Now that it’s getting dark out earlier, I figure it’s a good time to cover some basics in photographing food at night. I’m by no means an expert and in no way are my methods the right way. Some of you may even end up laughing at me when you find out what I do, but what I do works for me, so maybe it will work for someone else as well. I think some of you will be surprised to learn that you don’t have to put in much more effort to produce this kind of difference in photos:
Setting our clocks back an hour can sure feel great when you get to sleep in an extra hour the following morning. However, to many people, this now means that it is pitch black by 5 o’clock in the evening. And for those that hold regular office jobs with very few windows, this can mean the absence of daylight in their lives from Monday morning to Friday evening.
Wait, did you hear that? I think that’s the sound of photographers around the world mourning the losing of their natural daylight.
We already covered that photographing your object in natural light is the number one thing that you can do to help produce better photos, but to illustrate that point, check out this example:
Here is a picture of turkey-lentil meatloaf that I took in January of this year in natural daylight (around 3 p.m.):
Here is a picture of the same turkey-lentil meatloaf recipe taken last month in October at night in artificial lighting:
Hm… now which one looks more appetizing to you? I’ll tell you my opinion – it’s not the one that looks like dog food.
Now that we’ve covered what a challenge it can be to photograph an object at night and indoors (let’s assume from this point forward that your subject is food), let’s cover some simple things that you can do to overcome it since you don’t want anyone thinking that you’re eating dog food, right?
The first step you need to take towards better indoor photography is to understand white balance. What is white balance? White balance is basically the way you calibrate your camera’s color settings for the environment that you’re shooting in. If you tell your camera what kind of environment or lighting that you’re photographing in, it will try to help you by compensating it’s color levels. To put it a different way, it’s like telling a friend the weather outside to make sure they don’t walk out in a bikini when there’s a blizzard. You want to make sure your friend is appropriately dressed in a warm parka.
Here’s an example of what my white balance button and menu look like on my camera (a Canon Rebel XS):
You can see that my camera gives me different setting options for whether I’m taking a photo in direct daylight, shade, under clouds, indoor lighting, or using a flash. The majority of times I leave this setting on Auto and let the camera figure things out for itself. However, when you’re taking a photo at nighttime and indoors, it usually helps to take the camera off auto and specify your lighting conditions.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a DSLR camera! There’s a very good chance that your point-and-shoot camera has a white balance feature on it as well. Pull out the owner’s manual or do a quick Google search to find out. It may not have as many options to choose from, but you should still try to play around with it.
Ok, but back to white balance settings. Looking at my options above, you would think that if I’m shooting indoors under artificial light, I would want to use either the tungsten or white fluorescent light options. Let’s take a look and see where that gets us.
To start with, here is a photo taken on the Auto white balance setting (I’m letting the camera figure out what color settings it would like to use) under my nasty kitchen lighting:
Ok, so that isn’t awful, but the photo isn’t really showing off the food the way I want it to.
Let’s try changing my white balance setting to the Fluorescent Light option:
Well, that certainly made the picture less yellow, but now it has a strong red tint. Not good.
Let’s try again, this time using the Tungsten Light setting for white balance:
Hey, now we’re getting somewhere! There’s still a slight yellow tint, but the food is starting to look a little bit more true-to-real-life in color. If I’m in a a restaurant setting or over at someone else’s house, I will usually adjust my white balance to the tungsten light setting for photographing food. It’s usually the quickest way to ensure my photos don’t turn out overly yellow or red.
But let’s take things one step further, shall we? In the white balance menu above, did you notice the setting called Custom? By choosing the custom white balance I can tell my camera what is white. Again, think of it like calibrating the camera’s colors. Or to go back to our analogy, the custom setting would be like calling up your friend and telling them they should wear a parka today without telling them what the weather is like outside.
For my Canon Rebel XS, I first have to take a picture of something white. I’ll use anything from a towel, a piece of white paper, a white wall, or a white plate. (Tip: The picture doesn’t need to be in focus, so if your camera has any difficulty taking an all white picture, put your camera into manual focus and snap the picture.) Once I have a completely white photo, I define it as the custom white balance by going in under my menu. Here’s a snapshot of what that looks like for my camera:
Once my custom white balance is defined, I still have to change my white balance setting from automatic to custom. Now let’s try taking a picture using the Custom white balance:
Woah! Huge difference from above, right? You’ll see that any yellow tint is completely gone and is instead replaced by a slight bluish one.
Let’s do a little recap:
Starting from the top-left corner and going clockwise, the white balance is set to 1) automatic 2) white fluorescent 3) tungsten and 4) custom.
Now, the white balance setting that you choose to use really comes down to preference. In general, I like using the custom white balance to avoid overly yellow photos. However, there are times that I don’t have the time to properly set the custom white balance. Or sometimes I think that the food looks too washed out using custom and prefer the warmth that a tungsten white balance setting gives. Like I said, it really is personal preference and the overall look that you’re trying to achieve in the photo.
Ready to take things one step further?
This next part is really for only those of you that have time to dedicate to editing your pictures. This is also the part that I’m probably going to have people tell me that I’m an idiot who has the photo editing skills of a nine-year-old and should not be writing on the topic.
Those are the people that I would like to call photo snobs.
To be clear, there are tons of photo editing software out there that you can choose from at all different price levels and are geared to all different skill levels. There are also millions of methods for editing photos. What I’m about to show you just happens to be my method for editing that fits within my financial and time limits. If there’s anything that you take away from this, it’s that you should explore different editing features with whatever software or program you choose to do and to keep an open mind about it.
I use Microsoft Office Picture Manager 2010 as my photo editing software (stop cringing, you photo snobs!). This program came as a bonus when I installed Microsoft Word/Excel/Powerpoint on my computer and has proven to be very user-friendly and easy to use.
Alright, so here’s the basic steps that I follow when editing a photo that was taken in indoor lighting. As an example, I am using the photo from above that we took using the Custom white balance setting. In Picture Manager, I click on the Edit Pictures button in the middle of my toolbar which opens my Edit Menu on the right-hand side of my screen. I then click on the Color tab which is the second one on the Edit Menu list.
Within the Color tab, I click on the Enhance Color button. This button acts in a similar way to White Balance in that I can dictate what part of the photo should by truly white. It is for this reason that I like to include some white in all of my photos either as a dish or placemat.
So after you click on the Enhance Button, you will be asked to click on an area of the photo that should be white. For this particular photo, I clicked right in between the five and six o’clock position on the lip of the bowl. As you can see below, the area now appears to be more of a true white and the rest of the photo appears to be brighter and more vibrant.
Sometimes I’ll stop at this point. However, for this particular photo, I felt as if there was a slight purplish tint over everything. To correct, I adjusted the hue settings using the slider bars on the right-hand side.
Things were looking really good at this point, and I could have stopped, but I was still slightly annoyed at how dark some of the food was in the bowl from the shadow being casted on it by one side. To correct, I went back to my Edit Menu and clicked on the Brightness and Contrast tab. I very rarely adjust the brightness settings, but will usually use the Contrast and Midetone adjustments. After a little playing around, I finally found settings that I was happy with.
Ok, just for giggles, let’s do one more recap.
Here’s the picture straight-out-of-the-camera (often referred to as SOOC) using the automatic white balance setting:
And by putting forward the most minimal effort and changing the white balance setting to tungsten lighting, we get:
And if you were to choose to take an extra 60 seconds and take a picture of a white object first and define it as your custom white balance setting, you would end up with the following picture:
And if after all of that, you decided to take the extra three minutes to edit the custom white balance photo, it would then look like this:
Wow, did you get all that? I know it seems like a lot to take in, but if you pull your camera and manual out and do a little reading and a little experimenting, you’ll be feeling comfortable with this in no time!
Also, you shouldn’t feel like this is the only way to take a photo indoors. I’m not saying the last photo is exactly magazine cover-worthy, but when compared to our starting point, there is a huge improvement. But you could always use a light box which is a common method used when photographing food. Or you could always splurge for some professional lights. And while it has many nay-sayers, sometimes the flash can be your best friend in a dark setting.
Whatever route you choose, I hope you survive the next few dark months and feel inspired to experiment a little bit with your photos!