FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE // PART 1 dolly and oatmeal


I’ve gotten quite a bit of emails about photography over the years - what camera I use, which lens is the best, how do I take overhead shots, do I use a tripod, etc. For years I had been wanting to answer these questions in a blog post, but didn't consider myself much of a professional who had much real advice to offer. But after 5 years of shooting for my blog, and numerous freelance jobs, I've accumulated enough knowledge that I feel I can answer your questions with more authority than before. Here are a few tips that are built around my experience doing food photography, but also can be applicable to someone looking to take their photography of anything up a notch. So here we go!

Where I started: my first food photo on Dolly and Oatmeal.

When I first began blogging on Dolly and Oatmeal, I had soooo many questions about photography. Luckily, my photographer husband was on hand to answer most of them, "How do I make it look like this?" "What do you call that?". I have however learned, even having someone answer all of your questions, it's only half the battle. It really does take practice, practice, practice (I still feel like I'm practicing to this day!). Video tutorials are a great route to answer technical questions, also asking questions of those whose work you admire for tips or tricks is another tool to gain knowledge. When it comes to your aesthetic though, and what inspires you to get behind the camera, that’s where your passion comes in to play. For instance, my husband had/has many of the technical answers, but when it came to honing in on my creative style, that was all my work - no one can do that for you, or tell you what it is.

Basic photo gear: lens, memory card, tripod, DSLR body

I own a Nikon D800 DSLR, and use it for all photos on Dolly and Oatmeal, except when otherwise noted (sometimes my husband pops in with a few film photos). I’ve always used Nikon cameras, and to me, they’ve always been super reliable and easy to use. When I was starting, I used a lower end model, and as I got more discerning with what I wanted, my husband and I looked at what I should upgrade to, and purchasing the newest model made sense for what I wanted. When it comes to purchasing a camera, you should really assess your own needs, as well as what and how you plan to use it:

- Will you be traveling with it, or be in your home or a studio?

- Doing Food photography? Portraiture? Landscape? Lifestyle?

- Do you plan to shoot video?

- Do you need good low light capability?

- What kind of lenses and accessories will I need?

For instance, when we are out and about with Amesy, I rarely take my camera with me because it’s quite large and heavy. I say this because you have to think about what context or situation you’re going to be shooting in. If you can, try getting your hands on a camera before you decide on one to purchase to see what feels comfortable to shoot. Nikon or Canon, they're both great, and there are other great options out there too. Getting great photos is going to be more about what you’re comfortable shooting with, your preferences, and ultimately what you want your photos to look like. So looking at a camera in person, and comparing the models with what you want your outcomes to be is the best way if it's possible for you.

I have a few lenses, but my primary lens is a fixed focal length Sigma 50mm 1.4. The 1.4 maximum aperture lets in more light, so it allows me to shoot in lower light without having to increase my ISO or slow my shutter speed too much. This helps my photos stay sharp, lit, free of any motion blur, and all without becoming too grainy. The lens is a bit of a beast, but I love her! I also have a Sigma 35mm 1.4, but I use it mainly for travel and outside/landscape photos. Purchasing a lens should be an investment, so my biggest piece of advice would be to have a good idea of what you want to do with it, and don't skimp. The lenses you use really have a huge impact on the look of your photos. If you don't want to purchase more than one lens, you can look into a zoom lens which will allow you to adjust the focal length, whereas a fixed lens does not. They each have their pros and cons, which is why I say you need to think about what you want your outcome to be before you purchase a lens. You might want to take into consideration that you'll never get a zoom with as wide an aperture for lower light as you would a prime, and a good zoom with a bigger aperture will be bigger and cost more, but being able to change focal length without changing a lens can save a lot of time, and sometimes makes the difference in getting the shot you want or not.

For memory I use a SanDisk Extreme Plus memory card, with 64GB and a read/write of 80MB/s, which writes fast enough for my camera when doing video. If you're doing video, or plan on it, make sure you get an adequate card for your needs. Another thing to consider is to make sure you have enough memory on a card without worrying too much about it getting full and having to empty it constantly. Because I work from home in my studio, I'm also less worried about having multiple cards, though I do have an emergency 8GB back up from my old camera. If you're planning to travel more, you should plan around having extra cards and the ability to make back ups so you don't lose your work or run out of space to keep it.

I only occasionally use a tripod in my setups, but mostly for wider overheads. I always shoot during the day and have enough light that I don’t need a tripod to stabilize my camera. Personally, I prefer to move around the food and get an unexpected angle from time to time, as well as the freedom to move from setup to setup faster. Again, I would say using a tripod is a personal preference, as I know some people don't want to keep going back and forth from their shot to styling, and back again. When I do use a tripod, I tether my camera to Lightroom on my laptop (more on Lightroom in the next series 😉). Here I can easily see the composition of the photo and can quickly edit it with a preset (or filter) to see that the final product is going to be without having to pull my camera down or pull my memory card.

My studio/dining room!

Now that I live in Los Angeles, I get a lot more natural light in my “studio” (aka, my dining room). While more light is great, it can also be a hinderance at times.

Comparison of photos without window gels (top), and with window gels (bottom)

The photos above show what the natural afternoon light looks like when I'm shooting. In the top image, the highlights are more intense and blown out, and the shadows are deeper, more directional, and distracting. In the bottom image, I'm using diffusion gels (or filters) over my windows to diffuse the light and make everything more even. This also keeps the natural colors of the flowers more vibrant. I'll elaborate more in the next "editing" series, but when it comes to editing the photos, the exposure of your images plays a big part in what you can do with them.

Window gels

My husband likes to make the analogy: diffusion gels are like clouds in the sky. If you've ever taken a selfie outside in the midday sun, you get terrible shadows on your face. Taken on a cloudy day, the light is more friendly to your face. The same can apply to food.

I rarely use the reflectors (shown below), but I keep them on hand for projects that might require them. I find that they're good for balancing light, softening it, changing the direction of light, etc. Good old poster board does the trick in some situations too ☺️. So I would say that before you go buy reflectors or gels (as they can be pricey), assess what you need them for.

Reflector kit

When it comes to light sources to expose my photos, I always use natural light. I prefer my images to be well lit and crisp, and while you have to work around mother nature's schedule, if you have good light, I've always preferred the look and don't really have the time (or budget) to do a studio light setup. So right now my current winter setup is such that my shooting surface is right up against a couple of windows, allowing me to get the most amount of light without having to crank my ISO. If you use natural light, the direction of the exposure you have (North, South, etc.) can make a big difference. In the past, I had a Northern exposure, meaning I never really got any direct sunlight. Currently, I have a Western exposure, so I get a lot of direct sunlight in the afternoon when the sun is setting. So when you’re setting up your studio/space, what exposure you have, and what gear you'll need to work around that, can play a big role.

I hope this guide has answered your questions when it comes to what kind of basic gear you might need and is good for at least food photography. If you have any follow up questions, please reach out: lindsey@dollyandoatmeal.com ☺️

More FAQs:

  • Where do you typically shoot your recipes?

I shoot my recipes in my dining room, on my dining room table. I occasionally put other surfaces over my table to change the look up a bit as well. I often prep my ingredients on my table and shoot as I go. And since my kitchen is in the same room, when it comes to cooking, it's all in one space which makes it nice and convenient.

  • If I don't want a DSLR, what's the next best camera to buy?

I don't have much experience with other cameras. I've seen some people go the route of a mirrorless; they are generally cheaper, lighter, and less bulky. I am partial to a DSLR, just because you tend to have more options in terms of lenses, and I like looking through the lens, as opposed to looking at a screen - again, a personal preference. I do love the camera on my iPhone X, and I would say you don't have to spend the money on an expensive camera to get great photos. You could potentially be happy getting an app that gives you manual control over the phone's camera, which if you want to be more serious about your photography, being able to set manual settings and understanding them will help you get the shots you want more than how much your camera cost.

  • What kind of tools do you use for editing photos for your blog and Instagram?

I will speak to this more in the next editing series, but I generally use Lightroom for editing photos, and use a set of presets to tweak the photos to how I like them. More on that later!

  • What camera bag/strap do you use?

I use a Joby strap that attaches to the tripod mount on my camera. It is easy to swing to the side so I can style in between shooting, and grab again to take the next shot. I don't actually own a bag! I probably should get one, but any time I've travelled for a photography job I throw my camera (lens attached) into a big hipster beanie hat - a cheap trick I learned on a job from another photographer 👍🏼

Stay tuned for the next Editing series where I'll talk in depth about my process for shooting photos, what I typically set my camera to, what Lightroom presets are, which ones I like best, and how to use the most important tools in Lightroom to enhance your images. Easy, quick tips for beautiful photographs! Email me with any questions you want me to answer: lindsey@dollyandoatmeal.com ❤️

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