When I first decided to do this cooking blog, it was summer and the sun stayed blissfully visible until late evening. Light wasn’t an issue. But the days got shorter and shorter and shorter until darkness had descended upon the dinner making and photographing process. Now it wasn’t just a matter of grabbing the camera and snapping a few shots. The light was a major issue and it all took time. Too much time for the food to stay warm. And too much time to keep the hungry mouths quiet.
So, I had to sort the process and streamline it.
The first thing I did was to go on Trademe (the New Zealand equivalent of Ebay) and I bought two lights on stands with lightboxes to diffuse the light. I didn’t know if this would work but I had studied the issue at length and in the end my son told me to get on with it and take action. So I bought these and, miracle of miracles, they work brilliantly.
I place one on either side of the food and turn all the lights off except these two and the lighting is perfect with almost no shadows. Lighting problem solved. These stay in the living/kitchen area and so far, no one in my household has complained about them and they are right there when I need them.
When I started, I had a point and shoot camera and was reluctant to spend the money necessary to get a DSLR just in case this was a fad which I would get bored with when it all got too hard. But the frustration was enormous. My little number had no aperture control and I so wanted to get that soft, fuzzy background that makes you oh and ah at photos. My son put heaps of cameras on the Trademe watchlist and after a softening process (lots of mental self-talk), I took the plunge and bought a Nikon D-3000. My photographs improved overnight.
Okay, so I had to learn a few extra bits and pieces to be able to control this nice new beast but it didn’t take long. At the end of the day, all you need to conquer is ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Those three give you heaps of control over the end result. There’s a lot more my camera does but for now I don’t need to know that. And it’s important not to get so overwhelmed that you chuck it all in.
When I decide it is time to cook dinner, I gather together what I need before I start. Apart from the lights which stay in the kitchen/living area, I keep the rest next door in my study. I carry out my tripod, camera, backboard and underboards – for me these are white foam boards I got free from work. I love to work with the simplicity of a neutral background and focus on the colour, shape and texture of the food. I occasionally vary this but keep coming back to the simple approach. I don’t set these up yet but leave them nearby. I don’t want them underfoot while I cook.
Now I cook dinner. I try to choose dishes which leave you a little set up time towards the end – like a pie cooking in the oven. But this doesn’t always work and all hell breaks loose at the last minute. Cold dishes are perfect because then the only pressure is the grumbles and mumbles from the whiney people in the house. Anyway, in that little break, I haul everything into place – the lights, boards and tripod/camera. Now, of course, I trip over everything while I am trying to finish off the last of the cooking and plating up but that can’t be helped. I set up the scene the way I want it (see next section) and take a few shots without the food to get the lighting and camera settings just right so I am not fiddling while the food is getting cold.
Let me first say that I decide what to cook the night before or in the morning before going to work and then write out a shopping list for my husband. He does the shopping on the way home.
During the day at work, when time allows, I think about how I will layout the finished dish – in a plate, still in its original container, straight onto a board, in two dishes etc. I think about what props would be appropriate but I don’t use a lot – that simplistic look I am going for requires little else but the food. As soon as I get home, before exercising, I look at a few of the food photography sites like Foodgawker and Taste Spotting to find a look I like for that particular dish – I use the search function. While I exercise (exercycle for half an hour) I consolidate my ideas and by the end, I have a fairly clear picture of what I want the finished photos to look like. There isn’t enough time for experimenting with different props and dishes so I try to get this clear in my mind.
So, when the food is ready, all I have to do is put my plan into action and start snapping away. I move the tripod settings up and down to have a few different angles to choose from and I move the food about to try different plate and food angles. I end up taking a lot of shots but I seldom change the setting unless I have really messed up and my plan is not working.
If I am cooking a dish that requires something like a poached egg on top, I will only do the one and photograph that and then get rid of the photography gear and finish off the others so not everyone has a cold egg, only me.
Here are a couple of the results using this set up. I’m not saying these are perfect because I have heaps more to learn but at least they were accepted by Foodgawker and I was happy with them.
Original article on my blog, Strands of My Life, here: http://www.strandsofmylife.com/how-to-photograph-food-in-artificial-light/