What Food Photography Camera Settings Should You Use?

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So, you want to know about the best food photography camera settings do you?

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Well sorry but there aren’t any!

Well that was a quick article, see you next time!

Joke…. well the “see you next time” bit was but not the “there aren’t any” bit.

But before you decide to just leave, let me explain why.

Why there aren't any perfect food photography camera settings...

So just to clarify, there are perfect food photography camera settings depending on what you want to achieve.

But to say that one set of camera settings is perfect for all of your food photographs would be a lie.

Say you were going for a dark and decadent look for your food photography, you wouldn’t use the same settings as you would for a light and airy shot.

Well you could but it probably wouldn’t be your best option.

So how do I know what camera settings to use my food photography, I hear you ask!

Well…. keep reading!

Using manual mode for your Food Photography

Manual mode will be your best friend when it comes to food photography, unless you get to eat the food after, in which case manual mode will be your second best friend!

Don’t eat the food if it’s covered in motor oil though, a food photography trick used instead of maple syrup!

Using manual mode for food photography will allow you to manipulate every aspect of exposure so that you can achieve what you’ve got in mind for your food photos, giving you ultimate creative control.

In manual mode you’ll mainly be able to adjust three key settings, they are:

  • The Aperture
  • The ISO
  • The Shutter Speed

You can learn more about exposure and the exposure triangle in our handy guide here!

So lets learn a little more about them and the effects they have on your food photography.

The Aperture

So what is the aperture?

The aperture is the opening in your camera lens that allows light to hit the camera sensor.

It appears as an f-stop or number on you camera’s screen, for example f/5.6 or f/22.

A lower f-stop, say f/2, is a much wider opening in your lens and will allow in much more light than a narrower aperture such as f/22, which will let in far less light.

So to set this in stone:

Lower f-numbers eg. f/1.4 and f/2 = Wider aperture = More light

Higher f-numbers eg. f/16 and f/22 = Narrower aperture = Less light

This is important to remember when it comes to adjusting your shutter speed later on.

Ultimately, aperture will control the depth of field.

Depth of field is how much of the shot is in focus at different depths.

A wider aperture such as f/2, has a much shallower depth of field which means that only a small amount of the shot will be in focus and anything at a different depth, whether that’s before the subject or after the subject will be blurred.

This is a really nice effect that helps your subject to pop out as you’ll have the crystal clear subject set against and blurred or bokeh backdrop.

You often see a wider aperture used in portrait photography.

Whilst a narrower aperture such as f/22, will have a much deeper or larger depth of field and much more of the shot will be in focus regardless of the depth.

You often see narrower apertures used in landscape photography where the photographer wants the majority of the shot to be clear.

So that means:

Lower f-numbers eg. f/1.4 and f/2 = Shallower or smaller depth of field

Higher f-numbers eg. f/16 and f/22 = Deeper or larger depth of field

As you can see from the graphic above, with the wider aperture, only a small proportion of the image is in focus at that specific depth.

Whereas in the narrower aperture shot, everything is in focus regardless of depth.

Aperture Suggestions

For the majority of your food photography shots you will likely want to have an element of blur or bokeh to help your food stand out, so you’ll be getting very well acquainted with wider apertures, somewhere around f/2-f/6.

There may be times that you want more of the shot in focus but for the most part the wider apertures are what you’ll want to be using.

The ISO

The ISO is a measure of how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light.

A higher ISO is more sensitive to light whilst a lower ISO is less sensitive to light.

As such, a high ISO doesn’t need to be exposed to the light for long to get the shot, on the other hand a low ISO would have to be exposed to the the light for longer to get the same level of exposure.

A high ISO is often used in lower light conditions when you need to keep the shutter speed quick and a low ISO is often used in situations where lighting is plentiful or when a fast shutter speed is not required.

High ISO = Very sensitive to light

Low ISO – Less sensitive to light

In the vast majority of shots for any kind of photography you’ll want to be shooting at as low an ISO as you can as this allows for the best picture quality.

When you shoot at a higher ISO, you add a graininess to the image called noise, this isn’t very attractive and can ruin a shot.

Luckily with food photography, a large proportion of the photos you take can be taken with low ISOs as the food doesn’t move and so you can expose the less sensitive sensor to the light for longer.

I mention it moving because if you were to take the shot with a longer exposure and the food was moving, you’d end up with that moving food being all blurred.

High ISO = More graininess or noise

Low ISO = Less graininess or noise

ISO Suggestions

Try and keep your ISO setting as low as possible, so ISO 200 and below if you can.

This will vastly improve your picture quality than if you were to use a higher ISO setting.

The Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is pretty self explanatory and refers to the amount of time that the camera’s sensor is exposed to the light or in other words, how long the shutter stays open for.

It’s measured in fractions of a second so a shutter speed of 1/4000s would be one four thousandth of a second.

When the time elapsed is a second or more, it is written as 1″ or the number of seconds followed by a double prime or quotation marks.

You’d use a fast shutter speed when you want to capture some action or anything in motion.

Conversely, you may use a slower shutter speed when your subject isn’t in motion or when shooting in low light conditions.

The shutter speed is an important aspect in food photography as it is what will allow you to work at lower ISOs.

As a rule:

More light = Faster shutter speed

Less light = Slower shutter speed

You may want to use a faster shutter speed if you're planning on doing anything like the above shot, if you don't, then you'll end up with a blurred shot.

Shutter Speed Suggestions

For food photography you will be using a slower shutter speed a lot of the time as your food isn’t moving…duh!

If you do have a moving element to your shot such as pouring cream or steam etc. then you may want to use a faster shutter speed.

So how do you put all of these together?

This is where things may get slightly confusing!

Your goal when it comes to food photography camera settings, is to get the perfect level of exposure.

To do this you need to balance each of the three elements above, that’s the aperture, the ISO and the shutter speed.

So here’s a simple step by step process for you to follow to get the best food photography camera settings for the shot you want to achieve.

Step 1 - Your Vision

The first step before you can even start messing with any settings is to determine what kind of shot you want to achieve.

Do you want the whole shot in focus or just the main focal point?

Are there any moving parts in your shot, if there are this will affect your shutter speed settings.

This is also the time to get your composition right.

Once you know what you want to get from your shot, you’re ready to start playing with the settings.

Step 2 - Setting your ISO

As we’ve established, you want to be shooting at as low an ISO as possible so that you can get those crisp and clean high quality shots.

So set your ISO to 100 to 200, up to 400 if you need to but try for the 100-200 range.

If you have any element of movement in your shot, you may have to increase the ISO value slightly so that you can use a faster shutter speed.

Step 3 - Setting your Aperture

Now this will depend on your goal.

If you want that nice blurred, bokek effect background that helps your subject to really pop, then you’ll want to set your aperture on the wider side somewhere between f/2 to f/5.6.

bear in mind that this lets in much more light, something to remember for when you’re adjusting your shutter speed.

But if you want more of the photo to be in focus, then you’ll want to use a narrower aperture at around f/16 to f/22, and remember this lets in much less light.

Step 4 - Setting your Shutter Speed

So far you’ve got a low ISO and if you want the blurred background, you’ve also got a nice wide aperture.

With this setup and assuming that there is sufficient lighting, you should have plenty of light flowing into your camera’s sensor.

So remember, lots of light equals a faster shutter speed.

The result should be a perfectly exposed image with your subject in focus and an awesome blurred background, oh and the quality should be great too.

If you have the same scenario as above but the lighting is not as plentiful, then you will want to use a slower shutter speed, so the sensor has enough time to capture the light that is available.

This would also be the case if you were using a narrower aperture as this would let less light into the sensor and less light equals a slower shutter speed.

If you have any movement in your shot, you’ll want to be using a faster shutter speed, but using a fast shutter speed when light is scarce can lead to an underexposed image, not good!

To avoid this either widen your aperture if you haven’t already to allow more light in.

Or increase your ISO setting so that the sensor is more sensitive to the light available.

Tripods

A shot like this will be far easier with a tripod and you're much less likely to drop your camera in the food, lens salad anyone!

If you should need to use a slower shutter speed, then you may find it beneficial to use a tripod.

Without one you may find that the slightest amount of camera shake may result in a blurred image.

If you don’t want to use a tripod or don’t plan on doing food photography regularly then you could get away with positioning your camera on something.

Some tripods you may like:

Manfrotto MK055XPRO3-3W

Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB

ZOMEI 72 inch tripod

Bonus step 5 - Setting your White Balance

First of all, you should be shooting in RAW format.

RAW gives you greater flexibility in post processing and makes it easier to make any adjustments that need to be made including white balance.

But if you can get the white balance as near as possible to perfect whilst you are shooting, the better.

You can do this by setting a custom white balance, something that most cameras offer.

First up, your’re going to need a grey card, something like this will do.

You simply take a picture of your grey card in the position your food would be in and then navigate to your camera’s custom white balance option and select the photo you just took of the grey card. This should give you a good white balance.

You will need to repeat this if the light should change or you move location.

Another way of using the grey card is to use it for post processing purposes.

Just take a picture of your grey card next to the food and in a post processing software such as Lightroom, adjust the white balance to you’re liking and you can apply those settings to all of the photos you took in that location, this can save you a lot of time.

Overall

So there you have it, the best food photography camera settings for whatever you want to achieve.

Use this guide and experiment with the different settings to see what interesting results you can come up with.

 

Any questions about how to achieve a certain result? Leave a comment below 

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