An example of a flawed food shot. The grilled duck breast in honey sauce from Restaurant Spycher in Zermatt, Switzerland, was exquisite in both looks and taste, but I didn’t dial in enough DoF to get all of it in focus.
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If the title of this post seems an oxymoron, I can explain:  I admire professional food photography, and I think I have a general idea of the principals and aesthetics professional food photographers strive for.  But my kind of food photography is different.  One of my wife’s and my favorite aspects of photography is how it dovetails with so many of our other favorite hobbies.  One of those is going out to eat great food.  While eating is the primary point, I also bring my camera to capture the experience.  In the middle of a busy restaurant, I’m not in the position of a professional shoot where I’d have the control and time and space to set up the lighting and presentation and background.  Professional food photographers have both the skill and the luxury to produce something gorgeous, but for me to even try to match what they can do would be too disruptive and intrusive to the staff and diners around us, not to mention getting in the way of our own enjoyment of the food.  There is a limit on how far I am willing to go to pursue food photography, but there’s still plenty of potential for nice images.  

I started drafting this post with the intention of sharing my casual style food photography, but when I delved into my stock of food pictures for potential candidates, I found that many of them were flawed.  They had too shallow depth of field, weren’t sharp enough, cut off parts of the food, had too much clutter in the composition or background, and/or weren’t the right white balance (at least the latter was usually fixable).  I realized it’s actually difficult to get technically strong and appetizing images of food by just snap-shooting from a chair, that I needed to examine and work on my technique, and that this was something worth posting about.  So, this post sat in revision for months until I honed my gear and techniques to routinely get the images I wanted.  The aim of this post changed to explain three things: (1) why I shoot food photography the way I do, (2) the gear I use, and (3) the foundational and intermediate close-up photography techniques I learned to use.

 

Crispy duck, potato dumplings and red cabbage from Gasthof Krone, a Michelin-rated French-German restaurant in Waldenbuch, Germany.  Shot with the 17mm Pro.  An early attempt at Focus Bracketing, the 15 stacks I took weren’t enough, as the far side of the dish is out of focus.
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My Amateur Food Photography Aesthetics:

It’s cliché to say, but it’s spot-on…  We want to tell a story with our pictures.  We want the viewer to taste the food we shoot, the way the courses were presented to us by the staff, and how it fit with the ambiance of the restaurant.  We want to capture the atmosphere and the enjoyment on our faces.  To do this, one of the main elements we are trying to capture are the colors and textures of the food, in the presentation which it is plated when set on our table.  So, I take a simple close-up shot of the plate as soon as it is laid down.  I like to get all of the food in focus, but oftentimes nothing else, and frame the plate (sometimes clipping off the edges), without showing any other clutter on the table unless it adds to the atmosphere.

Example of an overhead spread: Brunch consisting of huevos rancheros pizza and a beer sampler from Manor Hill Tavern in Old Ellicott City, MD.
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Another shot is a table spread, and we do two versions.  One is the flat overhead shot, which is a little more disruptive to set up.  We group all the plates (and drinks and whatever else) on the table in a pleasing arrangement, stand up, and shoot the entire setting from directly above.  This isn’t something I do in an elegant restaurant, but it is fine in a more relaxed atmosphere.  To capture more of the ambiance, I might shoot from the side with an even wider angle to frame as much of the table setting as I can.  I prefer not to have our bodies or shadows in the shot, or show clutter like used napkins, dirty silverware or condiments (unless they add to the scene), but sometimes that’s hard to avoid.  If I can manage it, I try to capture a blurred background with nice bokeh highlights.

But shooting just food close-ups would get repetitive.  If there is opportunity to do so, capturing the food being prepared or as it is being served can be nice (again, as long as it isn’t making other people uncomfortable).  I may take images of the room, the building outside, or a nice sign — all for a bit of variety and context.   Sometimes we take portraits of each other eating and having a good time convey the entire experience.

 

Kushiyaki from Tanuki, a Michelin-rated Japanese restaurant in Bruges, Belgium. I wanted the DoF to only capture the front skewer completely, and the rest transition into a progressively blurred background.  Shot with the 25mm Pro at f/1.2, ISO 2000.  I had just taken some environmental shots in the dim lighting, and should have reduced ISO before taking this scene.  Still, the noise is fairly controlled, with no noise reduction applied to the image.
(Click to view full-size)

 

Location, Table Space, and Lighting:

Tables can get crowded, especially with food as good as these weisswurst from Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu in Alpirsbach, Germany.  Taken with the 12-40mm Pro.
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A bigger table is helpful.  It’s not that we’re big eaters, but some two-chair tables are too small to fit just two dishes, drinks and an appetizer or bottle of wine, let alone have enough room to position a camera on a tabletop tripod.  A typical four-chair table works much better.  I also prefer a location where I can set a small camera bag safely aside and out of the way.  Lastly, it’s also a little better if we aren’t sitting across from each other, making it less likely we will be in each other’s image backgrounds.  That all said, we usually take the table we’re given and don’t make a fuss.

Sometimes sitting at a bar checks all the above boxes and affords more varying opportunities — especially if the food is being prepared behind the bar.  The vantage might offer backgrounds more in line with what we are looking for, and if we are able to observe the food presentation, we might shoot some video as well.  Short clips of food being prepared or served can be a nice additional memento.

Life is good.  Taken at BQ Birra Artigianale di Qualita in the Navigli Canal district in Milan, Italy, with the 17mm Pro.
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Dealing with lighting is important.  As in portraiture, well-positioned lighting can help accentuate the food, remove harsh and unappetizing shadows, and provide nice specular highlights in the background.  But there is only so much I can do about it.  I might move a candle or shift a dish around, or perhaps my wife will take the shot from another side; but I largely just accept that the location’s ambiance is a part of the presentation, and to do anything other than work through it would be too disruptive to the other guests.  I don’t use a flash or adjust the window blinds just for the sake of my shots.  If the scene is dark, I utilize IBIS or a tabletop tripod to shoot as long an exposure as needed without raising ISO much, if at all.

Lighting temperature varies considerably in restaurants, but it doesn’t take much to get white balance accurate enough for food photography.  Many restaurants have very dark, warm ambiance, giving dishes a yellow or orange cast.  It’s important to get rid of a lot of that to showcase the food’s colors and accentuate how appetizing it is, but I don’t always want to completely eliminate the atmosphere of the restaurant in the process.  To me, color editing is more about evoking emotion than attaining total accuracy.  Auto white balance usually does a good job, but I’ll cycle through the other white balance presets and watch the LCD to see which one looks best — particularly if the ambience is heavily hued.  I can make any finer adjustments in post very easily.

 

A more successful example of a 20-frame stack of an excellent grilled pork chop, pan-roasted mushrooms, goat cheese creamed kale, and grilled heirloom carrots – from Food Plenty in Clarksville, MD (and which is in the same family as the aforementioned Manor Hill Tavern).  As are a lot of images in this post, this was shot with the 17mm Pro.
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My “Foodie Photo” Gear:

My food photo kit: Think Tank Retrospective 5, E-M1 MkII, an RRS TFA-01 Ultra Pocket Pod, any two of the lenses, and metering cards.
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Not much gear is needed for food photography, and too much is too disruptive.  The E-M1 Mk II is a bit discrete, and its flip-out LCD makes it maneuverable at a small table.  Its image stabilization allows me to shoot hand-held stills at low ISOs even in dimly lit environments.  Its various bracketing features allow me to control dynamic range, depth of field (DoF), resolution and noise performance.  Still, I’ll also bring a small tabletop tripod, which can mitigate many technical challenges in extreme situations.  Even if I can’t position the camera on the table to get the shot I want, the tripod further assists as a brace to stabilize hand-held shots.  But the most important decision is the lens.  I don’t want to bring a lot, as switching lenses throughout the meal would disrupt the experience.  So, I usually limit myself to one or two.  

A fabulous meal at Pasticceria Marchesi in Milan, Italy: Risotto alla Milanese and prosciutto and burrata. Taken with the 25mm Pro.
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Shooting while sitting down at a cramped table, I need a lens that can focus close-up and be wide enough to frame my shot, because I can’t get up and “zoom with my feet.”  The lens must possess a minimum focusing distance (MFD) of roughly 45cm or shorter, and the focal length must range from ultra wide up to about 17mm.  I once tried to shoot at a sushi bar with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8.  While it was small and the aperture was fast enough, the focal length was much too narrow and the MFD way too long to shoot the dishes in front of me, so I had to shoot the dishes of the person I was sitting next to, instead (luckily, she was with me).  It can depend on the size of the dish, but even 25mm is oftentimes too narrow.

I want a lens that can capture sharp, textured detail with beautiful color rendering, and better still if it can provide soft, round bokeh and specular highlights.  A fast aperture could be important for portraits and low light, so that I can blur the background but avoid blurring movement.  However, too shallow a DoF is actually detrimental for shooting the plate right before me, and with Dual IS or my tiny tripod, a high shutter speed isn’t necessary for shooting food.  I use a selection of Olympus Pro zoom and prime lenses for their advantages in IQ, MFD, speed, and (for most) compatibly with the Focus Stacking feature.  There are also many other Consumer and Premium grade lenses in the µ4/3 ecosystem that would work as well, and whose smaller form factor can be less intrusive.  They still possess excellent IQ, usually adequate MFD and aperture, and most importantly — all lenses can do Focus Bracketing.

My Lenses  (In order of usefulness)

Optimal Aperture for Peak Sharpness

Minimum Focus Distance DoF (At Widest FL and Aperture, and at MFD)

Typical Aperture Hand-Held (estimate)

12-100mm f/4 Pro f/4 (12mm), f/5.6 (25mm) 15cm 3.03cm f/4 – f/5, at 12mm fl
17mm f/1.2 Pro  f/2.8 20cm 0.44cm f/8 – f/10
7-14mm f/2.8 Pro f/4 – f/5.6  (all FLs) 20cm 6.52cm f/4 – f/5, at 12mm fl
12-40mm f/2.8 Pro f/2.8 (12mm – 25mm) 20cm 2.11cm f/4 – f/5, at 12mm fl
25mm f/1.2 Pro f/2.8 30cm 0.46cm (focus bracket only)
8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye  f/2.8 – f/4 12cm 1.09cm f/3.5 – f/4.5 (closer)

 

All of the above-listed lenses have merits that come into play for a variety of the of food, portrait and environmental images I might take at a restaurant.  The three zooms offer the most versatility in cramped conditions, covering most needs.  The primes serve more specific purposes that complement any weaknesses in the zooms.  A combination of one of the zooms and one or two of the primes works best.  Below, is an explanation for why I chose these lenses in the order I did, and how I use them.

The 12-100mm Pro is my travel lens, and can take any type of shot I need. This image of a jamon shop in Mercat de La Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain, is one of my favorites.
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#1) 12-100mm Pro:  This is my best option for hand-held shots, offering creative freedom and mobility.  Its primary draw is Dual IS, allowing sharp, hand-held images at shutter speeds spanning several seconds with little difficulty.  The 12mm focal length at a stellar 15cm MFD is overkill for framing a dish on a crowded table.  What’s more, it is (for now) the sharpest lens at 12mm in the entire µ4/3 ecosystem, including primes,  It’s a tight race with the other two zooms in my list, but it’s nevertheless an astonishing feat for an all-in-one zoom.  For overall versatility its massive focal range is capable of taking any sort of image from food close-ups to environmental shots to tight portraiture.  Having the lowest max aperture in the list (at f/4) is not a detriment at all for still scenes, though it will limit its ability to capture movement in a dark restaurant without raising ISO, and limits subject isolation unless shot close up at a narrow focal length.  If there is a complaint, it is only that it can be too much lens for the job at hand, and that excess zoom range and Pro build needed for travel make it larger and heavier than is needed for a restaurant.  Nevertheless, the 12-100mm Pro is my current top pick as a single food photography lens because it can do it all and I always have it with me, but it fares even better when paired with a prime or two.

#2) 17mm Pro:  I vacillated on ranking this lens anywhere from #1 to #4, but it’s easily my favorite for food pictures.  The 17mm Pro’s sharpness, rendering and uber-fast aperture are sublime, and when I want optimal image quality, this is the lens I grab.  This is certainly why most of the images I chose to share in this post were taken with this lens.  At such close shooting distances, it can get very nice background separation and bokeh — particularly with Focus Bracketing — and produces my nicest images for this genre.  I haven’t seen any lab tests yet, but my druthers tell me it is the sharpest on my list by a fair margin.  It’s also very versatile for a prime.  The focal length and 20cm MFD are a fairly usable jack-of-all trades option for most of the types of images I take in restaurants — particularly for capturing ambiance.  It is the only prime on this list that can manage all the types of shots I take.  Nevertheless, for tighter portraiture with limited mobility and composition, it’s still a bit inflexible compared to a zoom.  The only other (slight) negative is that it is one of two lenses on my list incompatible with Focus Stacking.

The unique Le Trappiste bar in Bruges, Belgium is a converted medieval cellar.  It’s a wonderful place to drink beer, and the 7-14mm Pro is a wonderful lens to capture it.
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#3)  7-14mm Pro:  This lens excels so much in close-up plate shots that I consider it my best option for tripod use.  For a large-enough table in a dark restaurant, the 7-14mm Pro is my #1 choice.  It has more than wide enough focal length and a fast aperture that can sometimes get by without Focus Bracketing.  It is the most capable lens for wider-angle food and environmental shots (which I often prefer as wide as possible when indoors).  Compared to the 12-100mm Pro, its lack of dual IS is mitigated somewhat by being a stop faster at f/2.8 — though for optimal sharpness they use the same aperture.  Its only comparative weaknesses are somewhat poorer background separation and limited focal length on the long end, and that like the 12-100mm Pro, it is larger than the other lenses on my list.

#4)  12-40mm Pro:  #4 is closer to the top than the ranking suggests, and is another strong jack-of-all-trades pick.  It’s a versatile workhorse comparable to the 12-100mm Pro, it lacks Dual IS and has a slightly further (but still more than adequate) MFD.  On the plus side, it has a one-stop maximum aperture advantage, and technically is a bit sharper throughout most of its focal range (though not quite at 12mm) — making it a little better for most portraiture and environmental shots than the other listed zooms.  Its telephoto range is perfect for the job, and its smaller size makes it less intrusive.  The only reason it is #4 is that it doesn’t have anything special that separates itself from the others.  It’s just a solid lens that can do really well with just about any kind of shot.

Me, sipping an amazing port wine at the Ramos Pinto winery in Porto, Portugal.  This is an example of using the 25mm Pro for dinner table portraiture.
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#5)  25mm Pro:  There is a big gap between the #4 and #5 rankings, as the last two are not really food lenses, even though I used the 25mm Pro for a lot of food shots before getting the 17mm.  Its narrow focal length has too shallow a DoF and would require Focus Bracketing to do food shots.  It’s also one of two lenses on my list incompatible with Focus Stacking.  Even with Bracketing, it may still be too narrow to fit the width of a large plate from a close shooting distance.  Nevertheless, it is a great secondary lens for portraits and environmental shots — for which it is the best choice on my list.  It has the most pleasing background separation and bokeh, and shooting a portrait from across a typical restaurant table with this lens at f/1.2 or f/1.4 generally affords just about the perfect amount of framing and DoF.  The subject will be entirely in focus, but little else; and the rendering, sharpness and bokeh will be absolutely gorgeous.

#6) 8mm Pro Fisheye:  With the E-M1 MkII’s firmware update 2.0, allowing for fisheye correction to the 8mm Pro Fisheye, this niche lens suddenly became much more than as a secondary or even tertiary complement to more mainstream lenses.  Its extreme distortion always opened interesting possibilities for artistic shots of the food or the restaurant surroundings, but that effect isn’t always wanted.  Now that the distortion can be ‘switched off,’ it’s suddenly a much more versatile lens.  It has the widest field of view on my list (even de-fished), best-ranking MFD (12cm), and a very fast f/1.8 aperture (the fastest fisheye on the market).  It’s also surprisingly sharp, I suspect second only to the 17mm Pro on my list.  For capturing low light interiors, it is wider, sharper and faster than the 7-14mm Pro.  The UWA DoF could probably get by without focus bracketing food shots, yet for some reason Olympus went out of their way to make it compatible with Focus Stacking, too.  However, that prime lens inflexibility is even more of an issue here, due to the extreme wide angle.  I have to want the shot to be placed very close for the food to fill the frame and embrace the distortion it will cause (de-fished or not).  The lens is also difficult for portraits, unless I am either far back and centering the subject, or going for a comical level of facial distortion.  It’s a fabulous lens that can work, but if I am traveling light, I don’t often include it, and as a result none of the images in this post are from it.

 

If you know German food, you may have heard of Schweinhaxe (pork knuckle). But you’ve never really had it unless you had it at Schweine Janes in Düsseldorf, Germany.  In the background is an alt bier, the traditional hoppy brew of the city.  This was a 27-frame stack taken with the 17mm Pro.  I purposefully cut the stack early so that only the mouth-watering pork knuckle was in focus, letting the fries blur into the background.
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Balancing Depth of Field and Shutter Speed:

Original Black Forest Cake, glistening with alcohol, from Landgasthaus Zur Lilie in Triberg, Germany.
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When I looked back at my earlier food photography (and at others’ as well), the most common mistakes are typically not getting all of the plate in focus, followed by having too slow a shutter speed.  It’s easy to misjudge just how shallow DoF can be at at such close distances, especially when shooting wide open to generate enough shutter speed for a hand-held shot — even with image stabilization and a crop sensor.  

Controlling DoF is my main concern, so I shoot food in Aperture Priority.  I usually want just enough DoF to get the whole plate of food in focus, and no more.  But the general factors for controlling DoF — distance from subject, focal length, and aperture — are all constrained at the dining table.  Distance-to-subject is simply from my seat to the plate in front of me.  Focal length must be wide enough to capture the whole setting from such close distances.  A too-wide aperture will create too-shallow DoF, but nevertheless there plenty of reasons not to stop down aperture too far:

  1. It lowers shutter speed, which could require raising ISO (and noise) to avoid handshake blur.  
  2. I might want some background separation.
  3. Most of these lenses get a little sharper when stopped down a bit, but are still very sharp wide open.  
  4. Stopping down past f/8 induces diffraction, and starts to become noticeably less sharp at f/11 or so.

A line of amazing port wines from Ramos Pinto winery in Porto, Portugal. The older the port, the lighter color (tawny) it becomes, and the flavor turns from fruity to brandy. This tasting included 10, 20 and 30 year-old vintages.  Our favorite was the well-balanced 10-year tawny.  Taken with the 25mm Pro.
(Click to view full-size)

The fastest shooting method would be to shoot hand-held and stop down just enough until the entire plate is in focus.  As long as I don’t need to stop down so far that I introduce noticeable diffraction, or have to raise ISO to avoid camera shake, this method works okay.  If I am shooting a flat overhead table spread, shooting at a wide open aperture is both possible and desirable.  In that situation, DoF control is irrelevant since the subject and background are practically a flat plane, but a high shutter speed is important because my stretched-out position may induce camera shake.  Depending on the lens’ max aperture, raising ISO a bit might be necessary to get a sharp shot in dim light.  The awkward shooting position can also make framing and composition tricky, so I use the flip-out screen to see what I am shooting.  Some of the images in this post are shot this way, either because I hadn’t started photo bracketing yet when I took them, or I felt that the depth of field I was getting was enough.

Shooting food from a tabletop tripod has both disadvantages and advantages.  On the downside, it takes longer to set up.  The shooting angle might be lower than I would prefer, and the shooting distances get even closer.  Most crowded restaurant tables have little room for positioning a tripod, so the lens’ MFD becomes far more important — sometimes requiring as little as 20cm (which my lenses have).  At even closer ranges in tight spaces, wider focal length lenses will be needed to get the whole plate in frame.  On the plus side, a tripod eliminates handshake and undeniably produces the sharpest results.  Shutter speed can be as slow as it needs to be, no matter how dim the lighting.  This frees me from having to raise ISO and deal with noise.  Secondly, tabletop angles have similar characteristics to the overhead spread shot.  At such low angles (sometimes almost eye-level with the food), the far side of the food may not even be in view, making DoF less of an issue than it might be at other shooting angles.  Lastly, it frees my hands to take my time with the shot, and is an easy way to set the camera aside while eating.  When I need the stability and have the room, a tabletop tripod is a very valuable asset to have.

Black Tonkotsu Ramen from Takumi 2, in Düsseldorf, Germany. This 35-frame stack was taken with the 17mm Pro, before it was quickly devoured.
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Focus Bracketing is the Answer:

Another view of those amazing beers at Manor Hill Tavern. Taken with the 17mm Pro.
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Whether hand-held or tripod-mounted, I oftentimes use Focus Bracketing to completely control DoF and overcome all the technical challenges I’ve been describing.  When I first started exploring it, I only used it when I didn’t think I could get sufficient DoF to capture an entire plate without lowering aperture past diffraction.  But I soon realized that when done correctly, the IQ results blew away conventional methods, so I started using it all the time.  The only time I don’t is for the overhead table spread shot, which doesn’t normally need it.  Using Olympus’ Focus Bracketing function process is even easier if I use a tabletop tripod, but it can also be used with great success hand-held, because of the camera’s image stabilization and Photoshop’s Layer Alignment function.  It’s also doable with any Olympus µ4/3 camera and lens.  

First and foremost, it enables sharpness and detail that is literally off the charts, really bringing out the food texture.  What we call “Depth of Field” really contains only a single hairline plane of critical sharpness, and everything in front and behind that plane is progressively less sharp until our eyes discern it as blurry.  With Focus Bracketing, I am generating dozens of planes of critical sharpness across the subject, so that every point is as sharp as the lens can possibly produce.  The focus never gets a chance to lose even the slightest bit of sharpness before the next critically sharp layer kicks in.   What’s more, I am freed from having to use my aperture setting to control DoF — which means I can instead set it for optimal sharpness (provided in the lens table above).  This not only makes the image sharper, but less noisy as well.  My only concern is whether I have enough light to shoot hand-held without inducing handshake blur.  If the light is so dim that even IBIS can’t compensate, that’s when I pull out the tabletop tripod, or raise ISO.  There are two other IQ bonuses:  One is that there is a fortuitously sudden drop-off in focus after the stacked frames end, creating much more background separation than shooting a single frame at lower apertures can achieve.  So, while the plate of food is unbelievably sharp, the rest can be nicely blurred out, if I want it to be.  The second is that stacking images in post further reduces noise by filling in pixels.  As mentioned above, I’m typically not raising ISO enough (or at all) to induce noise, and I expose carefully, but an even cleaner image is never a bad thing.

Maryland crab cake over asparagus, another excellent dish from Food Plenty, taken in 20 stacks with the 17mm Pro.
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The Focus Bracketing Process:

The hard-to-imagine but absolutely awesome octopus hot dog from Sea Me at the jaw-dropping Time Out Market in Lisbon, Portugal. Taken with the 12-100mm Pro.
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I’ll go into more detail on the mechanics for both Focus Bracketing and Focus Stacking in another post, but because I am operating under some fairly constrained parameters at a restaurant table, I can provide some simple and fairly specific rules of thumb:

  • Focal Length:  I might shoot a little wider focal length (or a little further back) than is needed for composition, for two reasons — it helps a little with DoF, and it’s very important to leave a little room around the edges of the frame, so that the Focus Stacking software can crop.  Cropping a tiny bit off the edges is necessary for minor changes in picture size due to focus breathing as the camera changes the focus point, as well as to correct for slight shifting if shooting hand-held.
  • Focus Differential (FD):  FD is the focus width of each image layer, but its value (1-10) varies depending on numerous external factors.  An FD around 1-3 is usable at dining distances — 1 at narrow focal lengths and fast apertures, or 3 at UWA focal lengths and smaller apertures.  A larger FD requires fewer frames and reduces data storage.  Fewer frames could theoretically minimize how long I have to hold the camera still, but I haven’t seen hand-held stability pose a problem for Focus Bracketing.  More importantly, if FD is too large in conjunction with a narrow focal length and/or really fast aperture, I will eventually get focus banding, where the image has alternating layers of sharp and blurred.  In food photography, I haven’t spotted focus banding even at FD 3.  A smaller FD also means the subject is more consistently at it sharpest throughout the DoF range.  Lastly, when merging the stacks in post, a smaller FD affords more control over ending the stacks exactly where I want the transition from sharp to blurry to occur.  Once all of the subject matter is in focus, I can separate the background immediately.  For tripod shooting I use FD 1 because I am guaranteed to get the best sharpness for the full length of the subject, I will likely be closer to the food, and it provides the most background separation.
  • A mountain of delectable smoked Black Forest Ham at Landgasthof Zur Lilie in Triberg, Black Forest, Germany.  Taken in 23 stacks with the 17mm Pro.
    (Click to view full-size)

    #Shots:  This is the number of image layers the camera will automatically shoot, up to 999.  It’s hard to specify a general rule of thumb, because the variables are too great and the focus differentials are so small.  But that doesn’t mean this needs to be hard.  I’ll happily take more frames than might be necessary, and delete any frames I don’t need later on in post.  At FD 1, 20 frames is usually enough for most dishes for the wider focal lengths, and 25 should be enough at medium focal lengths.  If using the 25mm Pro, however, I’d try 30 frames for small-to-average sized plates, when shooting at FD 1 and f/2.8 (its aperture for peak sharpness).  FD 2 requires two-thirds the #shots, and one-third for FD 3.

FD and #Shots are in Shooting Menu 2, Focus Bracketing.  Once set, I focus on the closest point of the subject that I want sharp, press the shutter, and hold the camera still while it does the rest.  I always examine the stack after my first attempt to see whether any of the above settings need adjustment.

 

A slice of matcha cake with strawberries from Tous le Jours, a Korean-French bakery in Ellicott City, MD.  This shot was from 15-stacks taken with the 17mm Pro.
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Focus Stacking Differences:

Seafood pasta in cream sauce from Ristorante Galleria in Milan, Italy. Taken with the 25mm Pro.
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Focus Stacking automates and simplifies the bracketing process.  I don’t want to spend much time on it, because even though it is easier, I prefer Focus Bracketing.  I’d only turn to Stacking if I want the image processed in-camera in order to share it right away.  All but two of the Pro lenses on my list are compatible with Focus Stacking (the 17mm and 25mm Pros), and even though there are some non-Pro lenses enabled for Focus Stacking, as of this writing they are all too narrow for use here.  None of the images in this post were taken using Focus Stacking. 

Focus Stacking options are in the same menu, but the process is different and more limited.  Once it’s turned on, #Shots is greyed out, but FD is adjustable.  Focus Stacking takes eight frames: my initial shot, three focusing progressively to the front of that point, and four focusing behind it.  This means I won’t want to focus on the front edge of the plate like with Focus Bracketing, but instead midway through it.  Also, because I have a lot fewer frames to work with at our close shooting distances, FD will need to be set higher (maybe 3-6), so I might need to push DoF by narrowing the aperture more than I would have with Bracketing.  This means I won’t get as dramatic a drop off in DoF, and if I raise FD too high, I might see focus banding in the composite image.  A final issue is that I’ll end up with a slightly cropped JPEG.  Usually that isn’t a problem, but low lighting and tight spaces will limit my options.  Both the source files and the composite image are saved, so I can try to stack the images later in post for a .tif file (see below).  That said, the in-camera software does a really good job merging the frames together.

My wife and I love Japanese food not only for its taste, but also its presentation. This beautiful but simple sashimi bowl was another dish we had from Tanuki. This shot was taken before I explored photo bracketing, so the rim of the bowl is out of focus. But I think the out-of-focus glass serves to better accentuate the sashimi, so I’m not sure if bracketing would have made for a better image.  Taken with the 25mm Pro. 
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Finishing in Post:

Taken with the 17mm Pro, from Gasthof Krone.
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Back at my desktop in Lightroom, my first step is to merge the bracketed image.  I’m still learning Photoshop, but the steps for stacking layers were easy to pick up.  I select the photos I want to use, go to the “Photo” menu, then hit “Edit In,” and “Export to Photoshop as Layers.”  Once loaded into Photoshop, all the layers are visible on the lower right of the screen.  I select all the layers, go into the “Layers” dropdown menu and “Auto-Align Layers.”  Then I select “Auto-Blend Layers,” ensuring the “Photo Stacking” radial is checked, as well as the options below it.  The program does the rest.  I might use the crop tool to cut off any blurred or unneeded edges.  Once complete, I hit save to create a .tif file along with the source images in Lightroom.  Sometimes the file is too large to save, especially if I used a lot of layers and didn’t crop much.  In that case, a dialogue box will pop up (also if I hit “Save As” instead), allowing me to check both “Save as a Copy” and “Don’t Save Layers.”  I will then have to re-sync the folder in Lightroom to import the new image — something I don’t have to do if saving the .tiff file normally.  The results are not always perfect, but usually it works great.

The rest of my editing is fairly basic — shadows and highlights, saturation, sharpness, slight cropping and leveling if necessary.  As I discussed earlier, white balance may need attention, especially if not taken care of at the time of shooting.  Editing software like Lightroom usually can do what is needed to get accurate enough temperature and tint.  I correct both by using the color dropper to hone in on a neutral shade, and generally all the other colors in the image automatically fall into line as a result.  Sometimes I’ll further adjust temperature and tint to taste.  I’ve oftentimes dialed back some white balance edits because I wanted to keep at least a hint of the original lighting’s ambience.  Even if some hues still don’t look right, I can correct those specific colors and/or areas using the HSL sliders.

Another incredible bunch item from Manor Hill Tavern, combining fried chicken and waffles with eggs Benedict. This image was a photo bracketed from 15 stacks, and taken with the 17mm Pro.
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Conclusions: The Point of It All:

Prost to family and friends!  Taken at Kachelofen Fränkishces Gasthaus in Bamberg, Germany, with the 17mm Pro.
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It’s probably fair to say that I previously hadn’t taken food photography seriously as a genre.  I was taken aback at how poor many of my earlier attempts were.  However, I don’t feel this is the case anymore, particularly after all the thought and development that led to this post.  Sure, even now that I have focused on improving my food photography skills, I still am not producing anything like what a professional in a studio could do.  But I started getting genuinely interested, taking more care in the shooting and editing of my food photos, and as a result they started rating higher in my collections.  I also connected more with why my wife and I have always liked to take food photos in the first place.  Our photography is always done in balance with other things we enjoy, and that’s what defines our style.  Food photography just happens to be a little more restricted in how far we’re willing to go.  But that doesn’t diminish it… quite the opposite.  By combining two things that we love in this way (eating and photography), we enhance our experience for both, and we end up with a record — sometimes beautiful images — that evokes special memories for us.  I can look back at pictures we took in restaurants years ago, and remember the taste of a particularly special dish, or the look of happiness on my wife’s face.  That’s what food photography is about for us, and that’s what makes it worth doing well.

If you would like to see more food pictures from us, please visit my wife’s Instagram at #catherinerunyon_foodie.

 

Another example letting shallow DoF work for me by isolating on only the center piece: Scallop and mango on lotus root, from Ao Izakaya in Paris, taken with the 25mm Pro.
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