Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Shoot Tabletop Photography without Shooting Yourself in the Head - Tips for the Greenest Beginners

A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said 'I love your pictures - they're wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.' He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: 'That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.' - Sam Haskins (South African photographer, 1926 - 2009.)

You've heard it all before: it's not the camera; it's the photographer. You don't need the most high-end equipment to shoot something that pleases you or your readers, but you do have to know *some* basic operating skills, and the little tricks and tips that can make your life easier on your path to higher quality images – if indeed you want to go there. It only matters if it matters to you.

I have been asked many times how others can improve their photos without having to lose their minds with too much technical advice too soon. As a self-taught photographer, who is just starting to earn something of a living selling images (including to National Geographic), I can offer hard-won instructions, guidance, and encouragement which will further you along a little faster towards your goals. My methods are not written in stone; some are unorthodox; and others take delight in flouting the rules. There will undoubtedly be some that will not work for you. I also expect I will be challenged by other photogs, who can be a very rancorous, uppity group of know-it-alls. But all I share here is on the chance that you will come away with something you can use. I hope you do.
* Less is More. As you learn composition, start with 1, 3, or 5 subjects. Do not clutter. Odd numbers are more pleasing to the eye. Place your focal point off center. The primitive tribal eye likes and needs the safety and security of symmetry in animal features and cars (it's the survival mechanism kicking in) but enjoys asymmetry otherwise. Consider the shape of negative space, which is everywhere that is blank in the composition surrounding the subjects.

* Keep props simple, the fewer the better. You don't have to trot out every utensil, napkin, glassware, vase, etc., in one composition with the food dish/es. If you really think you must, do so, then walk away for a few minutes – walk away for an hour – a day or two is even better.* When you come back, remove at least 2, if not more props. What can you do without? Rearrange what you have left; rearrange it again. Then rearrange it yet again. Do you like your original composition best? Then go back to it. Think of your composition like a woman getting dressed for a drop-dead gorgeous gala. She is wearing earrings, a necklace, a bracelet, a brooch, and a ring. She should now take off at least 2 pieces of jewelry, lest no one can see her face, which should be the focal point of her look. The eye cannot focus on all of it at once and does not know where to look. Complicated compositions can be beautiful, but build towards them after you have mastered simplicity. (*If you are going to leave your food too long before deciding, it is critical to set up the shot with all elements except the food. A bowl of nuts doesn't matter, but you can't leave a plate of eggs lying around for more than 30 minutes - and even that is pushing it.)

*Use small plates, bowls, utensils. Large pieces throw off scale and diminish the food. Forget dinner plates.

* Wear white, gray, or black when you shoot. You don't want to have to edit out a reflection of your pink sweater on fork tines. It's very time-consuming and meticulous work. Significant color around your composition (like vividly painted walls or draperies) can derange your white balance, too.

* To assist with color, invest in an inexpensive color selector wheel, available at art or craft stores. Or you could find one online and print it for reference. It very easily targets which colors work with which, if you don't feel like feeling your way through intuitively like I usually do.

* Edit your photos in complete darkness, as if you were processing film in a dark room. At the very least, do not let any light shine directly on your monitor. You want to view your work with the utmost accuracy without distractions.

* Although I am sure you have all been drilled in the use of natural light over flash by many food bloggers before me, sometimes even natural light, such as direct sunlight, will produce harsh shadows and blown highlights, which will be difficult to bring details back to. Just moving your shooting table farther from the window can help or wait for the sun to shift. You can also string up a sheer true-white (not yellow-white nor blue-white) cheap curtain to soften the light that falls on your tabletop. Not sure about your whites? Go to a paint store and select any number of chips. Compare them against each other under a neutral light monitor (most home-improvement stores have these). Sometimes you can't tell just how yellow or blue white is until you fan out the chips and look at one against the next. This is also how gemologists grade diamond colors – against each other on a pure white background.

* Overcast or cloudy days may seem dreary and gloomy, but treasure them. The light is naturally diffused, and you will have to fuss far less or dispense entirely with those sheer curtains I just referenced. My favorite light is a solid white sky bounced with the light of snow on ground and buildings. Hardly gloomy.

* Food-safe earthenware, crockery, and ceramics make wonderful props. Many, like terracotta, have no reflective qualities. Love them for that. Absorption of light is just as fantastic as blowing light back in your face.

* Old wooden cutting boards are wonderful backgrounds, full of character. Is yours a mess? Then go stain it. Mores the better if you rub some color into it; don't be confined to browns. A turquoise or Burgundy or mustard can be a wonderful complement to your comp.

* For a very deep black background, use a large square of black velvet fabric. It absorbs light better. If you see dust or less-than-black areas, use your processing software to heal or clone it out. Sometimes you can't tell if your tones are dark enough. Get up and look at your image from the top of the monitor. You will see the spots that you missed.

* If your food is very busy, like a colorful salad, keep your dishes and/or napkins/other props more subdued. They do not have to be pure white, but no crazy-busy patterns.

* If your food is austere, consider plates that have bas or high-relief design for some texture. It can be monochromatic or a contrasting color. (I have to tell you, Wiki is not my first choice for imparting knowledge, yet they hardly gets basics wrong like what color the sky is and why.)

* If you want someone to critique your work, choose that person very carefully. Don't let a decline from Foodgawker or Tastespotting ruin your day. Select someone whose work you admire, whose character and personality you trust, and who can make the time to assess your work in a respectful and truly helpful way. Know, too, that even those who critique well, diplomatically and honorably, have their own subdued levels of subjectivity. If you ask a vegan to critique a crown roast of lamb, no matter how technically sublime your image, you may not get the feedback you desire. Don't hold it against him/her.

* If you've never touched a camera in your life, invest in an inexpensive Point and Shoot first. Learn what you can from how it operates, however automatically it may be programmed. Give it at least 6 months. If you still like to shoot, then invest in an entry level Digital Single Reflex Camera body with a separate 50mm all-purpose lens. A 50 with an aperture of 1.8 is a very good deal. Or you can just enjoy the Point and Shoot without having to go to the next level. I must emphasize that you do not have to go to the next level.

* Consider used equipment from reputable dealers. There is a huge market in trade-ins & refurbished gear. Many serious photographers trade-in for the cash to upgrade their kits.

* Consider renting equipment before you commit to buying it.

* It's OK to shoot fully automatic with a more sophisticated camera. You can learn from its settings, then switch to manual mode using those same settings to replicate what the camera's done. From there you will be experimenting on your own at your comfort level, using automatic on rare occasions. This is how I taught myself. I used the camera as my teacher, then I was off on my own.

* Photoshop Elements* is a good trimmed-down version of the very expensive and complex professional Photoshop. It even has a feature where you can use some RAW controls on JPEGs.

* Lightroom* has some very efficient editing tools, but know that it is primarily a database for organizing your photos in a very meticulous way. You will still need Photoshop* or Photoshop Elements* to select parts of your image to refine.

* There are several free or lower-cost editing tools available like GIMP.

* You do not have to shoot RAW (the equivalent of a digital negative) unless you truly need absolute control over every granular detail in your photos. RAW files take up enormous storage space and require greater time to edit. If you believe you are on a professional track, RAW will ultimately be your goal, but do take your time learning the ropes in JPEG first.

* Buy books on photography. They are available at all price ranges, some covering general techniques; others, discuss specialties. Keep a book at your bedside. Read one paragraph, concept, or chart before lights out. It is a good way to learn without pressure. You would be surprised how your dreams will imprint what you read before retiring.

Does any of this help? I'll take questions in my comments and write more posts in future to help you. I am unburdened by competition. Competition brings out the best work in artists, which is something we should all consider striving for. Don't lower yourself by smiting others whose talents you might envy. Work harder on your own skills and let them shine alone in their own light. I am convinced that everyone who has even one talented bone in his/her body can go the distance if he/she is willing to do the work.

(I'll be back later on with BWW. I've had such problems getting both these posts up. The coding is all screwed up. I have to correct some very messy bulleting in this one, as well as reload all the BWW photos again. Will get up as soon as possible. This is my life's mission. See you soon!)

*Any mention of brand names is purely by my own experience and not to be interpreted as brand marketing. I have no professional nor personal connection with Abobe. I must make this very clear.


  1. Susan, these are really great tips and all the more valuable because you are such a great photographer yourself. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. I totally agree on the thing...abut it's a photographer's eye to see things...not the camera....thank u for the valuable suggestions on basic things...never new about wearing dark shades while clicking....all in all wonderful post....

  3. Thank you for the so many helpful tips Susan. As someone who has picked up a DSLR recently, you have given me a lot to think about and consider.

  4. Thank you so much for these tips Susan. Will surely help me...

  5. Wowo you are indeed pro if you sell pics to National Geograpic.
    Didn't know aobut the odd numbers.
    I learned a lot from this one post,like editing the pic in full dark, wowe. I am sure bookmarking this post so i can come again when ever i want to check some of the tips.

  6. Excellent now I know how I'll give it a go :o)

  7. I love that title, LOL! Great tips, thanks! I never thought about the fact that wearing neutral colored clothes are recommended when shooting photos (not a problem for me though as I always wear black!).



  8. Great stuff.
    I'm learning on my own too, Susan, how you did, so tips like these always help a lot.
    I have most trouble in shooting food for dinner when it's dark outside. Not wanting to invest in any Lowel EGO lights, etc (since I'm not THAT passionate about or good at food photography!) I'd like you to share some tips on shots after dark :)
    Bought a DSLR 2 months ago, still exploring & still wondering why I can't get those amazing shots a lot of food photographers having similar camera can!
    Have you read the book From Plate to Pixel? I'm thinking of buying it. Wanted an opinion.

  9. This is great, Susan! You've given us lots of useful, unique advice.

    I just bought Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots and recommend it for anyone looking for a great book on the subject.

  10. This is one most treasured piece of info on food photo Susan. wearing white during photo shoot is too good a tip, and editing phot in dark room, will follow it next time. I shoot with a P&S, and learning from it, still in the xroads for a DSLR, can you shed more light on how to shoot in the night under white light? am not comfortable with it, so I tries to shoot before 4 pm.

  11. Really good post, Susan. Have to agree with just about everything you've said.
    And just love that title, because sometimes it does seem easier to shoot oneself than that photograph! :)

  12. Fantastic--and eminently approachable--advice, Susan! Thanks so much. But. . . where are the photos?? ;-)

    PS MEGA congratulations on National Geographic--wowzah!

  13. Thank you Susan, very very precious tips here.
    I love the quote in the beginning!
    Will try to do the best of it…learning, trying, trying and again trying!!

  14. Really excellent tips here - thank you. I'm very interested in the way you used the camera to teach you.

  15. Thank you so much, Susan, for taking time to share your tips, really appreciate :-)
    I agrre with you, "Less is more and simplicity" a way to go not only in photography! :-)

  16. I was waiting for this post from you. I have learned to understand that photography critique is just like 'Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder'. If one likes something, it doesn't mean it will be liked by everyone or is a measure of how good it is either. Great post. Even though I love technical details, I don't have time to learn all of them. I have to make a living too. Your tips are absolutely gems and can be followed without spending too much time. Thanks for taking time to write this up with all the busy schedule you have.

  17. Brrrrrrrrrrrilliant post Susan...I have a question...I just bought a Canon 50mm 1.4 fixed but am still not very comfortable shooting with it...I guess I'm not used to using a Fixed food photography really better with a 50mm? and how do I do the background white like u guys do...keep in a white box???????

    Loove the title :D..sorry couldn't send any pic for BWW this week :(....just did my post today and I guess I'm late :/

    So xx

  18. OMG! What wonderful, wonderful tips! Thank you very much!

  19. P.S. I love the anecdote above about Sam Haskins.

  20. Susan- thank you so much for this wonderfully informative post !

  21. loved this post - love reading how you do it - I have bought a DSLR recently and still mainly use the auto function but even that is much better than my compact but I am all thumbs with the manual - I think I just need to practice because it is exciting when it works

  22. Although officially I am on blogging hiatus until mid-to-late March, I did want to pop in to say "hi" and thanks, and promise to have follow-up posts to address your questions and impart more tips. I figure I can run a series monthly. Until then...