If I had to pick the biggest game-changers for me as a food photographer, I would tell you three things: manual mode, editing and artificial lights. I emphasize control with photography all the time. The more control you have over your camera and lighting, the more creative you can get with your images. It all starts with how to shoot in manual mode. Auto mode lets the camera make all the decisions. Manual mode lets YOU make all the decisions. And, after all, you are the artist, not your camera.
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How To Shoot in Manual Mode
I’m going to do things a little differently with this post.
First, I’ll briefly discuss aperture, shutter speed and ISO with some images to demonstrate what I’m talking about. But, the truth is, the best way to learn how these camera settings work is to simply grab your camera and play.
Next, I’m going to show you two poorly exposed images with their settings and I’ll discuss how to adjust the settings to make the image look better. Let’s turn the camera dial to “M” and let’s started.
For most of these images examples, I am shooting a bowl of cherries using natural light with different camera settings.
None of the cherry images are edited. They are straight out of the camera to demonstrate the visual differences between different aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings.
Images E & F are edited images from two different photo shoots. One demonstrates motion blur and the other demonstrates motion freeze using different shutter speeds.
Aperture is the size of the hole in your lens. For this example, I’m shooting with my 105mm 2.8 lens, so the smallest aperture number is f2.8 and the largest aperture number is f36.
The lower the number, the bigger the hole in the lens. In this case, f2.8 is the lowest number, but is actually the widest aperture. The lower the number, the more light you’ll let in and the more soft and dreamy the background will become.
The higher the number, the smaller the hole in the lens. So, f36 would be the highest number, but is also the smallest aperture. The higher the number, the less light you let in and the sharper your image will be all around. There are several “stops” between the lowest and highest number (this varies between lenses).
If you look at Image A below, the aperture is set to f3. This is a low number, but is actually a wide aperture letting in more light. You’ll notice that the front cherry is in focus, but that there’s a soft, subtle “blurriness” happening behind the front cherry.
If you look at Image B below, the Aperture is set at f14. This is a high number, but is actually a small aperture letting in less light. You’ll notice that the front cherry is in focus and everything around it is much sharper in comparison to Image A.
In order for me to demonstrate the higher aperture in image B (f14), I had to slow the shutter speed way down to compensate for the lack of light it was letting in. If I hadn’t slowed the shutter down from 1/25 (image A) to 1/2 (image B), the image would have been too dark and underexposed.
ISO is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the light. The lower the ISO, the less light sensitivity (less bright) and the less noise/grain you’ll see in your image. The higher the ISO, the more light sensitivity (more bright) and the more noise/grain you’ll see in your image.
Cameras can start showing “noise” at different ISO settings depending on how advanced the camera model is. Noise is basically a subtle grainy effect that can show on an image when the ISO gets too high.
Generally, the more advanced the camera, the higher you can go with ISO before seeing any noise in your images. For example, my Nikon D750 starts showing noise at an ISO of 8000. Whereas, my first DSLR started showing noise at an ISO of 1000.
Image C below is using a low ISO of 100, so you won’t see any noise in the image. In food photography, using a lower ISO is a common practice.
Image D below is using a much higher ISO of 8000 and you’ll start to see some noise/grain in the image (especially in the wood background). To compensate for this high of an ISO, I had to bump up the shutter speed from 1/100 in Image C to 1/1250 for Image D. If I hadn’t adjusted that setting, the image would have been too bright and overexposed.
Read More About: Getting Started in Food Photography
Shutter speed is how long your shutter is open exposing the sensor to light. My Nikon D750 has a variety of shutter speeds ranging from 1/4000 (fastest) to 30 seconds (slowest).
The longer your shutter is open (a slower shutter speed), the more light can reach the sensor. A slower shutter speed also helps you capture motion blur.
The shorter your shutter is open (faster shutter speed), means less light can reach the sensor. A faster shutter speed will also help you freeze motion with no blur making it nice and sharp.
Image E and Image F are different from the cherry images to show you the difference between motion blur vs. freezing motion.
In Image E below, I used a slower shutter speed of 1/60 to capture the motion blur of the pans being used in the kitchen. You’ll notice I also used a wider aperture (f2.8), which let in more light and also helped create a softer background.
TIP: Slower shutter speeds require a tripod, because if the camera isn’t stabilized any hand shake or vibration will make the image look blurry. A general rule I follow is if my shutter speed has to be set below 1/80, I will use a tripod.
In Image F below, I used a faster shutter speed of 1/200 to freeze the ice splashing into the coffee. I used artificial lights (two strobes) for this shot, because with these settings, my image would have been too dark without the artificial lights. I shot this image by myself and used a tripod to stabilize the camera with a remote shutter so I could stand near the coffee and drop the ice cube in.
Now that we’ve briefly covered aperture, iso and shutter speed, I want to show you two poorly exposed images. These types of images are going to happen when you are first learning how to adjust your camera settings. Keep in mind that all three settings work interchangeably and adjusting one might require you to adjust another to keep the image exposed the way you want.
Poorly Exposed Image Examples
Image G below is really overexposed. Notice the camera settings. What could I adjust to tone down the brightness?
SOLUTIONS TO AN OVEREXPOSED IMAGE
My first thought when looking at these settings is that the ISO is unnecessarily high. In food photography, the lower the ISO, the better. So reducing this could potentially be the best solution.
Another option is to bump up the shutter speed to let in less light.
Another possibility would be to increase the aperture to let in less light, but you would start to lose that softer background. If a softer background is what you’re going for, be sure to keep this in mind before going too high with your aperture.
I decided to reduce the ISO to 400. It was a great solution, because it removed the noise and toned down the brightness significantly to produce a beautifully exposed image.
Image H below is really underexposed making it too dark to see. Check out the camera settings. How could I adjust the settings to make the image brighter?
SOLUTIONS TO AN UNDEREXPOSED IMAGE
When reviewing the settings, I am noticing that the shutter speed is set pretty fast. Since I’m not trying to freeze motion with this image, I could start by slowing the shutter speed down. I’m also using a tripod, so I have the flexibility to slow the shutter speed down as much as I would need to.
Another option is that I could try going wider (lower number) with my aperture to let in more light. My lens for this shoot allows me to go as low as f2.8.
The ISO is set low for this image. But with food photography, this is a good thing. There’s still room to bump up the ISO if I need to, however I want to be careful of going too high and causing noise in my image.
I decided to slow down the shutter to 1/80 and it resulted in a nicely exposed image.
In conclusion, manual mode requires some practice, but I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll catch on to how it works. The more you practice, the easier it becomes and soon you’ll see a massive improvement in the quality and the creativity of your images. Reach out with questions anytime!
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2020.