I’m going to be honest. When I started food blogging, I had given zero to no thought about photography, yet alone good food photography. I was totally caught up in the challenge of adapting to my new, totally-different, “free of everything” diet and, well, making edible food. Everything else back then was secondary.
And so it was that I started a food blog with absolutely no knowledge of how to operate a camera. Actually, I didn’t have a camera of my own at all. I used to snap things on my phone, ensuring I had a never-ending camera roll with 300 images of the SAME DAMN FOOD ITEM because I literally couldn’t plate anything nicely or hold my hand steady.
So trust me when I say: I’ve been there right at the bottom of the food photography learning curve!
I shoot everything at home, usually on my tiny dining table, or perched precariously on the back of my couch / on my bed / anywhere I can get the light right. There isn’t a spare room in our house, so 99% of my “shoots” are in our sunroom, which has become, in part, a little office of sorts, not to mention prop storage. You can imagine my husband is just thrilled about that! But a girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do. I make our little space work for me, even if that means my couch doubles as a prop-dump most of the time.
A case in point for you. See this nice granola photo?
Well, this is what my sunroom looked like as I made all of my usual mess…
And here’s another pair. Pretty energy bar photo…
Aaaaaand real life, behind the scenes where everything is held together by 99 cent pieces of foamboard…
Just wanted to keep it real with you all! It’s not all fancy around here. Mostly, I wreak carnage across my house and my husband pretends not to notice.
With all of that said, I’m often asked about the photography gear I’m using and the things I recommend, so I’ve gathered together everything in one place and I’ll run you through each item as we go.
The first camera I ever got wasn’t actually mine. In fact, I totally swiped my husband’s camera out of sheer frustration with the whole “using my iPhone to food blog” scenario! It was a running joke in our house that I’d stolen Mr Meatified’s camera… although he did actually get it back in the end!
That first camera was an inexpensive crop frame, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i, which has since been discontinued as other, newer models have surpassed it. Although it had its limitations and I’ve since moved onto a full frame camera body, I did actually shoot my cookbook, Nourish, on that very modest little camera! Today’s budget friendly alternative would be the Canon EOS Rebel T6i, which would be a perfect place to start when it comes to manual photography for blogging. It’s simple to get the hang of and a good place to get to grips with the basics of manual settings in a compact, light camera body.
These days, I’ve switched to the dark side and shoot on my full frame Nikon D810 exclusively. Switching to a full frame camera body instead of a crop frame does have advantages. At its most basic, a full frame has a larger sensor, which means that it can capture more of what’s in front of it, whereas a crop frame does exactly that: crops the frame so that you have to be further away from your subject. Since I shoot in a very small space (I’m talking on my tiny dining table, with my food usually on the back of the sofa nearby), a full frame makes my life so much easier.
If you’re shooting in natural light as I do most of the time, a full frame camera body is so much better at handling low light, really picking up on the details of the food you’re shooting and producing better results at a higher ISO. It did take me some time to save up for my now very-much-loved Nikon D810, but I couldn’t be happier with it. If you’re looking for a more budget friendly full frame, the Nikon D610 is a great option to consider, although you’ll lose a little on the sensor size and maximum resolution (megapixels). For food blogging, though, that wouldn’t be a problem.
All of this said, when it comes to picking up a camera and shooting manually for the first time, I don’t feel like you need to jump straight to the “best” and most expensive camera body you can afford. I feel that the best way to learn is to fully reach the limits of the camera you have through plenty of practice. To grow into it, so to speak. Better that than to drop thousands of dollars on a “pro level” camera with so many features that you’re so intimidated that you don’t know where to start!
One last thing: don’t buy those big kits that come with cameras. You’ll do better to buy just the camera body, then buy good quality lenses separately. That way you’re getting exactly what you want and need, not a bunch of filler. And the lenses that come in those kits will almost always be unusable in the future if you upgrade your camera. So save some money by avoiding those pesky kit lenses!
Recommendations: [Canon EOS Rebel T6i (crop frame)| Nikon D610 (full frame) | Nikon D810 (full frame)]
Ah, camera lenses. I probably spent way more time than I would ever want to admit looking up things like “best food photography lens” on the Googles when I started. Which was a complete waste of time, because – like most things in life! – the best lens(es) for you will vary according to what you shoot, your style and your budget. I will say that the safest place to start with food photography, in my experience, is a prime (fixed, non zoom) lens.
My standard go-to prime is my 50mm f/1.4, which Mr Meatified surprised me with as a gift: it gives great depth of field, bokeh and crystal clear images. but does require a little more of a cropped off, tighter composition than a wider lens like a 35mm. That works well for my blog photography, because I’m not usually trying to set up huge, complicated “entire table for 12 at Thanksgiving” shots in my small work space. And for most blogging, that’s not the sort of shot you need, either! For a more cost effective beginner lens at about half the price, the 50mm f/1.8 will give you similar results, since I don’t think I’ve ever set my focal length to anything lower than f/3.
Either way, both of those 50mm options will create images with lovely, clear details in a way that a zoom lens set at equivalent focal length will not. This may not matter to you when it comes to shooting images for the web (which, as standard are displayed at a low quality 72 dpi), but will make lots of difference if you ever want to print your photos at a much higher resolution for something like a magazine or cookbook.
Other people will swear by the 35mm f/1.8: since it’s a wide angle lens, it allows for broader compositions, so if you want to shoot tablescapes or more elaborate, highly detailed process shots, this is a fun one to play with. It’s also a great lens for shooting more lifestyle, on-the-go food shots in restaurants, markets and travel shots.
I also like to switch things up a little with my 105mm f/2.8 to capture amazing, close-up details that my 50mm just cannot do justice to, like making the turmeric pop in this shot. This length of a lens will mean you have to be much further away from the food you’re shooting, but makes for wonderful “hero” shots where you want one thing to really stand out.
An important note: all of my comments on lenses here are based on using a full frame camera body. If you were to put these lenses on a crop frame body, they will act like a much longer lens. As an example, if you were to put a 50mm lens on a crop frame with a crop factor of 1.6, it will shoot as if it were an 80mm lens, as opposed to a true 50mm.
Recommendations: [50mm f/1.4 | 50mm f/1.8 | 35mm f/1.8 | 105mm f/2.8]
I didn’t use a tripod for years, figuring free holding was working a-ok for me at the time. But there comes a time where you’ll want a tripod, either because you need to take multiple shots from the exact same position, or because you’ll need your hands free to use in the shot, like pouring dressings or sprinkling toppings. Or just because you’re shooting in really low light and you need to be able to have the shutter open for longer times, which means that shooting freehand won’t work because your hands just aren’t steady enough. That’s when a tripod is a lifesaver.
But if you’ve ever looked at good quality tripods, there’s gonna be a bit of sticker shock. They seem pretty expensive at first, especially when the cheaper models exist. But the thing is – as someone who bought cheaper models and then returned them – they’re pricy for a reason: they’re the piece of equipment responsible for holding up your beloved camera and lenses, after all! You’ll need to pick a model that is rated for the weight of all your equipment: camera body, lens and any accessories you’re using like a tripod arm. Personally, I prefer a ball head tripod for a full range of movement, so that’s how I set up my Manfrotto 290, but you can also get a more standard three way head that will allow you to pan and tilt easily.
Recommendations: [Manfrotto 290 ball head | Manfrotto 290 three way head]
Tripod arm / extender
If you want to take overhead shots that don’t require (a) killing your back because you’re bent like a pretzel over a table, trying to get your shot head on instead of at an angle or (b) climbing on top of ladders, tables or other miscellaneous furniture in order to get high enough to take an overhead shot that fits everything into your frame… you need a tripod arm.
This is a handy bar that fixes to the top of your tripod and allows you to fix your camera to it so that you can shoot perfect overhead shots. Like with tripods themselves, you want one that is rated to take the weight of your camera body and any lenses you have. The longer the length of the arm, the further away from the base of your tripod you can shoot. The further away you can shoot, the more you can get in your shot.
Recommendation: [Photex 38″ extender arm]
You might have seen a few behind the scenes shots of food photographers affixing bags of books / weights / random household items onto the back of their tripod arms (or even to their tripods!). While that looks rather whack, it’s actually to counterbalance the weight of their camera equipment so that things don’t tip over and crash to the floor. Because that will make you cry.
Yes, your tripod should be rated for the weight of your equipment, but depending on the way you have things set up, you still may need a little counterbalancing action going on. Make things easier on yourself by using a counterweight made to fit neatly onto your tripod / tripod arm rather than winging it with the random, unstable bag ‘o mixed goods. I like the Manfrotto ones that come with a mini boom so you can clip ’em straight on where you need them. They come in different weights so that you can get the balance just right, depending on your kit.
Recommendations: [3 lb weight | 10 lb weight]
Remote Shutter Release
In case you’re wondering how on earth it’s possible to pour a dressing in a shot, while holding a bounceboard in place with your arm / foot / strange monkey toes AND take a photo… that’s all down to the wonder that is a remote shutter release. Well, taking the shot anyway. Can’t account for the monkey toes, though.
This is a sweet little two part device that you’ll plug into your camera and that allows you to use a remote to trigger the shutter release to take the shot. That way, you don’t have to be behind the camera the whole time, which frees you up to take more movement-oriented shots or hold stuff in place, as needed.
Recommendation: [Nikon remote | Canon remote]
I actually shoot everything at home and, for years, that meant prepping food in my kitchen, schlepping it into my sunroom to set up a shot, taking my photographs and then having to trek to the complete other side of the house to see what the photos looked like on my computer. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work, but I didn’t have another option at the time.
These days, I’m lucky enough to have a Macbook that I can perch on my prop storage, which means that I can actually shoot tethered. What the heck does that mean? It means I’ve got my camera linked by cable directly to my Macbook, so that I can instantly see the shots as I take them. It makes my workflow waaaaay more efficient and thus, less time consuming, as I can see anything out of place or that didn’t work as well on screen as it did in my head straight away.
You’ll need a special kind of cable for this, capable of connection at one end to your computer’s USB ports and to your camera at the other. They’re super cheap and will save you a bunch of time, both in terms of shooting and editing. Just make sure to get one that’s long enough to give you plenty of room to move around as you need to shoot.
Recommendation: [15 foot USB cable]
Are you new to food photography? Check out my food photography resources guide!