Amateur’s Food Photography VII: It’s not the camera, it’s the lighting.

by Jenn on April 3, 2011

in Photography

Maple Brined Pork Roast, Camera Compare

Ok, I know that title was a little dramatic.  And there are times when it really is the camera’s fault.  But I want to talk today about using your camera to its full potential by playing with lighting, and show that lighting can go a long way to helping a photo, no matter what type of camera you have :)

Often photographers will say that “a good camera does not a good photographer make”, and it took me a while to really understand what that meant.  When I wrote about my photography journey for Food Bloggers Unite, I learned a great deal about myself.  My introspection led me to see how the biggest thing I did to help my photos was to realize that while photography is about having good equipment, it is more about having good lighting.  Near Christmastime this past Winter, I decided to do a little experiment.  I set up a shot of maple brined pork roast, and once I had everything set with my photo that I liked, I took it with my DSLR and then with my husband’s point & shoot.  The photo above is each of them side by side.  Now sure there are some definite differences, but I have to say, the point & shoot does a pretty darn good job!

For the longest time I thought my camera was the reason my pics weren’t awesome.  It became an excuse – the responsibility no longer lay upon me but was shoved off onto my camera instead, leaving myself completely absolved of any issues with my photos.  Out of focus? camera’s fault.  crazy harsh shadow? must be the camera.  blurry? obviously because the camera can’t handle low lighting well, must be my camera.  Noise? definitely the camera.  Really, for most of these things, it wasn’t the camera’s fault (ok, my old D200 does have an odd issue with noise above ISO 200, but that’s a different topic). It was mine.  Mainly my inability to judge and react to light well.

The camera is just a tool.  Albeit mine is near and dear to my heart, just like my cello is near and dear to my heart.  I loved playing the cello growing up, but I wasn’t good at it.  I mean, I was really terrible.  I tried, I really did.  I didn’t have a fancy cello, and I often longed for one that had better tone, or a bow that floated as if on water across the strings. But you know what? A fancier cello wasn’t going to make me a better cellist.  And whenever my cello teacher played something with my cello to show me an example, it always sounded a whole lot better than anything I ever played.  She could make my cello sing in ways I honestly didn’t think it was capable of; it was then that I learned that anyone has the potential to make something beautiful using the tools they have.  At some point one has to recognize that potential in oneself and realize they can work around the limitations of their instruments to produce art.  Because really, we’ll always be wishing we had the next new version, with better technology and fancier bells & whistles – especially when it comes to photography.

The truth is, many great photos can be taken with a point & shoot.  And many terrible photos can be taken with a fancy DSLR equipped with even the best glass.  Sure, great equipment is wonderful and opens up more possibilities.  I am in love with the compression and creamy bokeh on my macro lens.  But that doesn’t mean one has to have the best equipment to take a decent photo.  But one has to understand the equipment they are using and know how to get the best out of it.

If you have a point & shoot, there are so many aspects of photography that one can utilize to create beautiful photos.  This remains one of my favorite food shots to this day, and it was taken with *just* a point & shoot:


I don’t love it because of my skills (ha I didn’t even know what that even meant when I took this, I saw that there was beauty).  I love it because of how the afternoon light was hitting the strawberries.  I love how the light and the shadows highlights the texture of the seeds.  I love how the light rimmed around the delicate leaves.  I see this photo and I remember how these strawberries tasted.  And the light helped this photo achieve that end.  If I had a DSLR at that point in time, I probably would have taken this exact same photo the exact same way.  What I see in my head and what light is shining in the room does not depend on the camera.

And no matter what your camera, you have the ability to manipulate light, and manipulate elements within the frame.  You don’t have to accept whatever light is currently available.  Too harsh causing crazy hot spots and dark shadows like with this salad I photographed today?

An example of bad lighting.

Find a way to soften the light.  A sheet.  Tissue paper.  A sheer curtain.  Heck even a white cloth napkin or a shoji screen (my current diffuser of choice, haha). Yep, a shoji screen. Once a decorative piece in our home, now clearly photography gear – well, until we have company over and I have to give back the dining table, and everything else and take apart my “studio” aka the section of the living room my husband is nice enough to let me do whatever with for photos:

My new light diffuser.

But really, it works. See the difference? Same bright sunlight coming through, but now diffused and more even – the shadows are toned down, nothing is so blown out anymore. Now I can look at the photo and think about something other than, “ack bright sunshine!”

Diffused Lighting.
And you can bounce light back on the other side too.  Even with tin foil!  Now I use a white foam board, which I cut almost all the way through down the middle, so I can fold it to whatever angle I want and “cradle” the light around my subject:

My "top-down" setup
But you see, this isn’t so fancy, this setup I have here.  Are there limitations to what you can do because of your equipment? Sure.  But even my camera can’t take awesome photos at night with an overhead stovelight.  It just can’t.  And it’s not my camera’s fault either.  I would need to supplement the lighting by using flash bouncing behind me or strobes or some other continuous sources (none of which I have).  While a fancier camera may be able to handle a higher ISO to extend the range of the light it can handle being held freehand (no tripod), I will never produce great photos at night without attending to my lighting.  This is probably the best I will be able to do using only available stovetop light, and I accept that for the moment – soft diffused light just isn’t going to happen on my stovetop; I have to keep in mind the type of light I have before trying to plan the shot:

Gluten Free Pancakes

One thing that can help any camera in low lighting is a tripod.  Low lighting usually means a longer exposure time is needed – this means your shutter in your camera is open for a longer time, giving that much more room for any shaking by your hands, etc. to make blurry photos.  All a tripod does is keep the camera from moving.  It can be a fancy tripod that costs a lot of money, or it can be a stack of books on the table that you rest your camera on for a few minutes to steady it while you click your shot.  I’ve used the back of a chair.  A fence post.  A rock outside, even a tree stump.  When I used solely my point & shoot, I had a little tabletop gorilla pod so that it could stand on its own.

And last but not least, you can always find a better time and place.  If you aren’t trying to capture a particular event, but have full control over everything in the photo and lighting isn’t awesome where the plate happens to be, think about moving to where it is.  Outside in full sunshine?  If full sun isn’t working for you, think about moving your food to somewhere shaded. Or find the window in  your home that has the best light.  Getting the photo you want may mean having to save some leftovers until the next day when there is daylight available.  Oftentimes I’ll make a second dish on the weekends of something we had during the week, just so I can get the pic of it that I want.

Or maybe you have to finagle some options to manipulate or work with the lighting that you have.  It’s ok to get a little creative.   Gosh knows I do! You aren’t limited to only where you eat the food, and you aren’t limited to what lighting happens to be reaching your plate at the moment.  So please, don’t get discouraged if you are lacking in gear.  We all think we are lacking in gear in some form or another.  And please don’t get angry at your camera.  Know that you can take beautiful photos with it.  But recognize its limitations and work with them, not against them.

Just joining in and watch to catch up? Here are the rest of the posts in this series:
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light
3 – Take your time and find your “zen place”
4 – Angles of Light
5 – Pay Attention to Props
6 – The Histogram


Shirley @ gfe April 3, 2011 at 12:36 am

Great, helpful post, Jenn! I’ve heard some of these pointers, but need them repeated and I love seeing your specifics. I just re-purchased my old point and shoot. Long story, but I loved that camera and it has gotten destroyed and couldn’t be replaced via warranty. So I found it new online and it was less than half the price. Now I’m happy again. I don’t think I’m ready for a DSLR, but I am ready (soon!) to start paying more attention to tips like yours. :-)


Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Thanks Shirley. Sorry to hear about your camera, but glad you were able to find a replacement!

Rosa April 3, 2011 at 1:13 am

Light is indeed very important! It is the photographer that makes the picture and not just the camera… 😉



Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Yes definitely! Thanks Rosa.

Joelen April 3, 2011 at 1:29 am

Thank you for your helpful post… and I’m continually in awe of your photos!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Thanks Joelen, I’m glad it’s helpful!

Zoe April 3, 2011 at 1:33 am

I completely identified with your post and use a lot of the “techniques” you mentioned. I just have a point-and-shoot, and while I’ve sometimes wondered if my life would be better with a fancier camera, I’ve learned how to get the best results with the camera I have. From altering the light to moving to a different room to waiting until the next morning to take the photos, when I know the wonderful morning light will bring out the best in my shot, I work with what I can control. Thanks for perfectly capturing that photography isn’t just about the camera but about the eye behind the lens (and that I’m not the only one who hasn’t had any luck taking photos under the harsh stovetop light). :)

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Thanks Zoe, I keep learning and trying new things, and no you definitely are not the only one who has issues with their stovetop light!

Adrienne April 3, 2011 at 2:35 am

This is really helpful. Light is the thing I struggle with the most — it’s clearly important, yet it’s sure tricky!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm


Iris April 3, 2011 at 3:01 am

Great post! This series is really very motivating for me!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Thanks, I’m glad!

Joan Nova April 3, 2011 at 4:50 am

Great info…it inspires me to try and try again. I definitely appreciate these posts. Thanks!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thanks, yes definitely keep trying! Each week I try something new, it’s part of what makes photography so fun :)

Christine April 3, 2011 at 4:51 am

I love that you pointed out that if you’ve not satisfied with the light you have, you don’t have any excuse NOT to manipulate it!

I find one of my biggest problems in our condo is that we only have windows on one side of the house, so especially in winter, it’s difficult to get anything but really weak light. (I guess I don’t have to worry about that for a while as it’s coming to summer – haha.) This has made me appreciate my tripod even more as without it my pictures are super blurry or noisy!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Yes my tripod is my camera’s best friend too – I also only have light coming in from one side, and yeah it does get a little tricky sometimes, especially on dark rainy days…

InTolerantChef April 3, 2011 at 5:28 am

Great to see how you put your ‘studio’ together, it’s good to know that maybe even I can manage it too, thanks!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Thanks – ha it’s pretty funny calling a corner of the living room my “studio”, but it’s all I’ve got :)

Julia @ DimpleArts Photography April 3, 2011 at 7:27 am

Thank you so much for these tips! They are very helpful.

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 7:00 pm

You’re welcome!

Robin April 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Great post! I can totally relate. I use the tissue paper and a large rectangular silver gift box as a reflector because it can stand up without being held. My good camera is sitting in it’s case while I’m more spontaneous with the point and shoot.
Thanks for all the tips!

Jenn April 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Thanks Robin! Oh I like your use of a silver gift box, great idea to bounce back light!

Kulsum at JourneyKitchen April 3, 2011 at 7:58 pm

That post feels like it was specially to meant for me. And I almost felt like you sitting right next to me saying “don’t get angry on your camera!” Great Post Jenn. I love looking at your set up. It helps a lot!

Jenn April 4, 2011 at 8:41 am

haha – I’m glad it helps!

Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) April 4, 2011 at 12:55 am

Thanks for these tips. The biggest struggle for me is getting good lighting photographing food indoors, at night. Since I work full time, and have small children to spend time with / take care of over the weekend, I do almost all my cooking and photography at night. I invested in a good light (the Lowell ego) but I don’t think it’ll ever be quite as good as the real thing! These are great tips, though. Thanks for sharing!

Jenn April 4, 2011 at 8:43 am

Yeah photographing at night is tough. I haven’t done much at night yet because I know my lighting is severely inadequate. I’d be interested to see how you use your ego lights though!

Winnie April 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm

You are so talented -at both the photography and at explaining your process(es) for others. I love seeing your set-up and the use of the shoji screen is seriously cool- I haven’t yet found a good way to diffuse my side light but I need to get that figured out. PS I finally invested in a really good tripod and have found it makes a HUGE difference in the photos I take in lower light conditions…

Jenn April 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Thanks Winnie! Glad you are enjoying your tripod – I love using mine :)

Katie @ Health for the Whole Self April 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I need this post! I’ve been complaining about the light in my apartment for years, and these days I keep saying “my photos will be so much better once we move to our new house.” But really, I could be doing a better job even in my current lighting situation!

Jenn April 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Great, I’m glad it helps! Good luck with your lighting!

The Healthy Apple April 5, 2011 at 12:05 am

You are such a fabulous photographer and I love your gluten-free blog. So excited to have come across it and can’t wait to see more of your amazing gluten-free pictures and posts. Have a great night and love your lighting!

Jenn April 5, 2011 at 12:38 am

Thanks so much!

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite April 5, 2011 at 1:21 am

Another FAB post Jenn. These really are so helpful. I have a pretty good P+S and now I understand my DSLR a bit better, I think I could go back and get some better shots out of the P+S – which is useful for when you are on the road (and for when I used to blame the camera!). We can practice this summer!

Jenn April 5, 2011 at 7:44 am

Thanks Mardi, and yes, definitely! April 5, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Great tips Jenn! I’m really enjoying all of your photography posts.
This is like a free photography class and you’re a fabulous teacher!

I learn something new every time I read your post :)

Jenn April 5, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Oh thanks Lisa! Actually writing these helps me a lot too, so it’s a learning process for the both of us :)

Heather at FarmgirlGourmet April 6, 2011 at 12:29 am

This is the exact post I’ve been searching for! Thank you Jenn for explaining in such detail with evidence that it’s not just a $1500 camera that fixes bad pics. (although it would still be nice to have). ha Again, thank you!!!

Farmgirl xoxo

Jenn April 6, 2011 at 12:36 am

Thanks Heather, and yes, fancy gear still is nice to have! High quality gear has definite benefits, but a decent photo is about more than just the gear one has at their disposal :)

Nicole@GFonaShoestring April 10, 2011 at 3:11 am

Hi, Jenn,
This is a really wonderful post with lots of great information. I’m embarrassed to say that only recently did I start paying a lot of attention to the quality of the photos I was posting on my blog. I look at my early photos, and “hungry” does not describe the way I feel!
I’ve thought about buying a tripod, and I know I would love it, but I don’t know what to look for in one, how much to spend, etc. Do you have any advice?
Again, thank you for the great info!
Warm regards,

Jenn April 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

Hi Nicole – it really depends on the camera you have, what your budget is, and what your specific needs are. The biggest thing to remember is you are trusting your equipment with that tripod – so you want to be sure it will support your gear and that it won’t come crashing down bringing all your gear with it. Tripods can definitely fall into the “investment” category …

Jenn April 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm

p.s. I sent you an email :)

Magdalena June 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

Hi Jen,
Thank you for sharing such a helpful information. It will definately change my way of taking pictures from now on!

Warm regards!

Baerbel April 20, 2013 at 10:31 am

Thank you so much for this series, dear Jenn. You literally opened my eyes!

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