[Food photography 101 to celebrate foodbeam’s third birthday]

Fifteen days went by since the last time I talked to you my friends. But what feels even more unusual is that today is precisely foodbeam’s third birthday. I can’t believe you guys have been reading me and sharing your stories for three whole entire complete years.

Things haven’t changed; or so I tell myself. In fact, I’m now a grown-up, and part of this, is clearly seeing where and what I want to be. Such a pleasing feeling.

Pâtisserie has become a true passion of mine over the years, and hopefully, I’ll be able to call myself a pâtissier next year, on this exact same date.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, not that I’m superstitious or believe in luck, but well… your support truly is amazing and an actual happiness shot. Through this little unpretentious blog, I’ve had the chance to make great friends, to meet some respected writers and pâtissiers; and perhaps, most importantly, to find what makes my heart all happy inside. You know, the thing I can wake up at three am for; the thing I can work for countless hours for. No, not boys, you silly. Pâtisserie. And that’s totally thanks to you guys who encouraged me, supported me and helped me having the life I had always dreamt about.

Sure I always get distracted by other things; prints, illustration and polaroids (I seriously considered enrolling in a CAP Polaroid, until I found out it doesn’t exist; damn, we need to find a solution).

But pâtisserie do and always will mean happiness for me.

Ok, enough for the tears-inducing words. Let’s move onto the real thing. The blog. And the pictures. First off, let me tell you I don’t consider myself a good food photographer. My pictures are decent, not terrific. But since I get so many requests about how I get such pictures, I thought I could share how I do it.

Along with the food, the camera is the only thing you really need to become a food photographer.

Yes, it’s that simple, or it’s at least what you think when unpacking the camera from it’s shiny cardboard box and before you actually spot the five-hundred-page manual, waiting there, just for you.

Manuals are like those guys who, sticky-with-love, always want to be by your side. You don’t want them, but certainly need them from time to time. Well, may I suggest you both get a little closer (or more accurately, you get closer from him), and you’ll find out how wonderful they actually are.

So yes, whether you have a Chelsea camera or an East-End one, read the manual. And try the different functions, get to see how it works and how you can get the results you want.

I now have a DSLR – read: digital single lens reflex. A canon 400D (or XTi, for you guys across the ocean). But back in the old days, I had to make the most of that other less fancy camera I had. But I have the feeling I succeeded. Not that my pictures were perfect – I’m pretty glad I never took the time to re-upload the pictures from the archives (after I moved foodbeam from blogger to wordpress).
Basically, you just need to know your camera, and how to set it; which is something we’ll discuss a little further.

Make it. Have fun. And don’t take it too seriously.

Did I say that all you really need are food and a camera? Well, seems like I was lying. I love to have an assistant handy as well.

My assistant – or slave, you choose – is most of the time my little sister or boyfriend. Pick someone you can harass, manipulate, and judge without going through much trouble. Yes, your eight-year old cousin will do.

While it’s not compulsory to have one, it might help you through tricky issues. I mean, which colour should I pick for the background? Or how in the world am I supposed to keep those delicately piled choux in place with such a wind?
See, very handy.

So, yes, as soon as the food is made, get ready to take the pictures. Get your assistant to measure the distance between your camera and the food, to determine the best focal length to choose considering the light conditions your assistant (again!) assessed using his new luminometer.

Or in the real world, find a place where you have access to natural light. I love natural light, but not when it’s too harsh; that why late summer nights and me have such a special relationship.
Don’t put the food in direct light either, but behind a window or under a porch.Thus, you’ll have soft shadows and a sufficient amount of light coming through your lens.

chocolate jelly

You can certainly invest in both a good tripod and flash; I can’t since I have other things in my to-buy list, which come first far away from this useful duo. Just don’t use your built-in flash. Never. It makes the food looks flat, with no contrast except for that bright white spot on the shiny surface of the chocolate jelly you’ve just made.

As much as I would like my pictures to look like pretty pages from my favourite food magazine, I just can’t. And I totally grown over this.

First, overstyled shots just don’t feel right to me; not that they don’t look good, they certainly do. They’re simply not – embodying – me.

Second, I don’t have enough money to buy tons of props, not enough time to style the food. It’s meant to be eaten after all and I’d much prefer my friends to enjoy the food rather that having them to wait angrily until I finished the styling and shooting. Two words: Ikea and garage sales. Those are the places where I find my tableware. I love Ikea for the cheap white plates that make any food look great; while the garage sales – or vide-greniers as we call them here in france – are a wonderful way to find lovely vintage scorched pans and plates.

Third, my approach to food photography is more food-geared than anything else. I want the bread* to stand out, not the neat polka-dot ribbon that’s tied around.
* replace with any food you plan to shoot.

That’s why in most of my picture you’ll find a container – plate, jar, cake stand – holding what matters most; the delicious food. Nothing less – and most definitely – nothing more.

By now you should all be aware that I love clean pictures. And needless to say, simple background. White cotton fabric is my favourite. Ever. But coloured – and even illustrated – fabrics are ranked high amongst my top-ten.

What I do is usually ask my assistant to bring a cardboard box, place it on the table and cover both with the chosen fabric. The food is placed on this, around 15cm in front of the box.

This is probably the trickiest part for those of you who don’t know a thing about how cameras work – basically, this description fitted the person I was three years away from now.

Consider your camera as a small window through which light beams. The amount of incoming light is what makes the picture, so this is most definitely a critical point. For a couple of minutes, please excuse me if I stop sounding silly. We need to concentrate.

When I take pictures, I always work in manual mode and pay attention to:
– the shutter speed
– the aperture
And then tweak the ISO settings so I have enough incoming light.

The shutter speed is the time during which your shutter will stay open. Quite obviously, the longer it remains open, the more light will go through it, and the brighter your picture will be.

It is a fraction that looks like 1/3000 or 1/100 or 1/3 or 1/10″… the longest being 1/10″ and the quickest 1/3000. I recommend not using a shutter speed lower than 1/100 or your pictures might turn out blurry.

The aperture is lens-dependent. I currently own two lenses: one 50mm (focal length) f/1.8 and one macro 100mm f/2.8; which I both have now words for except they’re the real thing. The 50mm is cheap and totally amazing; while the 100mm is somewhat more expensive, but worth every cents.

The mean f-slash-number represents the maximal aperture of a length. The smaller the number, the wider the lens will be open and thus, the brighter the picture will be.
But what makes aperture special – more special than shutter speed, at least in food photography – is its ability to produce a lovely blurry background, while the main subject is well in focus. To get that depth of field, I tend to use the wider aperture possible: f/1.8 with my 50mm lens and 2.8 with the macro one.

Now, the hard thing is to combine both the shutter speed and aperture to produce a beautiful picture with just the necessary amount of light. If too much light comes through the lens, then the picture will be overexposed. In the other case, it’ll be all grey – or even worse, black.

These misfits would happen all the time if the exposure bar didn’t exist. You know that -2…-I…0…+I…+2 at the bottom of your viewfinder. It helps you see whether the picture is underexposed (negative) or overexposed (positive).

Sometimes, when I have both the shutter speed and aperture set in order to have the maximum amount of light coming in, but it’s a little too dark outside, my pictures look greyish. Well, in those situations, I just increase the ISO speed from 100 to 200 or in extreme conditions, 1600.
Increasing the ISO speed does affect the quality of your picture by adding graininess to it; but this is totally worth it when you don’t want the party layer cake you’ve spent hours making look like a pantone shade of black.

Do you need actual help on this?

Once the pictures are in and the cake eaten, I will transfer the pictures onto my laptop. And then, I edit all my pictures using Photoshop CS3. Yes, all of them.
In fact when you see a strawberry cake, it is really a chocolate flavoured one.

Oh yes, I do use Photoshop for every single of my pictures, but that’s mostly to crop them into neat 410px-wide rectangles so they fit perfectly into the little food heaven that foodbeam is.

Sometimes, I will tweak the levels or colours, but only when much much needed – read: when you can’t clearly recognise what’s in the picture.

Oh damn, I could talk about food photography for hours. There is so much to say I’m crazy to try and express how I feel about it in just one post. I certainly don’t want to bore you. Getting you grab your camera with excitement is what I aim for. So please, experiment, take your time and enjoy yourself. With this, I’m positive that your pictures will look beautiful.

And, remember:
– natural light
– simple composition
– good framing
– macro or manual settings
– love

Oh what about that last picture. Yes, it is totally a delicious blueberry focaccia, which recipe will come soon.