Food Photography 101: Lighting: Part Two
Ok, my friends. It’s time to get technical. Last week we talked about some strategies to help you find the best natural light in your home. Today, I would like to talk about some of the ways you can control lighting using the settings on your camera. To do this, you are going to have to take your camera out of auto mode. I know, it might seem a little scary, but trust me, it’s easy!
There are really four main settings I think you should know about: Aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and white balance. Since today is all about learning about these settings, we are not going to concern ourselves with styling, thus we will keep things simple by using a simple carton of strawberries. Please also note that I have not edited these photos. These are the photos as they are straight from my camera.
When you think of aperture, think about your pupil. In bright light, the pupil gets smaller and in dark light, the pupil gets larger. This is how aperture works. Aperture affects your depth of field. As your aperture (or pupil) gets larger, the focus or depth of field becomes more shallow. In other words, as you increase the aperture, you will create more of that blurred look in your photos. The smaller the number (e.g. 1.8), the larger the aperture and vice versa, the larger the number, the smaller the aperture. Aperture is a really useful setting for food photography as it can help you focus on the main subject of your photo so that it stands out amongst the other items in the photo. The numbers you can set your aperture to will depend on the lens that you have. Some lenses do not have the capability to have larger apertures. Now let’s look at some examples!
This photo has an aperture of 1.8. This is considered a large aperture. As you can see, the strawberry in the very front is in focus, but if you look at the strawberries in the top right, they are blurred. For this particular photo, I would say that an aperture setting of 1.8 is too large. My depth of field is too shallow. If I wanted the entire basket of strawberries to be in focus, I would need to decrease my aperture. Let’s see what happens when I do that:
In the above photo, I have decreased my aperture to 4. If you look at the top third of the photograph, you can see the difference between this photograph and the one above. You can now see that all of the strawberries are in focus, but you still get that nice blur in the background. If this was a photo that I really took for my blog, I might turn up the aperture slightly, but setting it to 4 is not so bad as the main focus in this photo is the strawberries. The depth of field that you want will vary from photo to photo depending on what you are photographing.
ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to the available light. The lower the number, the lower the sensitivity. The sensor in your camera that can detect this sensitivity is actually the most expensive part of a camera. This means that the better camera you have, the better the sensor you will get. In low light, using a higher ISO can help brighten your photos, however this can sometimes come at a cost and can result in really grainy photos. I typically like to keep my ISO at 400, sometimes 500, however I do sometimes have to turn it up if I don’t have good light. This is one of the reasons that I try to take my photos during the time frame that I know is best for natural light, that way, I don’t have to turn my ISO up too high.
Look at the following photos. Note that besides the ISO, the aperture and shutter speed is the same in all of them.
As you can see, the first photo has an ISO of 400. It’s a little dark. Then we have an ISO of 500. I actually like this one best. An ISO of 640 is too bright, as is an ISO of 1000. Normally, I would also adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture, but again, we are only looking at ISO here. There are also some issues with lighting on the left side of the photo as you can see the dark shadows on the left side of the carton. I would also use a white foam board to fix some of that shadowing.
If you’ve already been using your camera in manual mode, you may have noticed that shutter speed has a direct relationship with aperture and ISO. Understanding shutter speed is pretty simple: it is simply the amount of time that the shutter is open. A real head scratcher, right?!
Shutter speed is typically measured in seconds, or fractions of seconds. For example, 1/500, 1/100, 1/60, 1/30, 1/8, etc. The time you set will dictate how much light you let in. If you set your shutter speed to 1/100, it will let in less light in than if you set it to 1/15. The slower the shutter speed, the more light you are allowing in. Here are some examples:
Like I said earlier, typically I wouldn’t only adjust shutter speed. In this case, with an aperture of 4 and an ISO of 400, you can see what happens when I change only the shutter speed. In the first photo, the shutter speed is 1/15th of a second. This is slow and thus lets in more light. In this case, I would say this is not a good shutter speed, it is too bright. Then the shutter speed changes to 1/25th of a second. Not too bad, right? And at 1/40 sec, you can see that this setting let in the least amount of light and the photo is darker.
Depending on your shutter speed, you may find it useful to use a tripod. When using lower shutter speeds, it can often cause a blur in your photos and it is not always easy to keep your hand steady. I have to admit that I am lazy and don’t use my tripod as much as I know I should, but I tend to like to have the freedom to take my photos from many different angles so I sometimes prefer not to use a tripod.
I am not going to say much about white balance and I don’t have photo examples to show you. I honestly leave my white balance on auto. First, I think my camera does a really nice job of adjusting the white balance automatically. Second, I have found that this is an issue that is typically an easy fix when I am editing my photos. And by shooting in RAW, I have more control over what I can edit.
White balance has to do with the tint of your photos. In other words, it detects the daylight you have. For example, in my old apartment in Florida, I had a lot of bright sunlight, which often resulted in photos that were too warm. So when editing my photos, I would have to adjust the white balance to add a cooler tint.
So there you have it, the four settings on your camera I think you should know about. I have said it a few times in this post now, but typically, you are not going to be changing only one of these settings.
It’s really about learning how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed work together. If you look back at the two photos I shared for aperture, you will notice that the shutter speeds are not the same. At an aperture of 1.8, this let in more light so I did not need a slower shutter speed (1/160 sec.). At an aperture of 4, this let in less light so I adjusted my shutter speed by making it slower (1/40 sec.) to adjust for this.
If you asked me to tell you what settings I typically use, I would tell you that this is a really difficult question to answer. I would say that I tend to prefer apertures between 1.8 to 5.6, ISO of 400 or 500, and shutter speeds between 1/30 to 1/60.
The best way to learn how to do this is to practice. A lot. Experiment with the settings and try to understand how they work together.
Next week, I will talk about some of other ways you can adjust for lighting using artificial lights, reflecting light, adjusting white balance, etc. Stay tuned!