Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Not Styling and Photography

I said in my last post that I would write a manifesto about how I don't style food, so here it is, and I thought it might be helpful to someone out there since I get emails about my setups (or as you'll see, lack thereof):
I don't style food: I don't know how to do it, and to be honest it's not something for which I feel I have either a knack or an inclination/interest. Yes I love beautiful ceramics and nice fabrics, but no I don't want to collect them for the sole purpose of styling food to take pictures of it. You'll read why just below.
What interests me is photography. Taking photographs of food is necessary for a food blog and while I was incredibly lazy about it before my little girl was born, for whatever reason, her coming into the world motivated me to actually put some effort into the act of taking pictures for the blog. Don't ask, I don't know why this was the catalyst.

I've mentioned here and there before that we don't live in our own house so to speak, and by that I don't mean that it's not our house because we rent it, I mean that it's not our house because we've been made to live in it for reasons that are too complicated to describe here; think of it as a corporate house with corporate furniture that we are neither allowed to discard nor even move out. This means that I don't have a separate table nor the room for a separate table, however small, to set up by the windows with the best light here. On top of that, we've been living in and out of boxes for more than a year as our moving plans keep changing. This significantly affects my desire to collect props for food pictures, as in I'd rather not collect things for which I mostly have little practical purpose other than to style food, especially when I might have to pack a lot more breakable things to transport somewhere else that way (and with the baby who takes great delight in opening up boxes and taking as many things out of them as possible before I can stop her).
Moreover, I believe in the food being the thing of greatest interest in the shot so I tend to photograph the food as I see it when I'm going to eat it or sometimes completely abstractly if that is the way it strikes me, e.g. pictures of matcha macarons.

So, an average setup in my world -actually this is quite a neat and simple setup, nothing like some other setups I've done which were totally guerilla compared to this- means something like this:
Chocolate Picture Setup
What you're looking at is a notepad upside down on a serving tray flipped upside down onto a moving box which is shoved up against the TV table, with the background being whatever I could find at the time so the lid of a gift box for the baby's birthday. The usual back of a white baby floor mat that I use as a reflector being unfindable at that moment in time, I grabbed the first thing I could find to reflect some light, that being the bottom of a box that had been mailed to me which, in spite of the airmail tape on it, reflected enough light to be of use to me. Why the quick and dirty setup you ask? Because I take pictures when my baby naps which is not often and not for long and I want to be done with it as fast as possible, so I set up the most basic thing that will get me the result I'm after. With this setup I'm on my knees on the floor taking pictures. I have a good tripod which I mostly don't use for lack of room and setup time.

Obviously it's not an ideal setup but it gets me where I want to go. On the left the picture just out of camera and on the right, the picture after adding a touch of contrast (+.05) and adjusting the exposure (+.20) a little bit.
Chocolate Before & After
Why am I showing you this? Because I think it's a shame that people think you need anything fancy to get a decent picture and because you don't have to have a lot of props (or any props in my case) to get a decent picture; If I can do it by cobbling a few things together that have no apparent relation to photography, there's no reason for anyone out there to get a bunch of equipment to do it. On the contrary, having very few things forces you to have to think as creatively as possible.

One thing I haven't shown is that I make sure that no direct light fell on the chocolate. It was actually a slightly cloudy day here and my diffusion paper having been packed away a long time ago in the far reaches of the boxes in the back of the garage, I just left the Roman blind down and let that filter the occasional bursts of sunlight coming in. It's thicker than what you'd probably want to filter your light but shows that you can use anything, even a white bed sheet for example. On overcast days I simply pull the blind up and use the light as is, for example in the pictures in the brioche post.

Basic info on this shot is my Nikon D200 with the 17-55mm/f2.8 lens, the Aperture set at f8, shutter speed of 1/40 with an ISO setting of 250.
Anyway, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
I've got something exciting to share with you all in an upcoming post. Not sure if it's going to be the next one but working relentlessly to make it as soon as possible, so stay tuned.

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41 comments:

diva said...

Thanks for sharing Hilda! I find myself doing the same thing because living out of a tiny rented apartment with practically ZERO working surface in the kitchen or bedroom is terribly tricky and I've always a problem with direct light near the window and no light at all every where else. :) Good to see the before and after shots. I now feel more motivated to keep trying. x

shayma said...

i love these kinds of posts. they are so informative and helpful. more more more, please. x shayma

The Cooking Ninja said...

All my pics are taken in my kitchen or at my balcony if it's not raining. I found that a white plate also does a good reflector.

S said...

"On the contrary, having very few things force you to have to think as creatively as possible."

>>Here-here! I totally and whole-heartedly agree!

Also, how do you like your 17-55 lens? I've been thinking about saving up for a midrange but haven't decided whether to go 24-70 or wider.

noëlle {simmer down!} said...

I always enjoy when bloggers "pull back the curtain", so to speak. I do have my own house, and a few odd "props", but my challenge is light- usually the times of day when I have an opportunity to shoot are when the light is dwindling, so I also have to rig things up near a window. Recently I've been using a tripod a bit more (even though I find it a chore); it does make a difference though.

beth said...

wow, that was really super interesting. I don't know a thing about food photography (which is obvious from the shots I take!) so I really appreciate that you shared that. Thanks!!

Barbara said...

I think many of us are in the same situation Hilda. We are also in a rented apartment without much storage space. If I buy props they are firstly for us to use and secondly for use in photos. I'm lucky in that the apartment is very bright with a lot of light. Sometimes there is too much sun and I hadn't thought of putting a sheet up to shield it. (thanks for the idea). Some days I take my photos on the balcony when it is in the shade. Physically I don't have the energy (and some days my body aches too much) to play around with different props and angles.Many of my photos are just placed on the table and photographed before we eat.

And now with your little one taking her first steps your life will be so much busier...but so much fun. My youngest just turned 28, but I loved the toddler years.

Suzie Ridler said...

Fantastic post! Thank you for this. Wow, ISO 250? I'm lucky if I can shoot at 400, Nova Scotia is so dark. I do use direct light if I can get it because it is so rare. My setup is similar. In fact the day I did the photo of the cupcake with a lit candle on top my setup fell and almost caught fire. We do what we can with what we have. And what amazing things we accomplish!

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Thanks so much Hilda. I really appreciate your matter of fact approach, especially since I get all kinds of advice from people about my amteurish photography that involves props and space/ light that I simply do not have (room for) and it's heartening to hear you can do great things with very little. Am looking forward to really learning how to use my camera in my two photography classes I am taking in next few months. Thanks for your support :-)

Jenn said...

Great Post! You are absolutely right, good photography and good styling are two completely different things. If you can understand your lighting situation, that's the absolute most important thing when it comes to taking a good food pic.

Like you, I also don't have space/room to work with, and I don't have many fancy dishes - 99% of everything in my place (including my dishes) is from Ikea :) Most often I shoot directly on my dining table next to a window with some sheer blinds, and my cutting board is my "go-to" backdrop. Sometimes I try to use a tripod, but it's really more hassle than it's worth in the limited space I have. This Spring has been "blessed" with many cloudy and rainy days which are perfect for food photog!

Rowaida said...

Great post Hilda, love your honesty. you are such a creative and talented person. Wish you great success.

matt said...

lovely stuff. I totally agree with you. I get a lot of comments asking about camera and setup, and really all takes is a window and a great product.

Love the advice here!

From Me To You said...

Great post, I really love your honesty and photography-

Jamie said...

Brilliant, Hilda, brilliant! Written just for me! Was just having this discussion with JP who gets angry when I try and "style" or set up shots with fabrics and doo-dads. He knows that it is too comment, almost trite, and also knows that it just isn't me. He pushes me to take shots simple and clean like your beautiful shot of chocolates. Thanks for reassuring me that this is definitely the way I should be going.

Jeanne @ Cooksister! said...

Great post Hilda. I also do not find that I am a natural food stylist (although I do love to collect props, but that's more my hoarding instinct than anything else!!). I used to have absolutely no space and crap light in our rented house, now I have lots of space (which my husband fills with stuff so that there is no space for me to shoot!) and I still have crap light ;-) The problem is that if you work full time, unless you spend your entire weekends cooking and photographing, it's pretty hard to even get a glimpse of natural light. Woe is me! ;-)

The Broad said...

Your photo of the snow and tree on the page with the recipe for bread pudding, is one of my favorite photos (ever!) ... I saved it and believe me, in Buenos Aires when summer hits , that photo made me happy just looking at it.
I was a catalogue model and I know about "styling" and "props" ( as well as how it feels to BE a prop) and I love your photos and they only make me want to be there and never make me think about the "shot" ..
C

Kerrin @ MyKugelhopf.ch said...

this post is awesome. seriously. you stripped down food styling to its necessary core. this is a post that anyone shooting food should read. it makes you stop and think and get creative. despite my hoarding obsession like jeanne, i too don't "style", i play a little though (and only have a point & shoot)... and use elements found around my apartment. before reading your description of what materials you had used, i said to myself - oooh, i love that i can tell that's a moving box, by the names of the rooms written on it. very cool hilda. props to you. pun intended.

ok, now can we talk about the valrhona chocolate...?! :)

Nanette said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head Hilda! There are those of us who like to style food and do it well, and then there are those of us who like our food uncomplicated and simple. Neither one is right or wrong as it all boils down to personal style and inclination.

I tend to fall into the later, but I can also appreciate those who fall into the former.

What really erks me is unnecessary clutter and hoarding, but that's entirely my issue.

Jamie said...

Speaking of natural light, my old apartment had brilliant light all day long. Our new apartment has none! Bought lights but still cannot get photos that are bright enough! What am I doing wrong?

shaz said...

Great post Hilda. I too take photos when kid/kids are occupied so it tends to be quite quick and dirty (usually bit of white cardboard as background placed on the bed!) :) I have light issues though, but that's another story.

Katharine @ agirlinmadrid.com said...

Excellent post, thank you Hilda! Natural light and beautifully simple food. Love it.

Carrie @ Deliciously Organic said...

Wonderful post. I appreciate your honesty. :)

Roberta said...

I enjoy your blog, in particular your last post. When I first started my blog I was much more interested in how my photos turned out than how my food turned out.My outlook has shifted quite a bit since buying new props for each shot is too expensive, and having only one small area to shoot in has also changed the way I shoot. I agree, that a food blog is more interesting with a photo. Playing around with what you have is indeed more of a challenge. I look forward to more posts from you!

Elisabet Figueras said...

Thank you very much for sharing. This post is very helpful.

WizzyTheStick said...

Love these kinds of posts but always been reluctant to do one myself as I am a bit shy to show off the drab truth behind the pictures. Like you once my babies came the tripod went out the door as one less thing to set up - nap time can be sooooo short. I often use my baby's high chair feeding tray as my reflector

MeetaK said...

it's about time you shared your talents! lol! as i was staying at your home I know exactly what you are talking about. a great post on anti food styling. like you i am still very much into what i call "guerrilla shooting" it brings out the creativity IMO!

Esther said...

Wow, that was some rant, and you said just about exactly what I wrote to the "food photography club" on flickr just today. I want to photograph food the way it's produced, where the situation is real, and just try to do it as beautifully as possible. way to go :)

Radu Prisacaru – UK Internet Marketer & Web Developer said...

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motor vehicle accident lawyers said...

wow, look at that, I'm already drooling, great color, looks delicious

Aparna said...

I love this post, Hilda, because people really need to know you don't need a lot of stuff to get good pictures!
That's not to say I don't admire accesorised pictures, though.

I live in a rented house right now, and do have enough space, but I refuse to spend too much money on a lot of things I'll use on and off and will take up dead space in my house.

So I mostly tend to shoot with whatever I have around the house (or not!). :D

Laetitia said...

thank you for sharing your "tricks"... I currently try to make my photos look better ;-)

christelle is flabbergasting said...

Wow! Discovering your blog through this post means a lot to me!
I mean : you have a new fan!
I am in the same case... Not enough room and props to do fancy styling but whatever... I have a passion and I love food!
I find it so inspiring to read that kind of post!
Thanks a lot for sharing !!

catty said...

Mzzz Hilda! It was LOVELY seeing you today - I wished I could have stayed longer and chatted to you guys more... my darn dinner ended up being canned! :( Anyway, I'm sure I'll see you again, I actually didn't know you lived so close what with people coming from all over the world and erm ok maybe I'm just ignorant :) But we can try fix that. Hope you have a good night's sleep (please, Papoose) and by the way this was a great blog post which makes us normal folk feel better after Mowie and Meeta's presentation on how to spend a zillion hours on photography (well, their work is good but I just don't know how to do all that either!)... xx

bron said...

Great to meet you at the weekend Hilda and I got a lot from your presentation, particularly that I need to know a lot more about the way my camera is set up.

I've not come across your blog before so have just spent a while reading it. I like the contemplation of the 'why' and the 'how' which I've been wondering about in relation to my blog. I don't have great photos but I do think that if I utilise what I learned over the weekend they could certainly be a lot better, without needing vast amounts of 'things'.

Hope you do keep posting occasionally!

Peanut Butter and Jealous! said...

Thanks for the info about your camera - always interesting to get a fellow food photographers camera info! And sometimes, not styling looks even better than styling! :)

Sanura said...

This is very encouraging post. Financial restrictions has prevented me from purchasing a better quality camera. All of my pictures are made with a camera phone. Yes, there is a quality difference, but I will continue doing what I enjoy.

Miss Scarlett said...

Really interesting post, thanks for sharing your tips! Will definitely keep this in mind next time I do a food shot - it's really hard to "style" it without it looking over-styled...if you know what i mean. Will have to start thinking more creatively for my backgrounds and less about the presentation of the food!

rose deniz said...

I like this post a lot, and it's a relief to know I'm not the only one with rogue methods for shooting photos. Part of one of my day job's is to shoot product photos, usually under less than perfect conditions. It makes me ridiculously happy when I take a good photo knowing the set up was not to my advantage. I like the photos of Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks for the non-styling styling feel, but love how your photos are so vivid.

Shumaila said...

Thanks Hilda! As relatively new to blogging and food photography, found this post pretty informative! :)

Sprinzette @ Ginger and Almonds said...

Thank you! This is so refreshing. I am trying to improve my shots and it was great to read your creative approach. Here goes some cardboard on my amaretti!

shayma said...

hi hilda- this was the post i was looking for- i am always interested to know and learn what f stop, etc the photographer has been using- very educational for me. thank you- shayma

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