Last week I received a couple of reminders that I promised a post on food photography tips for winter so I thought I better get cracking before it’s already spring (or at least before the days officially start getting longer!).
I have the great fortune of living in what may just be the gloomiest winter city in the world. Vancouver is located in the heart of the world’s largest temperate rainforest.
Good news? We don’t have the typical harsh winter that are associated with the rest of Canada. We rarely drop below freezing and the snow knows its place and sticks to the mountain tops.
Bad news? From November to March it rains all the time. All. The. Time. The joke is if you can’t see the mountains, it’s raining. If you can see the mountains, it’s going to rain.
So needless to say, even in the middle of the day, it can be dark enough that it feels like it’s 4pm. What’s a food photographer to do??
Get creative, that’s what. Here are my tips. They’re not professional, but they’re things that help me out.
** note: all the turnip images, excluding the one at the top of this post, are straight out of the camera. I haven’t changed the camera profile or even sharpened them. Each group of images were shot with the same camera settings.
Food Photography Tips for Winter
1. Buy a tripod.
It doesn’t have to be a skookum ball head Manfrotto that costs $300. An inexpensive one will do the job. You can even try using a little gorillapod – they’re amazingly strong and can help you get really creative with angles and tight spaces.
2. Actually USE the tripod.
uhhhh… yeah. This is sorta the key step. You have to use it. I’ll admit it, I prefer not to. I like to move around when I photograph. I shoot food with prime lenses, which means they can’t zoom in. In order to get closer or further away, I have to use my feet. With a tripod, I have to move everything and ummm… well… I’m a klutz. I bang it on stuff and forget to lock the head and it’s a Pain. In. The. Bum. And it slows me down.
But here’s the thing… it gives you light. You can set your exposure manually and keep that shutter open as long as you need to to get the light you need – even on a dark and gloomy winter day – and not worry about a blurry photo. You can keep your ISO low so you minimize the graininess of your shot. Most P&S cameras give you the ability to shoot manually so you’re going to have to bite the bullet, read your manual, and figure out how to make it work.
The other thing it does… it slows you down. I know, I already mentioned that. It can be a pain. But that forces you to think about the image you’re making. You become more aware of what’s in the frame, your angle, your shadows and your light. You will probably take fewer photos but the ones you do will be more thoughtful and deliberate. That’s a good thing.
3. Learn how to adjust your white balance.
White Balance with Natural Light:
When you shoot on a dark and gloomy day with natural light, the light can give your images a very cool cast. Try moving your white balance to daylight, shade, or even cloudy. This will warm up the photo’s tones. I usually find Daylight is perfect but now and then it’s so grey out, that cloudy will even work. I usually find shade is too orange. But experiment. If you shoot in RAW, you can manually adjust your white balance in post processing.
Group 1 Images: All shot at 50mm, f/2.5, 1/80, ISO 640 with natural light from the left. No reflectors were used – note how strong the shadows on the right are.
Note how cold the auto WB is in the first image and how it get progressively more orange as I cycled through the different white balances. None are wrong or right but they all change the mood of the photo.
Group 2 Images: All shot at 100mm, f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 1000 with natural light to the left. No reflectors were used causing very dark shadows on the right.
Note how using a macro lens changed the depth of field to give some nice background bokeh even though the f-stop is higher than the images shot with the 50mm lens. I’m standing the same distance from the subject as I was in the first group. The dark shadows make the turnips look much more dramatic.
White Balance with Artificial Light:
I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of shooting with off camera flash or studio lights here because I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of you don’t have a pro lighting setup in your kitchen. Sometimes, especially when you’re photographing dinner, it’s dark out and you have to use indoor light. Avoid using your on-camera flash. It will blow out the highlights of your food and give you a nasty orange glow. Turn it off.
Use your tripod and set your white balance to either flourescent or tungsten. Under normal natural light circumstances, these will give your photos a very blue cold cast. But with artificial light like you have in your kitchen, that blue neutralizes the orange cast the artificial light casts on the food. It’s not a perfect solution, but it will make a big difference to your photos.
For these images, I closed all my blinds, turned on the light over my dining room table (a normal 100w regular light bulb covered by the fixture). The tungsten works best for neutralizing the orange cast a regular light bulb gives off. If you have fluorescent lighting (I just noticed I spelled it wrong in the graphic!) or are using the newer compact fluorescent energy saving bulbs, you would switch to fluorescent. With a regular bulb it gives a bit of a magenta cast.
Group 3 Images: 50mm, f/2.5, 1/80, ISO 1000. Light from overhead (note how the shadows are now in front of the turnips!)
4. Reflectors, reflectors, reflectors.
Reflectors give you more light. They let you bounce light where you want it and minimize the dark shadows this time of year can bring. You don’ t need to buy a reflector. A couple of pieces of foarm board from Staples will work. Prop them up with a sturdy bowl or pot if you don’t have clamps. Mirrors will work as well. Use a combination of both. Move them around to the side, the front, hold them above the food at an angle. See how the light and shadows change with the different positions. I often hold a reflector above the food but on an angle and set the camera on a tripod and used the self-timer.
Group 4 Images: 50mm, f/2.5, 1/125, ISO 640. Natural light is coming in from the left and a white reflector is positioned to the right (held up by my trusty fruit bowl!).
The shadows on the right are much less pronounced then they were in the first group. And note that my shutter speed is faster here: 1/125. That’s because in order to keep my exposure the same as the first group of images, I had to increase it… that’s because I have more light!!
Group 5 Images: 100mm, f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 1000. Natural light is coming in from the left and a white reflector is positioned to the right.
Once again, the shadows on the right are much less pronounced then they were in the second group. Also note how much less drama there is! The contrast is more washed out. This is a great example of how you can get completely different looks with virtually the same camera settings just by manipulating your light sources.
5. Go outside
We think nothing about photographing food outdoors in summer. Try it in winter too. Maybe not in the pouring rain. But after a snowfall, it can work remarkably well. Snow gives you all kinds of light but it can give you a grey cast to your photos. I’ve found the trick to working with snow, is to actually overexpose the photo a few stops. I shot these cookies in the snow last year:
For this photo in the snow, I went up two stops to overexpose the image and make the whiteness of the snow brighter. I don’t think it washed out the cookies too badly and the whiteness on the candy canes turned out well too! Like I said, we don’t get a lot of snow so I don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice!
So, which image did I choose for the prime spot at the top of the page? Image 3 from Group 2. To post process it I changed the Camera Profile in Lightroom to Camera Standard, increased the contrast and clarity, sharpened it and then exported it to a .jpg. I liked the more dramatic shot without the reflector. Et voila! C’est beau! (at least, I like it!).
Remember, if you shoot in RAW, you can change the white balance easily in post processing. But, I do recommend you try changing it in camera so you get a feel for how they work and you can see the differences as you shoot!
Now, get your tripod and your foam board and get out there and take some photos after 4pm!