a DSLR or a point and shoot where you can select ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These three settings work together to expose the “film” and produce a picture.
First, a short plea for why you shouldn’t use automatic (or any of the pre-set options such as sports) on your camera. When you use auto, the camera makes a choice each time it takes a picture. You could shoot the same image multiple times and get a different picture each time. Depending on where your focus is, how you have the metering set, and whether a cloud goes by, the camera will choose differently. In pre-digital days you would be wasting a lot of film. If you have a great camera and a fabulous lens your chances of the camera getting it right are pretty good, if you take a few shots. But instead of letting the camera decide, I suggest you take control back from the camera – it’s easier than you think.
Confession: I am a reformed aperture priority user. For a long time I believed that aperture priority was the way to go for food photography; so often we want to control the depth of field (the amount of the picture that is in focus) and draw the eye to the food being featured. And, unless you are trying to capture motion (a syrup drip, for example) aperture priority is a better option than shutter priority. Nevertheless, I have discovered that manual is nearly always better. That is simply because there is no guesswork involved. I always know what the output will look like.
Here’s my process for manual settings:
1. Set the ISO on 100. ISO is essentially the speed of the “film.” In the old days you might buy ISO 400 film for standard indoor photos, 100 or 200 for outdoors, and 800 for low light. The higher the ISO setting, the grainier the image will be (and who wants grainy images of food?). You will need some light, but it doesn’t have to be a lot of light. As long as your camera is on a tripod and you can set a long shutter speed, you can select ISO. Move the ISO up (200, then 400, etc.) only if you can’t get an accurate exposure at 100 (see step 3 below).
2. Choose your aperture. The aperture is how wide the lens opening is. The term “wide open” refers to the widest aperture setting on your lens. This will be the smallest number. Depending on the length of your lens (the mm number) whether you are using a crop frame camera or a full frame camera, and how close you are to the food, your depth of field (how much is in focus) will vary, even at the same f-stop (the aperture setting). On a full-frame camera with a 100mm macro lens, f4.0 is a good place to start for a picture where you want a blurry background (or foreground); on a crop frame camera with a 60mm macro, f3.2 is a good place to start. If you are doing a top down shot or you want (nearly) everything in focus, f8.0 is a good place to start.
3. Use the exposure meter on the camera to set the appropriate shutter speed. Start by setting the shutter speed so that the exposure meter is at zero. Take a picture. If it looks under-exposed or over-exposed change the shutter speed. Each click on the shutter speed dial will move the exposure meter one notch on the exposure meter. If you click the shutter speed up the exposure meter will move down; if you click the shutter speed down the exposure meter will move up. How far you want to go will depend on how under-exposed or over-exposed your first shot was. If you’re not sure, move one click at a time, taking pictures as you go. On my camera, I find that I usually have to go to +3/4 or +1 on my meter to get a correctly exposed shot. This will vary depending on the direction of your light, the amount of light, the color of your background, etc. This is where you should play a little bit.
If you are in low light and you can’t get a shot at ISO 100, then adjust the ISO until your camera exposure is within range. The wider open your aperture is, the lower you can set the ISO.
If you are shooting with some motion (such as a drip or pour), then reverse the process in steps 2 and 3. Set the ISO, then set the shutter speed and use the meter to determine the correct aperture setting.
4. Play. Try changing the aperture for a different effect. For every click up on aperture you will need to adjust one click down on shutter speed, and vice versa. It’s all very mathematical.
Try focusing on a different point in the shot. Are you on auto-focus? Stop that! Don’t let the camera decide what’s most important, pick your focal point. The viewer’s eye will be drawn to the focal point.
A word about white balance: This is where I say it’s okay to be on auto, as long as you are shooting in RAW or RAW+JPG. Software will allow you to change this easily, but if you know you are in tungsten light go ahead and select tungsten. The differences between daylight, shade, and cloudy, can be harder to judge.
Now, have I convinced you to choose your own camera settings?