Food photography is all about lighting!!! Understanding exposure allows you to make your photos brighter or darker. Here is what you need to know!
In this first post about manual mode we focus on the exposure. You have probably seen food photos that look too dark or too bright, right? To avoid this we need to control the lighting in our photos and the first step is to understand exposure. Exposure is the amount of light reaching our camera. One thing is the light in the scene (external factor) and the other thing is the amount of light that reaches the sensor of our camera (internal factor).
But don’t worry, we are going to learn how to control exposure using the manual mode and its main camera settings: ISO , Aperture and shutter speed.
HOW CAN WE TELL THE AMOUNT OF LIGHT REACHING OUR CAMERA?
Most digital cameras show an exposure diagram at the bottom of the screen, as shown below. It tells us if the sensor is getting a lot of light (positive values) or if it is not getting enough light (negative values).
Let’s try it out! Take your camera, set it in manual mode and choose these settings in your camera
Shutter sped 1/80
Point to a dark area in the room , hold the trigger down and look at the diagram. It will be similar to the one below. It shows a value below zero which means our photos are underexposed, it indicates that the sensor is not getting enough light and as a result the photo will be too dark.
Now, we are going to try this again but this time we are going to chose an area with lots of light, a window for example. Your diagram will change to something like that:
This show us that the object is overexposed, the sensor is receiving too much light and therefore the photo is too bright.
This experiment proves how exposure changes depending on the ambient light. This is why lighting is the key ingredient in all your photos; learn the basics with these 7 Lighting Tips.
HOW CAN I TELL IF I HAVE THE RIGHT EXPOSURE?
A good starting point is to get our photos with a neutral exposure (exposure=0). As you saw above both values were far from zero and you can see by looking at these photos that they are not right. The same thing applies to food photography, have a look at the following food photos:
Example 1: Sauteed Green Beans with Garlic & Almonds
Do you think the photo on the left is too dark? Do you find the photo on the right too bright? Most of us will prefer the photo in the centre and it has zero exposure.
Example 2: Curried Pumpkin Soup
Which one do you like the most? This one is a bit trickier, right? Neutral exposure does not always work well with every dish, as in this case. I chose the photo on the right hand side (+1 exposure) in my blog post because it looks better to me, the colours are more vibrant and the white background looks better when it is a bit overexposed. As you practise you will realize that there are some dishes that look better with certain exposure values but as a rule of thumb try to stay close to a neutral exposure (0).
HOW CAN WE CONTROL THE EXPOSURE? HOW CAN WE CHANGE THE LIGHTING IN OUR PHOTOS?
The most obvious answer is adding more or less light to our scene but unfortunately that is not always possible, if you shoot with natural light it is even more difficult. However with the 3 next camera settings we can have total control of the lighting that reaches our camera sensor: ISO , Aperture and shutter speeds.
Look again at the exposure diagram in your camera. Can you see the 3 values beside it, these indicate which ISO, Aperture and shutter speed we are using in each photo. You can vary these settings to get the right exposure in your photos until the exposure value is close to zero .
These 3 settings are connected. Any change of them will change the exposure of the photo (how dark or light our photo looks). This can be a bit overwhelming which is why I’m going to write about them in a separate blog post but today we are going to have a quick overview.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISO, APERTURE & SHUTTER SPEED?
The ISO, the aperture and the shutter speed controls the exposure in our photos but they also determine the quality and focus in our photos.
NEUTRAL EXPOSURE = AMBIENT LIGHT (external factor) + ISO + APERTURE + SHUTTER SPEED
My trick is to think about exposure as the sum of these 3 settings, a part from ambient light, and you have to adjust these to get a value of zero or close to it (neutral exposure)
1. ISO is the sensibility of your camera sensor and controls the quality and sharpness of our photos. A higher value forces the sensor to capture more light but on the contrary as the ISO setting gets higher, the sharpness of the shot decreases. A lower ISO value captures more details and our food photos will look crisp. As a rule of thumb, the better the camera the better the sensor and therefore your pictures will have a higher ISO ratings. My recommendation is to start with the lowest ISO setting and try not to go higher than 800 ISO.
Example: High ISO values produce grainy photos (right side photo)
2. Aperture (f-numbers) refers to the hole in the camera lens, through which light reaches the camera sensor. We can control how much light enters the camera by changing the size of this hole. Aperture is expressed in f-numbers (for example f/5.6). The smaller the f/ number, the wider the hole is opened thereby letting in more light. Aperture controls exposure in our photos but also has a direct impact on the depth of field (which is the area of the image that appears sharp). A small f-number (f/2), wide hole is opened which will create a shallow depth of field, so only the object you are pointing at will be in focus while the background and the foreground will be blurry. This is a well used technique in food photography to draw attention to the details you want to focus on.
Example: A small f-number (f/3.2) in the photo below create a small are in focus (granola bowl), while the tray in the background appears blurry.
3. Shutter Speed is the amount of time that the shutter is opened, shown in seconds or fractions of a second: 1/80 s, 1/2 s, 1 s, etc. The faster the shutter speed (1/500s), the shorter the time the image sensor is exposed to light and therefore the photo will be darker. The slower the shutter speed (1/40s), the longer the time the image sensor is exposed to light and it increase exposure. Shutter speed is also responsible for creating dramatic effects by either freezing action or blurring motion (slow shutter speed).
Example: Blurring motion effect of dressing with 1/40 shutter speed
If you got to this point, first of all, thanks for your attention. I know it’s a long post but there were a lot of things to discuss. If you have any questions please leave your comments below, I want to help you to take the best photo of your dish.
This is what you should know by now!
-If you increase the ISO, the exposure increases
-If you choose a smaller f value (wider hole), exposure increases
-If you increase shutter speed, exposure increases
Jump to manual mode now and be in control of your photos, let me know how your photos improve. I look forward to your comments and if you find this blog post useful, please share it. Cheers, friends!
What is next? Check out our food photography section to keep improving your photos. You can’t miss this posts:
8 Food Photography Tips to see a quick improvement in you photos
Find out what you need for your photos: Essential Food Photography Equipment