Tips To Taking Better Photographs with Nicole Young, Author of Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots

by Jennifer on May 1, 2012

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For the past 6 weeks, I have been reading the book Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots by Nicole Young. I thought there were many useful topics and tips in the book for not only the foodie trying to improve their photographs, but also for the average person who wants to take better photographs.

I asked if I could ‘interview’ Nicole via email since my voice was on hiatus and she shared some great information so read, absorb and learn from her book.

What are the top 3 tips you would give a point-n-shoot owner that would make the biggest differences in their photos?

The most important aspect of any photograph is the light, so if you’re using a point-and-shoot, make sure the light in your image is beautiful. Use back-lighting, fill-cards, reflectors, diffusers … do whatever you have to do to make the light look good in your image (and definitely avoid using your on-camera flash!).

Next, watch your backgrounds. Most point-and-shoots will have much wider lenses, so you’ll want to be careful with how much is showing behind the actual dish. If you have a zoom on your camera that might help narrow the field of view, but the background will still be more in focus than if you had an SLR and a wide aperture, so just be aware of what’s happening behind the food.

Lastly, if you can try shooting in RAW mode on your camera. If not (and you have to stick with JPEG), look through the color mode settings to see if there’s one that works best for your food photos (such as a “portrait” or “landscape” mode”. You want to make sure that the color of your photographs represents the food as accurately as possible without adding a strange color cast to the image.

What advice would you give someone looking to purchases a higher end consumer SLR?

If you want to buy an SLR, especially if it’s your first SLR, make sure that you realize that your lenses are going to be much more important than the camera itself. For example, the cameras I have in my camera bag at this very moment will probably be “old news” in five years, but I’ll still be using the same lenses. So, depending on your budget, make sure you’re not skimping out on a good, solid lens in exchange for the newest, shiniest SLR camera on the market. I’d rather shoot with a 3-year-old Canon Rebel with a 100mm macro lens than a Canon 5DMkIII and a cheapo lens any day of the week.

What advice would you give a food blogger looking to make the biggest differences in their photographs?

As a photographer I feel it’s very important to constantly be looking at other photographs. And when you look at them, don’t just skim the photo, but instead read the photo. See the light, where it’s coming from, how it was manipulated in the scene … look at the colors of the food, table, dishes, napkins … pay attention to the composition of the overall image. Doing this will help you find tidbits of knowledge which you will then learn to apply to your own photographs.

What are the biggest mistakes you see food bloggers making with their food photographs?

The first mistake I see a lot is when photographers push too much of their image out of focus. I love a nice, soft background filled with bokeh as much as the next person, but when your aperture is so wide that only a tiny spot of your food is in focus then you can end up adding tension to the scene. Instead of opening up your aperture to the widest possible setting, try stopping it down to ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 and see what that does to the photograph.

Another mistake I see quite often are images with “muddy” colors, like a reddish/brown cast over the entire scene. It’s important to make sure that your whites are actually white, and setting white balance for food can be tricky because there’s not always an indicator on what the color should be (as there is with people’s skin tones when photographing portraits, for example). Some ways to avoid this would be to shoot in the RAW format, hardware-calibrate your computer monitor (with a device such as the X-Rite ColorMunki calibrator) and make sure you’re using a daylight-balanced light (window light, flash, or strobe for example).

What advice, suggestions, cautions would you offer the young future stylists?

I’m much more of a photographer than a food stylist, and in fact I have plans to eventually go to culinary school so I can make it more of an “official” title. So, because I’ve seen things from both sides I can really appreciate the advantage of understanding how the styling affects photography, and vice versa. For stylists it can be beneficial to grasp a basic understanding of photography, especially when it comes to light. If you know what the light is doing to your food in any given photography setup then you’re more likely to style the dish so it works well with the scene. Having a basic understanding of photographic/artistic composition is helpful as well.

Please share your Favorite food/situation to shoot? Least?

Any type of food that has texture and color to it is a joy to photograph. Pasta, salads and many breakfast foods I find easy to style and photograph. The foods I don’t look forward to working with are soups, “one-note” dishes (foods with very few ingredients and colors) and “flat” foods (I don’t do a lot of downward-shooting with my food photographs). However, I do also believe that with a bit of creative styling you can make any dish work and still look beautiful.

If you weren’t a stylist/photographer, what would you be and why?

That’s a really tough question (and one I hope I never have to seriously ponder!). I’ve always had a fondness for learning new languages, and before I became a photographer I served as a linguist in the US Navy. I also love computers and technology, and the geek side of me really wants to learn computer languages, so I could see myself as a programmer or developer of some sorts.

Happy picture taking!

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