Food photography has been my passion since 2010. I studied photography at George Brown College and developed (ouch!) a love of all things photo-related, but something about food was downright magical. The colour, the textures, the options, it was my jam! Inspired to share, I taught this exact workshop in person to a steady rotating group of students, including a sold-out workshop for the Dietitians of Canada– many of which are out there absolutely killin’ it. I couldn’t be prouder!

With IRL meetups out of the question, I’m sharing my documentation and step-by-step tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your camera! If you’re rocking a DSLR but don’t know how it works, I got you! If you’re keen on just using your smartphone, no problem, there’s still heaps you can do!

Making the Move. Auto to Manual.

Making the shift from auto (green) to manual (M) is a mere flip of a switch, for your camera at least. Shooting in manual opens menu options, functions and more control than shooting in auto, which essentially hides all these choices from you. By shifting to manual you’re telling the camera who’s in charge, but with great power comes great responsibility!

If controlling the f/stop, shutter speed and ISO all at once proves daunting, there’s no shame in taking it in baby steps. The f/stop, or aperture is your first step. Hone your skills by trying the AV (aperture priority) or TV (time value) modes instead. AV allows you to control the aperture, and the camera will choose the shutter speed, and vice versa. Experiment with both settings, keeping in mind that the larger the aperture number (most max out in the upper range of f/22) the more light you’ll need to let in to compensate (a lower shutter speed). Once you’re comfortable with those skills you’re ready to take charge and go full manual mode.

Set your menu so that you’re shooting in RAW. This extra step preserves your images, a lossless copy similar to the original film negative. If you’re shooting in jpeg only, you are compressing your images and limiting the tonal range that your camera sees. Shooting in RAW ensures you get the most bang for your buck with richer colours and more digital information for you to make post-production choices with after the shoot. This is particularly important if you’re ever printing photos, especially for magazine work.

If your memory card is big (and fast enough) you can record both RAW and jpeg at the same time, eliminating the post-production step altogether, but still leaving you with both a rich RAW file as well as a quickly compressed jpeg that’s ready to use.

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On your camera menu, set your metering to spot. This tells the camera the exact auto-focus point that you want to expose, a perfect setting for precise food photography.

f/stop, Shutter Speed and ISO

With the camera set to manual, you now need to tell the camera what to see. First, decide on the depth of field. If you’re looking for a shallow depth of field (where the food closest to the camera is in focus) then a low number f/stop will achieve that result. The lower the number, the more fuzzy or blurry the rest of the image becomes, this is called bokeh. A high f/stop will result in the opposite effect, with nearly everything sharp and in focus. Either method is acceptable; it all comes down to what you’re shooting. An elaborate overhead scene of a dinner with all the trimmings would require a higher f/stop to get everything sharp (depending on your distance from the food), whereas if you’re shooting something up close (like fruit, cookies or singular objects) a low f/stop might do the trick.

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Once you know what depth of field you’re aiming for it’s time to set the shutter speed. If you’re using a tripod then you can go as slow as you like, remember to use the timer or remote to reduce any shaking from releasing the shutter. With your f/stop programmed, use your exposure compensation to see how much light you’re letting in.

Adjust the lighting by adding or taking away time. If you’re shooting handheld, then ensure you have steady hands- I find anything under 1/125 of a second results in a slight shake (too much coffee!). I change my in-camera settings to ‘burst mode’ and snap off 3-5 in a row and hope one at least will be sharp.

ISO is an absolute last resort. If you’ve fiddled with both f/stop and shutter and are still dark, then ISO can help but will add noisy speckles that are almost impossible to remove in Photoshop or Lightroom. ISO (which stands for International Standards Organization) is based on pre-digital film days, when photographers would have to decide upfront what ‘speed’ film they would require for a given shoot. Nudge the ISO up and remember that post-production you can lighten things up so don’t go overboard!

Up next? We’re talking colour balance & temperature, two key ingredients to making mouth-watering food images, you hear me, Martha?

All photos by Libby Roach. Got a question? Need specific help? Leave a comment below and we’ll be sure to reply!