Food Photo 101 – Lesson 1!

With this being the first Food Photo 101 lesson (yea!), and on Tuesday, this is Nika’s lesson that I’ll be following with my results on Thursday. So keep in mind that these are Nika’s words, not mine:

Click here for a printable PDF version of this post

kiwano horned melon. All Rights Reserved 2006 Nika Boyce

(Kiwano Horned Melon, shot with a 4 MP Fujifilm Finepix S3100)
Welcome to all of you following along!

I would like to thank each of you for writing to us about your interest in this project. Curt and I have been overwhelmed by the response, making us feel even more inspired.


As I mentioned in the first post in this series (Food Photo 101: Photography for Foodies), I strongly believe that there is quite a lot of capability in your average low-cost digicam or Point & Shoot (P&S) camera.


Because I was able to get some interesting images with my P&S by doing a few very fundamental things, other than pointing and shooting. For example, I shot the photo above with my 4 MP Fujifilm Finepix S3100 (bought the camera for about $250.00 in 2005, I think). Another image from the same series and camera is shown below.

kiwano horned melon. All Rights Reserved 2006 Nika Boyce

(Kiwano Horned Melon, shot with a 4 MP Fujifilm Finepix S3100)

I am going to use two different icons to indicate when I am referring to P&S or a DSLR: – P&S – DSLRFor the most part, assume I am referring to P&S operations. When I am talking about DSLR specific topics, I will pop up that DSLR icon.
Lesson 1: Objectives

  • Learn the basics of any digital camera
  • Explore white balance, exposure, and aperture settings
  • Apply that experience to some food photography

The basics of any digital camera are:

  • a light-tight box
  • a lens that lets the light in
  • a sensor
  • a little computer that does things with the data from the sensor

With almost all P&S cameras, the lens is a permanent part of the camera, so you do not have the option of switching it out for a different lens. One of the ways that you control your image is by using the various modes on your camera, which in turn control things like how wide the diaphragm in your lens opens up, time that the sensor is exposed to light, etc.

There are many different P&S cameras out there that span the gamut of functionality, from barely more than a disposable camera to ones that begin to rival even mid range prosumer DSLRs. Because I have only used my kind of P&S (before that I used a Pentax K1000 film 35mm, now I mostly use a Canon 30D), I am going to have to use settings found in my Fujifilm S3100 (which is pretty basic) and my Canon 30D camera for our examples. If you can not find the analogous functions on your camera, post to the class forum and we will brainstorm it.

My Canon 30D camera has all manner of creative modes, customizable settings, etc. When I have it on manual, I capture in RAW format, I can turn the auto-focus off by the switch on my lens, I have direct control over the white balance, shutter speed, the ISO, aperture, etc.

My P&S camera has a movie mode, an auto still mode, a “creative” still mode (that includes night, sport, landscape, and portrait), and a manual still mode.

  • The best place for those “creative” modes is for snapshots at a wedding, the theme park, or some other setting where you are not really going for studio quality images.
  • For food photography, stick to the manual mode. Grab your camera manual or instruction book and re-read the section for manual mode for your camera.

First Project

Today’s activity is to play with some camera settings so you can get an intuitive sense for the effect each setting has on your photo. We are going to dive deeper into the manual mode to learn what it has to offer us. I know it’s painful, but right about now you need to get out your Instructions for your camera and turn to the pages on the various manual modes.

Grab these things:

  • camera
  • tripod, mini-tripod or a stack of books or some such to put your camera on
  • pen
  • paper
  • some small object or even food, something that will not go bad from sitting around though

If you are looking to get a table top tripod, perhaps one like a GorillaPod by Joby would do. [Curt's note: Best Buy or Circuit city may have a cheap tabletop tripod if you need one for this week, too, though not as cool as the GorillaPod]

Find these in or around your house:

  • a clear window that you can put a table next to
  • a table
  • a comfortable chair

The time of day when you should do this experiment is around mid-day or whenever the sun is at it’s highest. Put your table near the window, but not in direct light falling through the window. If it’s afternoon and you are getting direct light coming in at an angle, your photos will have intense shadows, an advanced topic that we are not dealing with right now.

A cloudy day that is not too dreary should work also.

  • Put your subject (banana, stuffed iguana, baby’s binkie, sea shells, anything) on the table and either mount your camera on the table-top tripod, a regular tripod, or lodge it on a stack of books or the like. The latter is not the best idea, but it works in a pinch.

Lighting diagram - right

  • First, make sure that your camera is set to Manual mode (definitely do not want that nasty on-camera flash going off)
  • Set your quality setting to the highest it can go. For my camera, that means a 2272×1704 pixels jpeg file
  • Set your white balance to auto

For my camera, the instructions say this:

White Balance

  • Set the EV or exposure compensation to auto
  • Exposure compensation

  • Set the Aperture Priority to auto
  • aperture priority

    • If your camera has other manual setting, set those to auto also
    • Focus on your subject and take a photo
    • Making sure to record what conditions apply to which photo, take a shot at each of the different White Balance settings
    • After you complete that, set the White Balance back to auto
    • Next, do the same thing with Exposure Compensation, starting at the bottom of the available settings within EV to the top
    • Set it back to auto
    • Finally, keeping White Balance and Exposure Compensation at auto, take shots for each setting of the Aperture Priority selection.

    OutcomesWhich settings did you find worked best for your subject? Notice how different your photo can look when you change just one of these selections slightly. If you are shooting RAW (not available in most P&Ss), white balance is not as important because you can optimize this in your post-processing.While your learning, you may want to go through this process for each new lighting situation that you encounter.

    Take Home Message

    It is possible, with a little attention to detail and knowledge of your camera’s manual settings (and never using the on-camera flash), to capture images of your subject that have good light qualities.

    Second Project

    • If you feel like you have found some settings that are giving you a good image of your stand-in subject, it’s time to put it to the test.
    • Select a food that you have found challenging in the past (except for a bowl of soup which is inherently frustrating to shoot; more on soup later) and put it where your previous subject was.
    • Do not use the tripod.
    • Shoot the food like you have in the past, using settings you may have used then. Perhaps you would have used the flash and have it set to a “creative” zone like “portrait” or some such.
    • Now shoot your food with the setting sweetspots you found in the first project above and with the tripod.
    • See any difference? If not, be patient. Adjust the settings (one at a time) and see if it can get better.
    • Post your before and after photos to the flickr Food Photo 101 group and then, if you wish, write a blog post about it (you can use the logo I have up at the group pool for your posts).
    • Do not forget to trackback to this post so that we can get a notification of your post. I will then be able to include your hard work in the Sunday wrap up post. You can also simply email the link to me or Curt.
    • Your after photos do not have to be perfect to share!!!
    • We are looking for improvements right now, not the Ansel Adams of the food world.

    Can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

    Canon 30D All Rights Reserved 2007 Nika Boyce
    I am putting together a glossary of photography terms on this Food Photo 101 Glossary page (sourced in large part right now from the English Wikipedia). I am adding to this over time, it’s not 100% complete yet.
    Related Posts:


    To register for the newsletter that reviews each week’s topic, fill out the contact form at the bottom of this post (or on the Food Photo 101 page) and type “Food Photo 101” in the subject field.

    About Curt McAdams

    I guess I'm a bit of a foodie, learning to cook from my mom, then getting obsessed with outdoor cooking, competition barbecue, bread baking and just about all things food. Lately, I've been trying to upgrade my photography skills a bit, though I still have a long way to go.

    No comments

    1. Holy WOW! Ok, so I have a 300D that I’ll have to give some of these tips a try with…

      If you want, you can remove these..but here’s a few that I did with a simple bouncing of the flash… I need a P&S for when I’m out. This is a pain to lug around with me, even if I only carry the body, a lens or two and a flash.

      Moonpies from my Sister-in-law.

      My Beer Can Chicken off the grill

      And an Ice Cube from a tray that I got off

    2. Those look great, C-pher. have you signed up for the class? It’s going to be a weekly thing for a while, and should be fun. Just let me know…

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