How He Shoots: John Bek from He Needs Food

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John Bek from He Needs Food is a shining example of how it IS possible to take stunning, high quality food photos with an entry level DSLR, a “making do” set up at home and props picked up from the side of the road. Learn how he shoots. I think you will be amazed.

Go behind the scenes and learn how the talented John from He Needs Food takes his food photos.
Photo credit: John Bek | He Needs Food

One of the ways we can improve our photography is by studying the photos of those we admire. Even better if they happen to live in the same city as you, better again if you can befriend them and best if you can invite yourself over to watch them shoot. :-)

“They” in my case is John Bek from He Needs Food, a Sydney based food and travel blog with stunning imagery. I regularly ask John “has Gourmet Traveller magazine contacted you yet?” and he humbly brushes off my compliments. But the thing is, I really mean it. I think his photos are of that high a standard.

My style is quite different to his but that’s irrelevant. It’s the principles that matter, things that can be applied to any set up and style. It was very interesting to see that our set ups are actually quite similar, though his photos have more shadows than mine.

Watching John shoot and chatting to him about photography validates my philosophy about food photography – that you do not need an expensive DSLR, you can take amazing photos by “making do” in your own home and without spending loads of money on props. It was also really interesting to learn that the way he shoots is exactly what I teach in The Food Photography Book. :-)

So let’s jump into it!

How He Shoots: John from He Needs Food

John Bek | He Needs Food - profile
Photo credit: John Bek | He Needs Food

I invited myself over to John’s house to watch him shoot his Israeli Couscous Salad which he originally posted in 2011. Here are 7 very interesting things I observed about how he shoots.


John Bek | He Needs Food | Israeli CousCous Salad 2
Photo credit: John Bek | He Needs Food – Israeli Couscous Salad

Nikon D32001. He uses an Entry Level DSLR – John mostly shoots with a Nikon D3200 DSLR which is the cheapest in Nikons’ DSLR range. He also owns a Nikon D7000 but says he actually prefers shooting with the D3200 because it’s so lightweight and easy to handle.

This really amazed me. From the quality of photos that he takes, I honestly thought he was using a full frame camera, or at least a top of the line cropped format DSLR.

So to all those worrying that your camera is the reason that you aren’t happy with the photos, here is irrefutable proof that it is NOT!

2. He shoots in his bedroom – No fancy permanent set up! John shoots in his bedroom, usually on the foot of his bed. I spied a few other places in his house that I thought might have fantastic light too, but for his style of photography, this is where he likes to shoot.

What a fantastic example of making do with what you’ve got!

PS Also notice how the surface of the tile he is shooting on is wet. He sprayed it with water to make the grey colour of the tile darker. This is a great tip for a way to change up your existing shooting surfaces!

John Bek | He Needs Food - shooting location

3. Dark room, little light – I once put up a shooting set up photo on the FBC Facebook Group where I had my curtains mostly drawn so only a sliver of light was shining on my set and John commented that his was similar. And it really is. There is only one light source in the room he shoots in – the doors to the patio. And he closes the curtains halfway or more to reduce the light.

John Bek | He Needs Food

The light source is coming from the north but the balcony is covered, so the light that comes into the room is not very strong at all. That’s quite similar to my situation.

Having a window with lots of strong, bright sunshine pouring in is a food photography myth that people have taken too far. Not only do you not need it, too much light is not a friend of food photography! It’s one of the key game changing tips I try to emphasise in The Food Photography Book. Thank you John for validating that!

John Beck | He Needs Food 2

4. He doesn’t diffuse – Nope, he doesn’t diffuse his light. And that’s because the light source is not very strong. I didn’t bring my Secret Lighting Test with me, but I guarantee if I did, it would look like what you see on page 48 of The Food Photography Book which indicates perfect lighting for more dramatic dark/light photos which is the style that John takes.

5. He’s all over camera settings – Shooting in a relatively dark setting like John means you have to be comfortable with changing camera settings with ease. He shoots in manual and approaches his camera settings the same easy way I teach in The Food Photography Book (refer to the Camera Settings Cheat Sheet on page 32).

The shutter speed he needs to use to capture a properly exposed photo is very, very low because he shoots in a dark setting – sometimes as low as 1/10 – which creates risk of image blur from camera shake. Which is why he has his tripod handy. Especially for overhead shots, shooting in a dark setting means a tripod is a must.

John Bek | He Needs Food 3

6. His reflector is genius – See the round reflector he uses in the photo below? It’s the base from the light right above his bed! And not only is it genius from a storage perspective (helps that he’s tall enough to reach up to get it without a stepladder), it is doubly genius because it is made of fabric / rice paper type material so the light that reflects back on the food is much softer than using white cardboard or the reflectors that come with the Lowell artificial light which is the one that I use (and is very common with food bloggers).

John Bek | He Needs Food | Reflectors

The reason that the soft backfill is good is because sometimes, white cardboard or the reflectors that the Lowell comes with has a tendency to bounce light back onto the food in a manner that makes it look like there is a spotlight on it and looks “fake” if it is too close to the food and/or the light source is very strong (which means stronger light bounces back onto the food).

Here’s an example – one of my photos. In this Homemade French Onion Dip photo, the light is coming from around the 10 o’clock direction but the right front side of the dish is brighter than the left side (the light source side) which looks odd. Almost as though I have a spotlight shining from the right onto the bowl.

The reason this occurred is because I have the reflector (white shiny foam cardboard that came with my Lowell artificial lights) pushed right up close on the right side of the food. So the light bouncing back onto the bowl on the right side is even stronger than the light on the left side just where the bowl is.

But if I had used a softer reflector, like the fabric one that John uses, I would not have had this problem. :-)

French-Onion-Dip-Refector-Too-Close

7. He doesn’t spend money on shooting surfaces – and they are some of the best I’ve seen around

He Needs Food | Egytpian Baked Fish 1
Photo credit: John Bek from He Needs Food, Egyptian Baked Fish

Until a couple of weeks ago when I was unable to resist a plank of wood from Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, I never spent more than ~$10 on a shooting surface.

And John is the same – we’re both dumpster divers (not literally, but you know what I mean!). His collection of shooting surfaces is utterly incredible, and they’re all sourced from the side of the road or from junk yards.

A key observation is that his collection is highly textured – think peeling paint, rusted metal, old fencing and other wood with grooves and scratches. It’s definitely a key element of his stunning photos.

In the photo above, you’ll never believe what the shooting surface is…it’s old felt attached to a wooden board that he picked up at a junkyard. Doesn’t it look like textured stone? Gorgeous!

PS Also love that the balcony outside his bedroom is his prop storage area. Honestly, who needs a bedroom balcony anyway?!

John Bek | He-Needs-Food- Boards
Photo credit: John Bek | He Needs Food

8. With Great Light, you can take great photos – even with an iPhone

After John did all the work that matters i.e. choosing a shooting surface, styling, props and lighting, I stuck my hand out and took a photo with my iPhone.

If this shot is not absolute proof that with great light (and styling!) you can take stunning photos no matter what camera you have, I don’t know what is. :-)

Image credit: Nagi from RecipeTin Eats with an iPhone 5. (Te he he!!)

John Bek | He Needs Food - iPhone Shot

Here’s the actual shot taken with his camera that he shared in his Israeli Couscous Salad post. :-)


John Bek | He Needs Food | Israeli CousCous SaladPhoto credit: John Bek | He Needs Food – Israeli Couscous Salad

******************

Well! If that hasn’t convinced you that you don’t need to spend big $ on a fancy camera and shooting surfaces to take amazing photos, I don’t know what will! :-)

I know, I know, you want more….but that’s it (for now?). To feast your eyes more, visit John’s blog, He Needs Food, and find him on Pinterest and Instagram.

If you enjoyed this post and seeing how John shoots, share it with your friends!

What did you think? Any questions, drop them below and I can even pass questions onto John!

– Nagi x

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The Food Photography Book by Nagi from RecipeTin Eats

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Nagi! I just discovered your blog an I LOVE IT! I love taking food pictures for my food blog but I feel like I’m not getting any better, so articles like this is exactly what I need! I’m actually going to buy your food photography book right now!
    Thanks for sharing great tips like this!

  2. says

    I think I found John’s blog thanks to you mentioning him in your e-book. The most interesting thing about John for me were his recipes. I was shocked to see very familiar recipes on his blog… guess we share the same Croatian heritage. :)

  3. says

    His photography is incredible! Someday I hope to be as good. I noticed that he doesn’t really use a backboard behind his food. In the photos that you can see back there, it looks like it is probably his dresser that becomes the background? Luckily his dresser is gorgeous, so it looks amazing!

  4. says

    Hi Nagi!
    Thanks for this and especially the end piece. I am still saving up for a dslr camera and have to make due with the phone and old cameras in the house! I want to dumpster dive now for treasures!

  5. says

    Brilliant! recently had council’s big rubbish collections and scored an old table with storage and a commercial baking tray. I am going to use those settings in Nagi’s photo book and John’s settings. So amazed with Iphone shot.

  6. says

    Great to hear that someone uses Nikon D3200 and lands up with such amazing clicks. Even I use the same with 35mm and 50mm.
    I was recently thinking about a upgrade but this man clearly communicates that lighting is way more important than the camera. I think I need to practice more and stop thinking about upgrade.
    Thanks for the post Nagi, Thank you John as well :)

  7. says

    Wow, he has such TALENT!! I used to shoot in my bedroom too lol. My kids would always look at me weird as I carted all my props and food in there. Glad to know I’m not the only food blogger shooting with an entry level DSLR (Canon Rebel SL1) :)

  8. says

    Really fab post, Nagi … and definitely off to have a squizz at John’s blog now.
    One question … I’ve been looking and looking and looking for some good ‘junk yard’ type shooting surfaces, but am not having too much luck in finding anything. Do I literally have to go to some actual junk yards? (very happy to if this is the key!) I’m not finding anything dumped by bins etc! :-)

    • Nagi says

      Literally….YES! John lives on the city fringe in a trendy area where people are always renovating so that’s why he manages to score loads from the side of the road. I’ve had some luck but I’d say around half my stuff is from actual tips. SO worth it. :) Try googling for recycling centers.:)

  9. says

    His food styling is so beautiful. I just love his style! Quick question: I started to shoot RAW as per your suggestion in your eBook, but when I convert the images to jpeg or png it looses its quality. How do you save your photos after editing them in RAW because otherwise how do you upload them to WordPress for your blog posts?

  10. says

    Omgggg… This is just incredible. I loved how you have clicked with your iphone to prove how lighting n stlying is important. My eyes just popped out when I saw that shot. It’s just so amazingly fantastic. I’m lost for all the adjectives that I can add here.

  11. Donna S says

    Nagi thank you so much for taking the time to show us, that we really do not need a lot of props and STUFF to have fantastic photos. As always, simplicity is the key, it seems. All of these shots are amazing !! I have one question. Do you think it would be confusing for a blog to mix both the dark and sultry and the light and bright clean crisp look in separate posts ? I am so torn between the two styles and I can not seem to figure out which one I like best. I was thinking that we all have different moods ,so why not mix it up when posting on a blog. It seems that most blogs shoot one way or the other, so I was just wondering. Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for all you do.

    • Nagi says

      Nope, I don’t think it’s confusing :) You do need to watch out not to jump TOO much between the two, but I think mixing it up adds interest. Have a look at The Spice Train, Nic’s blog. Look at how she mixes it up!

  12. says

    Beautiful photos (John’s and of John) … I’m intrigued by the behind the scenes photos like AvocadoPesto … I’ve so much to learn and seeing amazing photos with simple props, setting, and tools helps me realize that I can improve without spending buckets of $$$ – I’m on a budget ya’know! Thanks for sharing – especially specific references to pages in your book. That’s a valuable resource!

  13. says

    This is making my head spin. I have a old table top that I use and I thought it was limiting my photos but it’s obviously just me!! I need to have a good look at where is best in the apartment to set up now. So inspiring! Thanks guys.

  14. Kathryn says

    So many great tips here! Plus, loads of encouragement to keep trying, practicing, experimenting and improving! Thanks to both of you for sharing your skills!

  15. says

    Thank you for sharing these interesting idea’s! I was thinking about trying to get more out my food photography! These ideas form a big help!
    I’ll be looking at the dumpyard soon haha.

    Cheers,
    simon.

  16. says

    Beautiful! I’m loving all these photography tips! John’s style is similar to what I would like to do with my pictures! Thanks again for sharing Nagi and John!!

  17. says

    I love the simplicity of this. On a side note, it would be really interesting to go to a blogger’s ‘shoot site’ be it their bedroom or a small corner in their kitchen or dining room just to see how they work.

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