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