Basic tips on photography - my personal process on styling and shooting
I have been mulling over this post in my mind for a few days, now, still unsure if I should hit the 'publish' button or not. See, I do have a hard time coming off and teaching people how they should be doing things, when I'm still learning myself how to navigate this blogging world, be it the posting, the marketing, the photographing and the styling. But I know I have come a long way since my first pictures for this blog, always on a learning curve, and I know I am now able to style and shoot a set that won't look too bad, that will be somewhat appealing. I'm not a professional, and I only wish I could be as good as those women who stand as inspiration for me, food photography wise (Eva Flores, Tieghan, the women fro the Russian Foodie Project, Beth Kirby, Sky McAlpine, those other russians from the It's Honest Food project, I confess those russians are my biggest inspiration!). I am not at their level, and I know it. But I'm working for it, I keep striving to get there. A year ago I would never have written such a post. A year ago I was invited into creating an online class on styling and photography for an online platform where I had enrolled for a couple of online lessons and workshops. I declined. I did not feel like I could do it, like I had a right to even consider doing it. Just five months ago I would still not have posted this post. Five months ago I still felt like a fraud, and I admited to it. But then, suddenly, it's like something has changed in my mindset. Something snapped in me, and made me realize I'm not all that bad, I don't do such a bad work here, not at all. These last few days - yes, days! - it felt like somehow I discarded so many notions, wrong assumptions I had about myself and suddenly could see me for who I am. Or maybe I'm delusional, dunno. But right now, I feel I have a right to aplaud my work and be proud of it, and even share the little I've learned so far!
And while I always shy from coming across as some sort of "know it all", "thinks too much of herself" kind of person, thus falling onto the trap of being overly humble, which is so sickening, I am quite proud of my evolution. I feel I have managed to create a certain personal style for my pictures, I feel I have a personal mark, be it in the styling of the sets - and I have such a long way still, to get to a good enough level! - be it in the photography itself, I feel like I have created my own image. I know what I like seeing in other people's food photography, but it doesn't mean I am going to take photos just like them, photos that look like they were taken by those other people and not me, or worse even, photos that would look like cheap, lousy imitations of those other people's fantastic work. So I am proud I have achieved some sort of personal aesthetic. It took a long time, more than a year to get to this point where I can see a common thread to my photos, and as I keep saying, it has been a learning curve that I long to carry even further. As I have also mentioned, I really wish I could afford attending food photography and food styling workshops, but I can't, so I have to do with what I get. And the first step for me was going from Automatic in my camera to Manual. I have Rebecca of The Clothes' Horse to thank for that, as she once posted a rather good tutorial on how to go manual. Do search her blog for her Photo Tip Tuesday posts, they're really easy and good. Another person I need to thank is Nádia from My Fashion Insider who once did a post about editing photos with Gimp, which is what I use for part of my editing process, and it was really helpful to get me started. But I have come a long way from those days, and I now have a process of my own, and my personal tricks as well.
So I thought I might share some of what I learned here, I don't know if it's interesting or not, it's just a random collection of tips, really. But I do have a pet peeve with lousy food photography, it's something that immediately puts me off a blog, for good. I can't for the sake of me understand why people who keep food blogs and go to the lenghts of cooking and shooting for those blogs do not spend just a little more time prepping and styling those pictures and then doing just a little, simple editing to them. Don't get me wrong, we all had to start somewhere and some of my early food photography is dreadful. That was when I was still working my camera on auto, and I was shooting in the kitchen, under fluorescent lights. Also my editing skills were pretty basic back then. Still, kuddos for the use of props that actually looked good for the shoot but were styled so awfully. My third attempt went much better, and although it was still taken under kitchen glare fluorescent lights, I am still quite happy with it. Still, it cannot beat the second food shoot I did for this blog, as it was done with natural light. This is still one of my favourite sets of photos to this day. Therefor, my first advice is: try shooting with natural light mostly. It does make the food stand out, it brings out colour, and it keeps the image true-er to reality. I have shot plenty of times in my kitchen, under those lights, and I have played with shooting at night, under warm lamp lights as well. I still want to shoot more in those conditions and learn more about working under different types of light, but natural light is my fave light to work with. So bring your food over to where you have a window, and work from there. Leave the kitchen lights well away, for now and make use of sunshine and cloudy days as well. If you don't have time during the week to photograph in natural light, do it at the weekends. But shooting in natural light should be the first step, always, for it will help you understand how light works, and falls, how you can counteract glare and shade, how you can create depth and shadows and texture. Then, when you've got that one covered it will be far too easier to work with un-natural lighting sources.
The second thing I learned was to create a mood. Really, I find this one important in order to give consistency to the images. Whether you are creating a mood with the use of light - dark mood photography being my favourite, when it comes to food photography - or by choosing a theme of sorts (I have done this plenty, some were major fails, as you can see for yourselves; and others were so well achieved I still look in wonder that I did that or even that and more recently that and that), or even by adding the right props that will help tell a story with that shoot. Of course the food must take center stage, and be the star of the session, the top model per se, but props can help you round up the whole feel you're trying to achieve, like here and here, for example. Although I'm quite aware that my photos may lead you to think I'm of the old 'less is more' school of thought, I am not. I do love a food photo session that is ladden with props, styled in a way that it all looks so natural, so homely, so organic, not staged at all. Styling a set with a lot of props - as long as they are in the, shall we say, 'same family' - will help add character to the food itself, will help tell the story, will set other people's mind in a certain direction. It can be evocative, dreamy, it can make the looker feel elated, it will surely help create a mood. But styling with loads of props is an art, and a tough one at that, trust me, not easy to achieve at all!! That's why I go easy on my props, I'm quite aware I am not there yet, but baby steps and hard work will do the trick. Practice is of the utmost importance, in photography. No need to go off on a shopping spree - tempting as that may be! - for props to use in your photos, just shop your home, I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting items and ideas for you to use. But do focus on creating a mood for the food you're going to shoot and use props to add visual interest and depth to the images.
But the most important thing I have learned is going manual with your camera. Drop the automatic settings and play with your camera on manual, because this is the only way you will learn how to control your photos. I don't own a state of the art camera, I have an old model that doesn't even allow for detachable lenses. Mine is a Samsung WB2100, and I love it to pieces. I never shoot in the same precise settings twice, I believe, I'm always fiddling with my settings, and each shoot is different, times are different, the light is different, the food and the props, everything is different, so I am always changing my settings in every shoot I do, more than once, plenty of times. I start by going into the Menu and I choose my 'whites balance'. Usually I go for the setting that allows me to play with colour temperature, and I have that one at the 34000K when shooting indoors. If shooting outdoors, I choose 'daylight settings'. Then I go for my ISO, which controls the camera's sensitivity to light and allows me to adjust and choose my ISO speed (the higher the value, the more noise you'll get) which I have at 100 or 200 for outdoors and 200 to 400 indoors, with sometimes going for the 800 if I am trying to capture some granier images. I choose also my focus, which I usually keep at AF Normal, but if I'm shooting a close up I might change to Macro. Then, while I am shooting each photo, I fiddle with my shutter speed and aperture - the f stops. The larger the aperture, the smaller the oppenings will be, thus making for darker photos, while the shutter speed conrols the amount of light the lens allows in, so the longer the shutter speed, the more light will be allowed in. These will always depend on what you want your pictures to look like, so you must play with those settings, as they will be different with each shot. Thus, the most important lesson I have learned is indeed to go Manual and lay off the cozy cushion that photographing on Automatic might be...
Finally, editing. I love editing pictures nearly as much as I love taking said pictures. It is time consuming and tiresome work, yes, but it is also quite rewarding and fun. I use Gimp for initial editing, and I only use the colour tools. I start with the Curves and adjust those values into what I want. Curves is a really useful tool, as it will render areas brighter and create shadings in others, and it will enhance colour and tonality. Then I go for the Colour Balance menu, and usually I bring out the yellows and tone down on the reds and magentas - I usually shoot in my living room, near one of the windows, and since I have raspberry and burgundy curtains there, I do need to later on tone down the reds and magentas on my photos as I'm editing. Finally, I use the Brightness and Contrast tool, where I can lower the brightness and I always lower the contrast. I used to enhance the contrast of my photos when I started, and actually, I believe that up untill six months ago I still did, but then suddenly I became obsessed with lowering the contrast and getting a dreamy, hazier feel to my pictures. You can see on the collage above, the first photograph is straight out of the camera, no editing at all. The second one has gone through Gimp and I have lowered the contrast but not the brightness. The third one is the final product, and it has gone through my last editing tool, Pixlr. I love Pixlr, I use it even on my mobile phone, as it is so easy and manageable. Normally I take my photos through Pixlr because they may need to be cropped - hate Gimp for cropping pics! - or they may need adjustment and straightning as they might be slightly crooked. Then I go through the effects, and sometimes add one effect or other to the picture, other times I don't. In this case, the final photo has got one effect, taking away part of the brightness and toning down the vividness of the colours. I also use Pixlr to add a signature to every photo. It's not much of a security, but I do hope it helps. So go ahead and do some editing to your photos, it will help enhance them and will take up your work a notch. And that's it, really. I hope you have enjoyed my tips and if I managed to entice only one of you to go and play with these tips in order to better your photography skills, it will not have been a waste of time for sure. Go on, play with your camera and your props and your editing skills, you'll love seeing your photography evolving right i front of you!