Food Photography Tutorial (Part 4: Composition)

Composition is a concept that comes most natural to people. It’s also one of the first things that aspiring photographers learn in classes. Composition is a fun subject because it’s less theoretical and directly applicable to taking a picture (versus topics like exposure and light).

If you have an idea of how you like to position your object within a frame, you already aware of composition. Having said that, there are specific techniques (I like to call them ‘tricks’) that photographers use to compose great photos.

Rule of Thirds

One of the most basic fundamental rules in photography is to never center your subject. (that’s an exaggeration — there are times when that is actually ok). In applying the rule of thirds, start by making an imaginary tick-tack-toe grid within the frame you are about to shoot. In other words, cut your frame into ‘thirds’ – both horizontally and vertically. These lines intersect at four distinct points. The rule of thirds says that you should compose the picture such that the viewer’s eye is drawn to at least one of these four intersected points.

Take the example below (the most viewed recipe in my index). You’ll may not realize it, but every object in this frame was specifically placed in its respective position. It doesn’t always come out perfectly. In fact, sometimes you just have to take a hundred pics, while constantly changing the composition, to get the right one.

ss: 1/100, A: 3.5, ISO 500 (shot @ 65mm)

One of the things that makes this picture visually appealing is the sandwich’s focus, which happens to coincide with the lower-left intersection. Notice how the sandwich was not placed directly in the middle of this frame. This is an application of the of rule-of-thirds.

ss: 1/100, A: 3.5, ISO 500 (shot @ 65mm)


Another composition technique that the example above exhibits is lines. In this trick, you want to keep your viewer’s eyes engaged. You want to capture a dynamic frame where a series of lines are constantly moving the viewer’s eyes from one object to another. Take a look at the different arrows in the picture below. Objects like the sandwich, celery, fork all serve as imaginary lines to the viewer.

ss: 1/100, A: 3.5, ISO 500 (shot @ 65mm)

Negative Space

As you approach your subject and area ready to take a picture, you should ask yourself an important question: do I want everything in this frame in my picture? Random toys in the background, boxes, etc? When you’re shooting with an SLR, that might be a good effect, especially if it’s blurred out using a shallow depth-of-field.

Negative space is everything in your frame other than the actual subject you are shooting. In the buffalo chicken sandwich example above, I really limited the amount of negative space. Positive space is the subject you are shooting…the exact opposite of negative space.

Even though you’re focused on composing your subject, you should be equally cognizant of what’s in the background and negative space.  This isn’t to say you should completely eliminate negative space. Here a cool example where negative space worked to my advantage.

ss: 1/160, A: 6.3, ISO 1000 (shot @ 70mm)

Perspective & Angle

The main premise of composition is to capture a frame that makes the viewer say WOW. The best way of doing that is to shoot from unique perspective (or angle) that we as humans rarely see things from. Let’s use an extreme non-food subject for a second: the Empire State Building. You can shoot it from several different perspectives: far away, standing directly under it or flying over it. All very unique perspectives with completely different effects. You should approach shooting food the same way. Your ultimate goal is to convince the viewer that the subject that you’re capturing tastes just as good as you know it does.

There are three main angles you should consider shooting your food from:

  • 45º degrees. This is the most often used angle which allows you to capture the subject with a degree of depth (background, props, etc)

    ss: 1/60, A: 6.3, ISO 1000 (shot @ 54mm)

  • 90º degrees. A cool overhead perspective where lack of depth is compensated with a unique angle and minimalism

    ss: 1/100, A: 3.5, ISO 1250 (shot @ 68mm)

  • low angle. This isn’t quite 0 degrees, but it’s a low/ground floor angle which could give you plenty of depth to play with

    ss: 1/100, A: 7.1, ISO 2000 (shot @ 70mm)

Depth of Field

This is a compositional tool I’ve been talking about throughout the tutorial series. I explained depth of field at length in Part 2: Exposure, but will show you another example here to really bring the point home. Depth of field is when you create that blurred background effect technically known as “bokeh” by using a large aperture exposure setting. In doing so, you are controlling the viewer’s focus on a specific object in your frame.

ss: 1/400, A: 2.8, ISO 2000 (shot @ 70mm)

Focal Length / Distance

Many consider focal length as nothing but a form of zoom. Changing the focal length can also distort lines within your frame (beyond the scope of this tutorial). A long focal length (high number) compresses your foreground with your background while a wide focal length (low number) does the opposite. I like to shoot food anywhere from 50mm – 100mm. If you have a Canon Rebel or intro-level Nikon, going as low as 35mm lens is fine. I’d stay away from wide-angle focal lengths because you’re not trying to capture a scene or landscape and definitely not trying to distort your subject (think fisheye).

Whichever focal length you choose, make sure you have control over your negative space (discussed above). If you feel that there’s too much noise in the background, get closer (using your feet = manual zoom) or use a longer focal length. A popular saying in photography is ‘if your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough’. Make sure to either be cognizant of the background / negative space in your frame or just eliminate it by getting closer (or using a shallow depth-of-field).

Use of Props

This is an area that I am still trying to learn more about and improve upon. Props and accents are important tools that dictate the texture, feel and decor of your shot. A few areas to think about.

  • Base / Surface. I have three different surfaces that I shoot my food off of (none of which is a real table). Our dining area is short on windows, making it hard to naturally light either the real dining table or the kitchen counter. Instead, I created a few small surfaces that give off the impression of a real table. You don’t need much…something like 2 by 3 feet is enough. You have at least two different options. One is to go to a local lumber yard (google it) and search for pieces of wood (either finished or distressed/weathered) that suit your desire. You can then create a picnic table effect by crossing them in the back (like a fence) with another piece of wood and gluing together.  If you want something more new and clean, go to Home Depot. You want to buy thin and light pieces of wood that they can cut to your preferred dimensions. Again, combine them in the back with another piece of wood and some glue. You can paint the board using this technique which I found very helpful. The third option that I use is an extension leaf to my real dining room table.

  • Bowls and Plates. I like to use simple white bowls and plates when shooting food. I especially like to use bowls because there’s little empty space (unlike a flat plate). I also have some chopsticks that I use to accent some dishes. Condiments, either in small bowls or their store bought container, are also a nice touch. Complimentary drinks in the background work well, too. Napkins, cutting boards, forks, knives…use your imagination. Some places to buy these types of knickknacks include Pier 1 Imports (great source for bowls and other serveware),, Anthropologie, Target, craft stores and garage sales.

ss: 1/640, A: 2.8, ISO 800 (shot @ 57mm)

Food Photography Tutorial (Part 3: Light)

I want to spend some time talking about light, a topic that many aspiring photographers either ignore or don’t fully appreciate. A basic understanding of light is absolutely critical to capturing a good photograph. Light comes in all shapes and sizes. We, as humans (I know I sound like a robot but hear me out!) take light for granted because our eyes are amazing tools and put cameras to shame. Do not assume that a camera sees things the same way that you do through your own eyes!

Types of Light

Before I get into the different properties of light, let’s quickly review some different kinds of light:

  • ambient light. Not sure how to explain this other than to say it’s indirect everyday light. When you are walking down the street mid-day, the ambient light is probably coming from the sun. At night in your house, the ambient light comes from lamps and/or light fixtures (that are being reflected off the ceiling and walls). In the office, fluorescent ceiling fixtures are a source of ambient light. In Times Square, it’s the 30 billboards. You get the point.
  • natural light. Light that comes from the sky (sun, moon, stars and…planets!).
  • flash/strobe light. Light that is triggered to flash on for only an instant. This is often a piece of equipment that comes attached to the top of your camera but can be used off your camera as well (studio equipment).
  • hot light. Artificial light that is continually on (vs. a strobe which flashes on for a split second). They are called HOT lights because they get hot after being on for a while whereas flashes do not.

Examples of light include incandescent light bulbs (standard GE bulbs), sunlight and fluorescent light (office lights).

Light Color

Light comes in a variety of colors (i.e. temperatures) that our eyes manual adjust for but our cameras do not. The temperature of light is dictated by the source of light and in the case of sunlight (as discussed below), the position of the sun (time of day). A few examples here, ranging from cool (blue tint) to warm (red tint):

  • sunlight (mid day). this is a cool light which has a relatively blue tint to it
  • flash light. this type of light is as close to pure white as you can get
  • incandescent light. this is a fancy way of saying light bulb. this type of light usually comes out warm (hint of red)
  • sunlight (sunrise / sunset). the color of sunlight is dramatically different at these times vs. mid-day, yielding a much warmer hue

This is where white balance comes into play. You need to tell your camera to adjust for light color (something that our own eyes do automatically). White is always white for our eyes but our cameras often see white with hints of blue or red. Lucky for you, your camera probably has an automatic white balance feature.  Unlucky for you – this feature doesn’t always work perfectly. You can select a white balance preset mode (sunlight, shade, tungsten/indoor, etc) which helps. You can also take a picture of a white object and program it to know that THAT is what “white” looks like in that specific light environment. OR, you can manually adjust the white balance in post-processing (Lightroom, iPhoto, etc).

Here’s an example. I took a picture of these mugs. The picture on the left was taken using natural window light whereas the picture on the right was taken in my kitchen, later that night, and lit by the ceiling’s high hats (incandescent lighting). I did not adjust for white balance so I can drill the point of light color home. Had I used automatic white balance, there would still be a hint of red on the artificially lit picture.

The following pics show the actual rooms and lighting in which each picture was shot.  You also get a sneak peek at my little studio, which I’ll discuss in greater detail in a future post (composition).

Now for the best part.  The first set of pictures illustrated the difference between day light and incandescent light without adjusting for white balance. I told you there are three ways of adjusting for white balance. I played around with Lightroom and low and behold, was able to balance the colors of the two images (to match). I’ll talk about this technique in a future posts (post processing). For now, appreciate that light comes in a variety of colors and the best way to adjust for it is to shoot in RAW format.

Hard vs. Soft Light

Confused? There’s more. Light can be hard or soft. Hard light is often unevenly distributed and creates harsh shadows. A harsh shadow is defined as a high contrast shadow (one where the change from shade to sun is distinct). Soft light, on the other hand, creates more even lighting and a shadow that’s either hard to detect or subtly defined.  Pay attention to shadows the next time there is a sunny day. Chances are they will be vivid and harsh. Learn to trace shadows back to their light source…you’ll learn a lot about light.

The example below shows the same composition in three different light scenarios.

  • LEFT. The lighting here is exact similar to the pic above. It was shot using natural, indirect window (side) light.
  • MIDDLE. Lit with my on-camera flash (aka strobe light) pointing directly at the subject. Notice the stark difference between the LEFT and MIDDLE shots. This time, it’s not temperature that’s the issue but rather the evenness of the light. The lighting on the left is an example of soft light whereas the lighting in this image is hard light.  You’ll notice much more distinct edges between dark and light tones in the picture on the right.
  • RIGHT. Also lit with my on-camera flash but reflected/bounced off of the ceiling. Notice the softer lighten in this picture. This is because the light source is no longer my directly pointed flash but rather my ceiling which is a much bigger object. This is a good easy alternative if you’re short on natural light (night-time photos). The exposure is a little dark, but that’s something that can be adjusted (slower shutter, higher aperture or higher ISO) or in post-processing.

Light softness or hardness is a created by the perceived size and distance of the light source relative to your subject. In the case of a sunny, cloudless day, the sun is the light source and it is very very far away. In fact, even though the sun is a very large object, it looks like a small spec in the sky and is probably smaller than anything you are photographing. This lighting scenario will yield hard light.  Now picture an overcast day. Your light source is now a large sheet of clouds (sun light that is being diffused by clouds). In this case, the sky is playing the role of a “soft box” and given its large size, will produce soft light. This is why photographers always prefer to shoot on an overcast day vs a sunny one!

Avoid Using Your On-Camera Flash

A quick word on flash and why you shouldn’t use the one attached to your camera. Flash is a source of direct, uneven, harsh light. It’s often unflattering. Picture a dark bar that’s dimly lit. There is enough ambient light for your eyes to direct you where to walk. However, your camera is not as smart. As a matter of fact, your camera thinks it’s pitch dark in the bar. (rule of thumb: camera always sees things darker than your eyes do). You want to take a picture of your friends in the bar. Your flash pops up. Why? Because it’s too dark and the only way to make it light is to use flash. So you take the pic but it looks awful. You can’t even tell you are in a bar. The background is black, your friends’ eyes are red and their foreheads are shiny. In this case, your flash is smaller than the subject and is creating hard, uneven light.

Light isn’t as powerful as you think. It can only travel so far. In fact, light becomes infinitely less powerful as it travels. In this case, it reaches your friends’ faces and quickly dies before it can reach the background. Ways around this – bounce the flash. Direct it off of a ceiling or wall – an object that diffuses the light (making it indirect) and enlarges its size (these objects are much bigger than your tiny flash bulb). Now one problem – your camera’s default flash cannot swivel. That’s why it stinks (get an external one!).

Here’s another scenario – you are in Italy and stumble across the leaning tower of Pisa. Its 3am.  No tourists, no lights….just you and a piece of history. There’s enough ambient moonlight for your eyes to see this amazing landscape. You bust out your camera, flash pops up and BAM…an empty dark image. Why? Your flash can’t reach the background!! It’s only powerful enough to light whatever’s directlyin your foreground (a friend, a random railing, your index finger, etc) and that’s it!  This is a true story…this happened to me when backpacking through Europe in 2001. It took me almost 10 years to understand why that picture never got developed!!!

Without importing your own lighting equipment or waiting until day break, you can still properly expose this exact Italian scene I just described (ie make it visibly lit / properly exposed in a photo). Manually reduce the shutter speed enough to where your light meter reads at 0. Since it’s pitch dark out, you will need a very, very long shutter speed (one that is minutes, not seconds long). You can’t do this by hand (camera shake) so you’ll need a tripod. That’s the trick.

Sun Light

As I mentioned earlier, sunlight comes in different colors and produces various forms of contrast. When shooting outside, you want to avoid shooting in direct sunlight in the middle of the day. I’d either shoot one hour after sunrise or one hour before sunset. This two-hour period is commonly referred to as the golden hour because of the warm hues that it produces (see color temperature discussion above). It’s also ideal because the sun is much lower in the sky, producing either indirect light (blocked by buildings) or side light which is much more flattering.

If you absolutely need to shoot mid-afternoon on a sunny day, you can still pull it off by looking for shaded areas (where the sun is diffused by other objects like trees, buildings, etc).  Shaded areas create nice and even (soft) lighting. That said, shaded areas also provide BORING lighting! Light is important and often helps create dramatic moods and emotion in your picture. Play around with different settings…best way to learn.

Direction of Light

This is where you can get really creative. Front and ambient (indirect/shade) lit subjects are often boring. This is the way we are used to seeing things in our day-to-day lives. Good pictures are often taken with unique and unconventional lighting which make us pause and appreciate. Think about a silhouette during a sunset? Cool, right? That’s because it’s back lit!

When shooting food, picture an imaginary clock on top of your subject with 12 at the top and 6 at the bottom (based on the perspective from which you plan on shooting from).  I prefer light to come from anywhere but 6 o’clock. Experiment…you’ll be surprised.

The example below shows three different directions of light.

  • LEFT. front lit (6 o’clock)…boring
  • MIDDLE. side lit (3 o’clock)…exciting
  • RIGHT. back lit (12 o’clock)…really exciting, somewhat mystical

ss: 1/125, A: 2.8, ISO 400 (shot with 24-70mm 2.8L @ 70mm)

Reflecting / Bouncing Light

The previous section explained how you can control light. Light is more than something that makes this ‘not dark’ – it is a compositional tool. There are times, however, when light needs to manipulated even more. For example, take a look at the backlit photo above. The front of the bowl is much darker than the side or front-lit pictures. That’s because the light is coming from behind the subject and the front of the subject is being illuminated by ambient light (unlike the other two pics where the bow is being lit by direct light from my window). To solve this problem, you can reflect or bounce the light off of a white object. Some people like to use fancy tools called reflectors, which you’ve seen in professional shoots. There is a cheaper solution, and that’s a foam board which you can buy from a craft store for only $5. Make sure it’s white…any other color and the hue of the board will reflect onto your subject.  Reflecting light onto darker tone in picture is also referred to as “fill light”. You are, in effect, filling light in darker parts of the image.

Example below. Picture on the left is the back lit one from the previous example. No fill light, making the front of the subject a little dark. To some, that’s ok. To show you the impact of fill light, I placed a foam board in front of the subject to bounce some light back onto the front of the berries. Low and behold, you now have front and back light with only one light (the window). The foam board is acting like a second light. You can adjust the positing of the foam board based on the amount of fill you want.

Another way of understanding light: imagine a pinball than bounces around a pinball machine. That’s what like is like, except it slows down very quickly after being ejected. You can redirect or bounce light using tools like white foam boards  or even white paper.

Real Life Food Set-Up

Enough with the theory, lets get to the point already!!  Here’s my typical home light setup. I only shoot using natural light (window). I shoot so that the light is either coming from the left/right side (3 or 9 o’clock) or behind (12 o’clock).  I have a few foam boards that I use to fill light with. They are positioned on the side of the object that is not receiving the light. This helps soften the shadow. Since my window faces north, I don’t get direct sunlight and as a result, don’t have to worry about diffusing the light to soften it. That might not be the case for those facing east, west or south (depending on the time of day). in this case, you may consider diffusing the direct light with a sheer curtain. I don’t use flash and definitely don’t use my apartment lights. These are the easiest ways to ruin a picture! Remember, your lights are either too harsh (high hats) or too boring (ambient light bouncing off your ceiling is bland, creates unwanted shadows and doesn’t create nice effects).

Food Photography Tutorial (Part 2: Exposure)

One of an SLR’s best features over a point+shoot is the ability to have greater control. Control over what? Let’s start with exposure which simply means how dark or bright a picture is captured. A picture that comes out too dark is underexposed while a picture that comes out too bright is overexposed.

We often take exposure for granted because point+shoot cameras automatically expose our pictures for us. As we go through the principles of exposure, you’ll also learn about important composition techniques like freezing motion and creating a shallow depth of field.

An SLR camera enables you to control exposure using three distinct levers  - shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Think of exposure as a three-legged see saw. Your goal is to constantly keep the three in equilibrium.

If you plan on shooting in manual or semi-automatic modes like “M”, “Tv” or “Av”, read on…

Shutter Speed

This is the speed at which the shutter of a camera opens and closes. You can hear it. The shutter of a camera blocks the sensor (i.e. film) from light. When you click to take a picture, the shutter doors open, capture the frame (by allowing light through the shutter doors and onto the sensor) and close.

Think of shutter speed as a knob on a faucet. The longer the shutter doors are open (i.e. longer shutter speed), the more light you are letting. If your shutter speed is open for too long, you will overexpose your picture (i.e. too bright).

Shutter speed is most often measured in fractions of a second. Long shutter speeds are measured in full seconds. Measurement examples include 1/25th of a second, 1/50th of a second, 1/100th of a second. On a Canon, these measurements appear as 25, 50 and 100 inside the viewfinder  (instead of 1/25, 1/50, 1/100) even though they’re still technical fractions.

In addition to controlling a picture’s exposure, shutter speed is also a tool used to freeze (or blur) motion. This is less relevant for an immobile subject like food but is an important technique, especially when shooting subjects like kids (who never sit still). Use a fast shutter speed to freeze them (vs. a blurry image). Just remember that by using a fast shutter speed, you are making a sacrifice by taking in less light. This means your photo may be at risk of being underexposed (too dark). You will have to offset by either raising your aperture or ISO to achieve a properly exposed photo (repeat after me…3 legged see-saw…equilibrium).

I illustrate two different applications of shutter speed below. The image on the left has a very fast shutter speed (1/1,600th of a second) which I needed to freeze the fast-moving subject. In capturing this picture, I started by selecting my desired aperture (while cognizant that I needed a FAST shutter speed). I chose 2.8 (the lowest my 24-70 2.8L lens can go) because I wanted a shallow depth of field (blurry city). ISO stays at 100 (ideal) unless I need MORE light for some reason. It was broad daylight so chances of that were slim. I then selected my shutter speed (ss). I had two things on my mind: 1) I need to select a very fast ss to prevent the picture from getting motion blur (different from camera shake) and 2) I need a ss number that will balance my preset aperture and ISO settings. I ended up at 1/1,600th of a second.  My suggest to you is to practice. Play around with random shots at different times of day and it will become second nature (like riding a bike?).

Now for the picture on the right where the river stream is blurry but looks different from what your eyes would see. In approaching this picture, I knew I needed a LONG shutter speed to create this effect (where the immobile objects are sharp but moving objects are blurry). I also knew I needed a tripod to avoid camera shake (see rule below). Lucky for me, there was a rock that I could rest my camera on (in lieu of a tripod). I’d normally start with a desired shutter speed except in this case, I knew that I was limited by the amount of light that would let in (probably too much because it was already a bright day setting). The way to balance that excess light is to reduce the aperture considerably (use a higher number). My lens’s aperture only went up to 22, so that was my starting point (small hole…see section below). Again, I left the ISO at 100 because I didn’t need more light (if anything, I needed to find a way to reduce the amount of light). I then backed into my shutter speed (in achieving proper exposure) of 1.3 seconds. That was long enough of a shutter speed to achieve the effect I was going for.

The other consideration when altering shutter speed is an unpleasing effect called camera shake. Your hands are always shaking whether you realize it or not. If your shutter speed is too slow, camera shake will make your entire picture come out blurry. This is different from the effect I achieved above in the woods where only the water was blurry! This is why people use tripods. The rule of thumb: avoid shooting (w/o a tripod) at a shutter speed that is less than the inverse of your focal length. For example, if your lens is set to 55mm, you should not use a shutter speed less than 1/55th of a second (or 55 as displayed in your viewfinder). To complicate matters further, you need to adjust that rule of thumb for what is known as a crop factor. Most entry-level cameras have a 1.6x crop factor, meaning that the adjusted focal length of a 55mm focal length on a camera like a Canon Rebel is 55mm x 1.6 = 88mm. As such, you should really avoid shooting at <1/88th of a second when using a 55mm lens on a Canon Rebel.

camera shake rule of thumb: shutter speed >= 1 / (focal length * 1.6)

I’ll cover the subject of focal length in a future post, but here are the basics for now. Focal length is the ‘zoom’ at which your lens is set for any particular picture. It’s set by the ring around your lens that you turn (there are usually two rings: one for manual focus and another to change focal length).


Shutter speed occurs within the camera body while aperture is specific to the lens that’s attached to the camera. Every lens has what’s called an aperture, or a hole through which light travels. Think of aperture as the width of a sink faucet and shutter speed as the amount of water pressure coming through the sink. There are two ways to speed up the amount of water going through a sink: increase the water pressure or use a wider faucet. Similarly, there are two ways to increase the amount of light in a picture: slow down the shutter speed or increase (i.e. open) the aperture.

Aperture is also known as an F-stop. Examples of aperture are measurements like 2.8, 5.6, 11, and 22. These same measurements are sometimes displayed as F/2.8 (same thing). The lower the number, the bigger the hole, the more ‘open’ the aperture is. A bigger hole allows more light to reach the sensor. The range of aperture numbers is specific to the lens that you are using. Most lenses range from 3.5 to 32 while expensive lenses go down as low as 2.8 and sometimes 1.2.

In addition to controlling a picture’s exposure, aperture is also a tool used to achieve background blur (the effect is known as a shallow depth-of-field and the actual blur is referred to as bokeh). This is extremely important when shooting food. Most appealing or professional looking pictures have shallow depth of fields, which by default creates more attention to the item in focus.

The example below shows two pictures with the exact same exposure (light reading) and composition (set-up). The only difference is their depth of field. The one on the left has a deeper visible plane (i.e. greater depth-of-field) whereas the one on the right has a shallower depth-of-field.  You’ll notice that the only change between the two pictures’ exposure settings was aperture. However, to achieve the same exposure, I had to make an offsetting change to the shutter speed. Notice that the shutter speed in both cases is faster than 1/115 (see rule of thumb!) which allows me to take a hand-held shot without the unwanted effect of camera shake.

While we’re on the subject, there are several different ways to achieve a shallow depth of field:

  1. aperture. A larger aperture (low number) like 2.8, 3.5, or 4.6.
  2. focal length. All else equal, a longer focal length (>50mm) will provide shallower depth-of-field than a wide-angle (24mm-50mm).
  3. distance between lens and subject. you can create a shallow depth-of-field by getting up close and personal to your subject. This can actually be done using a point+shoot camera. All lenses have a minimum focus distance, meaning you can’t get too close because the camera is unable to focus. This is where MACRO lenses come into play. These lenses have a much smaller minimum distance requirement.
The example above actually resulted in a shallow depth of field in both cases. It’s just that the one on the left is relatively deeper than the one on the right. In the image on the left – even though I used an aperture of 8.0 (which in itself should create a deep depth-of-field), I was very close to my subject (within 5″) and used a long focal length (70mm).  I was, in effect, implementing bullets 2 and 3 above in both pictures. I used all three bullets in the picture on the right.


The two main ways of balancing exposure are through shutter speed and aperture. A third, somewhat artificial tool is ISO and should be your last resort. On most cameras, the ISO ranges from 100 to 1600. A higher ISO will help increase your exposure (i.e. brighten your picture). However, this effect will come at the expense of a grainier picture which may result in a desirable texture. ISO is primarily used in scenarios where you have set your desired shutter speed and aperture combination but the exposure is still too dark. You cannot allow more light to hit the sensor for a variety of reasons: either you can’t slow down your shutter speed anymore (to avoid camera shake – see rule above) or you cannot increase your aperture anymore (because you have either already reached your lens’s physical limit OR you don’t want a blurry background). This scenario leaves you with three options: 1) add light from an external source (flash), 2) capture an underexposed picture or 3) increase ISO.

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are only relevant if you plan on manually controlling your exposure (manual mode or “M” on the settings dial of a Canon). All other settings will automatically properly expose your frame. However, there are semi-automatic settings like Av and Tv; these settings stand for aperture priority and time priority, respectively. Av allows you manually set a desired aperture level (to achieve a specific depth-of-field, or background blurriness). When using Av, you only need to worry about is the aperture. The camera automatically figures out the shutter speed and ISO to create a proper exposure. Tv is similar in that your only concern is to set a desired shutter speed (to either freeze motion with a fast shutter speed or create a motion-blur effect with a slow shutter speed). The camera will automatically determine the appropriate aperture and ISO to balance your manually set shutter speed and achieve a proper exposure.


I’ve made references to the word blur a few times in this post but they are all different. I want to make that distinction:

  • camera shake. this is when the entire frame looks blurry because you used a shutter speed that was too slow (and without a tripod). This is a blur effect that you want to avoid 99% of the time (unless you’re going for an abstract effect).
  • motion blur. this is an effect that is made intentionally and also through the use of a slow/long shutter speed. However, you’ll have used a tripod (or other stabilizing object) and there will be a mix of mobile and immobile objects in your frame.  The immobile objects (water, etc) will come out blurry while the mobile ones will be sharp.
  • bokeh. This is the blur you achieve when creating a shallow depth-of-field. It’s technically not a blur, but many people will call it that. This is also an intentional effect that’s often used in shooting food.

How to Read for Exposure

SLR’s have what’s called a light meter. This is a visual guide that helps gauge exposure and is located in at least two different places on a camera: one inside the viewfinder and second on the LCD screen. The light meter is activated when you point your lens at something and press the shutter button down half-way.

A picture is properly exposed when the reading(i.e. hashmark) is at 0, or in the middle of a light meter. Anything to the left of the zero (a negative number) yields an underexposed photo while anything to the right of the zero (a positive number) yields an overexposed photo. The farther away from 0 the hashmark is, the more over/under exposed it is. You can even measure the actual amount of under/over exposure using a term called “stops”, which goes beyond the scope of this tutorial (if you’re at -1, your frame is 1 stop underexposed and at +1, you’re 1-stop overexposed).

The chart below shows three different screenshots (on the LCD screen). The left snapshot is that of an underexposed photo (-2), the middle is properly exposed (0) and the right most snapshot is overexposed (+2).

If you pay close attention to the snapshots above, you will notice that the only change between them is the shutter speed (1/100, 1/25 and 1/6). The aperture, at 3.5 and ISO at 3200 (my camera’s ISO goes higher than the standard 1600) were held constant. In this example, I used the shutter speed alone to alter the exposure.

If we were to look at the actual pictures of these light meter readings, they would look like this:

Why You Would Want to Manually Control Exposure

You’ve probably read this section and wondered why you need to learn the intricacies of exposure when you ultimately want to properly expose your picture anyway (in which case, why not just shoot on automatic??). The answer — you don’t always want to properly expose your picture!  There are times when you want a dark scene and other times when you want to intentionally make a bright scene. This brings me to a very brief discussion on metering modes. Your camera has different ways of reading exposure. The default setting, which I believe is called evaluative metering, takes an average of the entire frame. Spot metering, which is what I use and prefer, only reads the middle point of your frame for exposure. Spot metering gives you a lot more precision in controlling exposure throughout your frame.

Having a working knowledge of exposure (i.e. shutter speed, aperture and ISO) will lead you to understand how to utilize features like depth-of-field and keep your pictures sharp (free of camera shake). Even if you ultimately decide to expose your pictures properly (not too light, not too dark), you should still get to know the features of your SLR. Control is, after all, one of biggest selling points of an SLR!

Food Photos Exposure Settings

Now that you’ve got the theory down, let’s figure out how you should set your camera settings when taking food shots. I always shoot on manual (that’s how I was taught), but a good second option is Av. Aperture, or depth of field, will probably be your most effective tool in creating a stunning food shot. Av will allow you to control that aperture while allowing the camera to automatically balancing for shutter speed and ISO. Just be cognizant of camera shake, which your camera will not warn you about!

Since I usually shoot using natural light and have a northern facing window (light not as bright), I often find myself using a higher ISO (around 800-1600). This provides me enough flexibility to change apertures (2.8 through 5.6) if I want while keeping a shutter speed that’s fast enough to avoid camera shake. I can always use a slower shutter speed, which would give me more options, but would come at the expense of having to use a tripod (something I’d rather avoid).

Some examples of food photos below with their exposure settings. Stay tuned for the next post in this tutorial series on LIGHT.

ss: 1/250, A: 3.5, ISO 800 (shot with 24-70mm 2.8L @ 67mm)

ss: 1/125, A: 7.1, ISO 2000 (shot with 24-70mm 2.8L @ 50mm)

ss: 1/60, A: 7.8, ISO 320 (shot with 24-70mm 2.8L @ 70mm)

ss: 1/160, A: 4.5, ISO 2000 (shot with 24-70mm 2.8L @ 70mm)


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