Here are my secrets for how I take photos that LOOK like they are crystal clear and sharp even though I use budget consumer grade camera and lenses.
Hi guys! Firstly, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone, especially all the members in the FBC Facebook group, for the warm and supportive reception of The Food Photography Book. Long hours, early morning and late starts – totally worth it. It puts a goofy smile on my face hearing that you are finding it truly useful and practical.
I can’t WAIT to start seeing “post” photos! I have some fun features planned so we can share pre/post photos and also to facilitate a way that I can give you some feedback on your photos – if you want. Because the book is quite lengthy, I plan to wait a month or so to give you the time to read it and practice.
Most importantly, please remember to NOT compare yourself to others, to me or to professionals. It’s about being proud of your own photos. You set your standard. And remember – it won’t happen overnight. Like everything in life, it’s about practice and time.
PS The Affiliate program for The Food Photography Book is coming soon….tied in with a fun giveaway…oooh, I’m looking forward to it! And keep an eye out for bonus material that I’ll be emailing to everyone who has the book very soon!!
Sorry, I got off topic! Back to today’s post:
How to Take Crystal Clear, Sharp Photos
I’ve provided cross references to relevant sections in The Food Photography Book where applicable. I know there is a LOT of information in the book so I thought it would be helpful to help apply those things in practice by referencing them when I write photography posts here on FBC.
There is also a section on How to Take Crystal Clear, Sharp Photos in the book – page 184. But it is a topic worthy of expanding on and I thought it was timely to share it now!
Remember: These tips are geared towards those who use entry level / budget gear and for photos displayed on the web.
1. You don’t need an expensive camera – or lens
My camera and lens are only worth $350.
The first myth I want to bust is that you need to have an expensive camera and lens to take sharp photos. That is not true, and I think I am living proof of this. I’ve had many people comment on how sharp my images look. And my photos have been used for letter-size paper recipe booklets by clients.
I’m using a hand-me-down Nikon D5000 which is worth about $250 (2nd hand, body only) with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR FX Lens which retails new for $220 but I purchased 2nd hand for $100.
A good camera does help. Cameras are like wine – the more you pay, the better it will be. BUT you can still take very sharp looking photos using budget cameras. Especially if you are a blogger who only uses photos for the web!
All my tips for how I do it are below.
2. Use a fixed / prime lens
When you are using entry and mid level DSLR’s, the lens you use has more of an impact on image quality than the camera itself. Fixed / prime lenses produce sharper photos than zoom lenses.
Zoom lenses are lenses that you can use to zoom in and out of a subject. Whereas a fixed / prime lens is one where you have to physically move closer or further away from a subject.
In simple terms, the reason fixed / prime lenses produce better quality images is because they are less complicated than zoom lenses so you can get more for your money. So a $200 prime lens will produce much better quality images than a $200 zoom lens.
Typically when you buy a new camera, it will come with a zoom lens. The Nikon D5000 I use came with a 18 – 55mm zoom lens but I never, ever use it for my food photos. My most used lens is a Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR FX Len which retails for around $220 new but I purchased it 2nd hand for around $100.
* The Food Photography Book cross reference: on pages 13 – 17 I go through the lenses I use (Nikon + Canon equivalents), which to use when, the difference between lenses and how it impacts your food photos.
3. Camera shake / shutter speed
One of the biggest offenders with blurred photos is camera shake. Camera shake occurs if you move the camera while the photo is taken and/or the shutter speed you use is too slow.
Camera shake is a greater risk in low lighting situations when you need to reduce the shutter speed drastically in order to capture enough light in your photo. The basic rule is – the faster the shutter speed, the less change of camera shake!
* The Food Photography Book cross reference for more information: My recommended minimum shutter speeds for different shooting angles, natural and artificial light, with and without a tripod, are set out on page 32 (the Camera Settings Cheat Sheet).
4. Get a Tripod
Especially if you shoot in places with low lighting, I really encourage you to consider getting a tripod. This will allow you to use lower shutter speeds and still capture crystal clear photos.
The tripod I use was also a hand-me-down. One that my mother used to use for a telescope for archery (of all things, how obscure right?). It is an OSN MX 2000 which is no longer available but sells second hand for around $15/20 on Ebay.
I keep reading that it’s not worth getting a tripod unless you invest in it ($100+), but honestly, I am so happy with mine and my mother swears it was really cheap. I am sure I read somewhere once that it was sold in Walmart!
Tip: Make sure you get a quick release head. It will attach to the bottom of your camera and allow you to slip the camera in and out of the tripod with the flick of a lever. Very handy!
5. Out of Focus/Focussing on the Wrong Spot
Another offender of blurred photos is being out of focus, or focusing on the wrong place of the photo with a very low f-stop (which causes lots of blurring in front and behind the focus point).
If you use a f-stop of lower than f/3.5 and you shoot up very close, you need to be especially sure you are focussing at the right point. This is because low f-stops and shooting up close means the depth of field is shallower i.e. more blur in front and behind
I always use autofocus. I don’t trust my sight enough to use manual focus.
* The Food Photography Book cross reference: Chapter 10 Where to Focus (page 109)
6. Vibrant colours and colour contrast
A pile of mashed potatoes in a white bowl will look less sharp than a white plate with a colourful salad on it with lots of ridges and texture (think: shredded purple cabbage, green leaves, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrot!).
This is simply visual perception. Stronger colour contrasts in a photo will look sharper than a photo with lots of similar colours.
What this means: Pale coloured foods in pale coloured vessels will not look as crystal clear as bright coloured foods on white plates. The same applies to dark food on dark plates. Colour contrast looks sharper!
Example 1: I know this is not the best example but it is the best I could find. I must admit that I am so conscious of colour contrast in my photos that I wasn’t able to find any good examples (I ditched many!).
The Homemade French Onion Dip (SO good!) in this shot looks rather washed out in the white bowl compared to how vivid and sharp the feet stuffed red peppers do. Even the jagged outline of the crackers looks sharper. In this particular problem, the form of the dip is not such that it should have sharp edges on the surface. But it’s a good example of how much sharper bright colours look against white compared to pale colours.
7. Directional Lighting
Directional Lighting is when you have light mostly coming from one direction and it is one of my secret tips for how I get my photos to look sharp and also vibrant in colour. The reason it makes things look sharper and more vibrant is that when light comes mostly from one direction, it creates shadows on the surface of your food which works effectively creates colour contrast and therefore makes colours and textures “pop” more.
I talk a lot about Directional Lighting in my book, how to find it and create it. It not only makes photos look more vibrant but also gives the perception that the photo is very sharp. Sharper than it actually is when you use a budget camera like I do!
For those who have my book – are you remembering to use my Secret Lighting Test so you know when you have great Directional Lighting? 😉
* The Food Photography Book cross references:
- Why Directional Lighting is so good – page 38
- How to know when you have Directional Lighting – page 46
- How to Create Directional Lighting – page 60
8. Grainy Photos (Noise)
When photos are grainy, they look like they are made up of lots of little dots so they don’t look sharp. Graininess in photos is also referred to as “noise”.
Noise in photos typically occurs due to one of the following:
- Using a ISO that is too high
- Brightening a photo too much during editing, exaggerated when cropped in a lot
- Over sharpening during editing
Here’s an example. This is highly exaggerated so you can see what a grainy photo looks like. This can be caused by any of the above 3.
And here’s the photo without graininess. it’s particularly noticeable on the left edge of the plate – notice how the grey is much smoother compared to the above photo? Also on the surface of the orange juice.
* The Food Photography Book cross references:
- How ISO impacts image quality and graininess – page 26
- My recommended ISO for different set ups – page 32 (Camera Settings Cheat Sheet)
- Photo Editing – Brightening Photos in Photoshop (page 57)
- Sharpening in Photoshop – page 166
9. Editing (KEY TIP!)
This is at the bottom of the list because it’s done last BUT I hope you are still reading this post because this is a key tip!!
Learning how to edit photos so they appear crystal clear and sharp is key especially when you are using budget / consumer grade gear (that’s me!). When / if you get the opportunity to shoot with professional grade cameras, you will be shocked how much better quality the images are straight out of the camera.
So until you afford $1,500 for a camera and $1,000 for a lens, focus on improving your photo editing skills. 😉
* The Food Photography Book cross references: Use the step by step walk through in Chapter 17: Editing for Photoshop and iPhoto.
I personally do not recommend LightRoom. I do not find the interface user friendly and am not as happy with the editing tools as I am with PhotoShop.
10. CLEAN YOUR LENS!!
You know how I regularly admit that oil spray is my favourite styling tool? Well. Imagine this: Shooting up close so my lens is real close to the food. Spray the food with oil….tiny specks of oil dust floating around the food….sticking to the lens….me being clueless and snapping away happily….only to open the photos on my computer and realise that EVERY SINGLE PHOTO IS BLURRED.
Your lenses are no different to your eyeglasses and sunglasses.
And don’t do what I did. Put the cap back on BEFORE you spray your food with oil!!
Your camera or lens probably came with a cleaning cloth. If not, they cost a few dollars online or at camera stores. Or use your eyeglass cloths. That’s what I do!
That’s it! My top 10 tips for how I get my photos to look sharp even though I don’t have a professional camera!
Remember: Photos viewed on the web are not as high quality / sharp as images in print and viewed on your computer. So the way I edit and use directional lighting in my photos is very much towards making sure my photos look sharp on my blog. I’ve recently started working with a print magazine and it’s been really interesting to get their feedback that they don’t want as much directional lighting in the photos. They have the luxury of choice – because photo quality is so much higher in print.
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And if you would like to learn more about The Food Photography Book (including a free sample you can download), just click here!
– Nagi x