Being able to write an irresistible story is vital for building an audience for your blog, but there is no denying that it is the way your blog looks that provides the critical first impression and photography plays a big part of that. Photography will draw your audience in and it is on your images that they will click to find out more.
Even if you’re a personal or lifestyle blogger, a food shot is something you are probably going to want to do from time to time. This is because food is the most searched for thing on the whole of Google. People want recipes and if you’re a canny blogger you’ll probably want to crack out a recipe post at one stage or another.
Before we go any further, I want to remind you that I am not a professional photographer, just a very curious, very enthusiastic learner who, I hope, explains things simply and well. Sometimes, I think being taught by someone just a few steps ahead of you is the best way to learn. I know how tricky photography can be – how much there is to learn, how complicated it is getting to know your camera, how tough becoming ‘a natural’ at composition is, how hard it is to see the light sometimes. Photography is a beautiful beast, but a hard one to tame.
So that’s my disclaimer out of the way. Now I want to tell you a little bit about my photography journey because just a couple of short years ago I was so self-conscious about my lack of photographic skills that I used other people’s images on my blog (with permission!). I didn’t even want to put up a point and shoot snapshot of anything except the kids.
At some point that changed for me. I’ve always been a visual person, drawn to composition, light and dark, shades and colours. For a long time I was content to allow other people to create what was in my head for me. Then one day, I wanted to be able to manipulate the images that I saw and draw something out of myself. I wanted to make my own visual feast.
I started with a point and shoot and, critically, I didn’t look at what anyone else was doing. This was purely out of fear that if I compared my ‘work’ with others, I would be so embarrassed that I’d stop. I didn’t want to stop, so I simply did my own thing and point-blank refused to gather inspiring images that others were producing. Sometimes ‘inspirational’ is the most uninspiring thing in the world.
The thing is, it takes a long time to become good at anything. Trial and error. Practice, practice, practice. That’s hard for me – I’m the kind of person that wants to be good at things right out of the gates. Photography was not, and is not, something that I picked up and ran with. It has taken a long time to slowly become the kind of photographer I am in my head … I am still learning. Of course, these days I’m confident enough to absorb what other people are doing and learn and grow from that too.
I know that was a long introduction, but I wanted to set the scene for you. To make you believe that you will get where you want to be, just as I believe that one day I will get there too. I can tell you how to do a cheap DIY food photography set-up (and I will!), and it will hopefully lift your images straightaway (and it will!), but that’s not going to make you an amazing photographer. Only taking thousands of photos, reading, learning, trying things out can do that.
In other words, become a lifelong student of the craft of photography if you want your blog to really shine.
Now, let’s get to the set up! And apologies in advance for the boring strawberries and blueberries subject – I might love photography, I might be getting more confident as I go, but there is no way in hell I was going to attempt any kind of cooking that food bloggers just might be around to see. Onward!
How to set up a DIY food photography studio
You can buy fancy backdrops, lights, reflectors, scrims and props, but the great news is that you can find everything except the camera and tripod at a $2 shop. Here are the basics:
You can use a point and shoot or even your camera phone but if you’re serious about creating some good looking recipe shots, eventually you will need to invest in a decent DSLR camera. I talked about this in an earlier digital photography for beginners post.
Whatever camera you use, make sure you maintain it, keeping it free of the dust and smears that can ruin even the best shots. This is tricky to do when you are shooting food!
This is nice to have, but not mandatory. A tripod will help you set up your shots because it acts like an extra pair of hands. This is especially handy when you are on your own and you want to get pouring, scattering or dripping shots. You could try propping your camera on a chair or stack of books, but you won’t get the flexibility that a real tripod offers. A tripod needn’t be expensive.
Main light source
You need a bright but soft, indirect natural light source; setting up by a window is ideal. If light comes directly through your window (eg. sunshine streaming in), you will need to diffuse it. Professional photographers will use a scrim for this job, but a soft, gauzy fabric – think sheer white curtains – will work just as well.
You can also make your own scrim – simply cut some sheer fabric to the size of an artist’s canvas, remove the canvas and staple in the sheer fabric instead. Instant portable scrim! You can click here for a good tutorial to follow.
You can vary the depth and shade of your scrim by using coloured fabrics, different fabric textures (try organza for a totally different sort of light), or different weights of gauze.
For my shot, the window that brings me the most light is shaded by a verandah, making the light naturally indirect and a scrim unnecessary.
A secondary light source or reflector
Light streaming in from one side will generally mean you need to bounce that light back to reduce the shadows created on the other side of your shot. So if your window is to the right of your shot, as mine is, you will need a reflector on the left of your shot. You can use a simple piece of white paper as a reflector, but I use a white artist’s board as it’s stiff and will sit well when leaned against a wall or prop.
You can see the effect that using a reflector has in the shots below. As in the image above, I added the white board as my reflector for the second shot.
You can use different coloured boards and papers to reflect softer lights onto your image. Try a blue or pink piece of cardboard and see the different tints they will add to your shot. This is the sort of effect that many photographers manipulate in post-processing, but it’s nice to learn how to do it using natural light, too.
On days that are a bit dim (especially rainy days), I find the plain board reflector isn’t enough. This is where my light box (a cheapo one from Typo) comes in very handy. I use it in place of the reflector board, so I still use the window as my main light source, but I back it up with an artificial light source.
If you choose to use a back-up artificial light, you don’t need a light box, a plain lamp will suffice. But make sure you tape some plain white cardboard over the lamp to diffuse the light. Ensure the bulb is plain white or fluorescent light, not ‘natural white’ or ‘warm white’. You want soft, clear light that isn’t yellow or harsh.
A low table
Low is good because you can shoot from above far more easily. Of course you can set up on your island bench if the light is ideal in your kitchen and simply use a chair or stand on the bench itself to take shots from up high. My kitchen is dim even on a glorious, sunny day, so I tend to shoot on the coffee table in my bright living room. Wherever you set up, make sure it’s close to the kitchen. We are shooting food, after all …
You don’t always want your bench or tabletop to form the base of your images, so different coloured cardboards and wrapping paper will allow you to change up your shots as much as you like. Loads of food bloggers like the ‘worn granny’s table’ look and there are lots of great tutorials for making your own wooden boards. Try here, here and here. You can also use fabrics, but I hate ironing.
You can get plain artist’s canvases or boards from most $2 shops and definitely from artist’s stores like Eckersley’s or Riot. These are ideal to use as a backdrop as they are stiff and will stand up well. I usually prop mine up against a stack of books or magazines.
You can put one of your backdrops down to cover the top of your table and shoot on that as well. You can also use pegs to clip different wraps onto your artist’s board to vary your shots. This is the only reason I prefer to use boards (which are flat) to canvases (which are boxy), because you can use pegs on the boards.
White foam board is also an ideal backdrop and you can also use a wall, cardboard or curtains.
A white backdrop will reflect the most amount of light onto your food and is the best choice if you are not actually going to see the background in your shot. If you are shooting close-ups, you probably won’t need to worry about what your backdrop looks like or even have one at all (but do keep in mind that it plays a role in dispersing light into your shot). If you are shooting a ‘scene’, you will need to give careful thought to your backdrop, especially if you are going for a sharp shot on a smaller f-stop number and your backdrop will be visible.
As well as being a photographer, a good food blogger has to become competent at food styling as well. Start collecting plates, bowls and cups so you have a good variety to choose from. You can pick up loads of really inexpensive different types of crockery at op shops and markets.
Add an array of fabrics to act as tablecloths and napkins in your shots. You can collect off-cuts or quilters’ ‘fat quarters’ and, as you can see from the image above, it’s very quick to amass a small mountain of options. I have saved the fabrics from the kids’ outgrown clothes since they were babies, snipping them into a shape I can use for bunching or folding into pretend napkins, tea towels and tablecloths. The mushroom cloth I used in these shots is my daughter Arabella’s old dress.
You’ll also need a selection of cutlery and, of course, complementary food as well. This is definitely the trend in food photography these days – it’s not just the cake in shot, it’s a scattering of icing sugar on the bench. It’s not just the choc-chip biscuits, it’s broken biscuits oozing melted chocolate.
As with most things we are learning, getting better at styling is also a matter of trial and error. Move things around in your shots until you come up with a look that pleases you.
Enjoy setting up your own photography area at home. Having a set place to work will help you develop your own style and quicken the photography process, both of which will make shooting food for your blog a much simpler affair.
[This post originally appeared on Kidspot]
What set up do you currently use to create product-style images for your blog?