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Five Ways to Improve Your Food Photos

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Last week, we gave you the five reasons your food photos suck. Today, we're going to try and help you clean up your act and take photos that will make your mother proud, and we all know how tough that can be.

All of the photos of the food taken below were shot with a Nikon Coolpix point and shoot camera. I got my friend and fellow photographer, Katya Horner, to help out by shooting me for demonstration purposes, and she used her fancy schmancy camera, but all of my shots were taken with a camera that cost me under $150, and only very minor crops were made. The point is, anyone can take good food photos.

5. Don't lose your focus.

Trying to take a blurry photo wasn't easy even with the image stabilization on the camera turned off, so it makes no sense to use a fuzzy image. The image above demonstrates the marked difference between a blurry shot and one that is in focus. Being really close to your subject matter can increase your chances of being out of focus due to the shaking of your hands, but the better image above was taken closer to the food than the blurry one, so it is certainly possible.

It's not film. You can take LOTS of photos if necessary. Take your time and make sure you have a clear shot. Use the display screen on your camera to review your shot after taking it. Most cameras allow you to blow up the image you shot in the viewfinder to look closely at details for focus problems. If you are struggling with keeping the shot in focus, back off from the food a bit and brace your arms on the table or against your sides. If your camera has image stabilization, make sure it is engaged to help avoid the jitters.

If all else fails, use something to rest the camera on while you shoot. There are a lot of different small tripod and monopod options, but a napkin holder or the back of a chair works in a pinch. Bottom line: there is no reason to settle for a fuzzy image.

4. See the light.

Second only to blurriness among things that can ruin an image is poor lighting. The above images present two very different examples of bad lighting. On the left is an over-exposed shot taken with the built-in flash. On the right is a shot taken in dim lighting. They are both terrible.

In general, try to avoid using the flash. Point and shoot cameras use directional flashes, meaning they aim right at one spot and expose the hell out of it. This often results in all the details of your shot being destroyed by a bright blueish-white light. Move closer to a light source like a window or a patio. Too much sunlight can also present exposure problems, but natural light of any kind is always preferable to a flash.

Having said all that, in a very dimly lit place or at night, you may have to resort to using the flash. If you do, this is the time to put a little distance between the camera and the plate. Try holding your hand or even a napkin slightly in front of the flash but out of the frame of the image as a means of reflecting or diffusing the light. Some photographers even take one ply of a paper napkin and tape it over the flash as a makeshift diffuser.

One other creative option for problems in low light is to use your cell phone screen held over the plate. Putting your iPhone on a white screen like a blank browser window will help illuminate your food and may give you just enough light to get a shot off.

Experiment and try different options, but whenever possible, take the advice of the little old lady in Poltergeist and "Go into the Light."

3. Get a little closer.

As a rule, anything with a lot of detail looks better close up. Food would qualify. There is nothing wrong with a shot of an entire plate. Sometimes, it's necessary. But, better results are often achieved by getting within a few inches of the food to get your shot. Doing this normally means you'll need to engage the macro setting on your camera (more on this and other typical point and shoot settings next week!).

Don't use your zoom. Zooming should always be a last resort. Point and shoot cameras often use a digital zoom meaning that the tiny computer inside the camera is artificially creating the close up rather than physically magnifying the image. The end result is a poorer-quality image. Besides, kinetic energy is a magical thing.

Moving closer or farther away from your food allows you to frame your image using the display on your camera. You can make decisions about where you want to focus and what details you want in your shot and what you want out. And isn't it just easier to move than to futz with the zoom? Plus, if you move back and forth a few times while framing your shot, it will be like dancing, which is totally fun.

2. Know all the angles.

No matter how close or far away you are from your subject matter you will get better results if your shot is taken on an angle. Remember posing for those awkward school photos? Remember they would tell you to tilt your chin and push your shoulders back? Angles, my friend, angles. Shooting on an angle can eliminate harsh shadows and bring details into focus, which is crucial in good photography.

In the case of food, a photo taken almost level with your meal shows the terrain of the dish, emphasizing details and providing a greater overall depth to the image. Even shots taken from above the image are dramatically improved by angling slightly as in the photo above.

Much like holding the camera above you and out at arm's length when taking a self portrait for your MySpace profile gets rid of your double chin, food photos taken on an angle make just look better.

1. It's all in the presentation.

Chefs agonize over drizzles and foams and sprinkles and all sorts of bizarre "plating" techniques designed to make your food look pretty. This may be as simple as pulling an Emeril and throwing a little "BAM" of parsley on top before the plate hits the table or it could be creating a tower of food that would impress an architect. Whatever the case, food presentation is especially important in photos.

You don't have to be a culinary artist to make it work. Simple things make a huge difference. Notice what is in the frame of your photo and make adjustments where necessary. Move that dirty napkin. Push the saltshaker to the side. Sweep the crumbs off the table. Tell your friend to stop photo bombing you in the background.

Speaking of background, choosing an appropriate background can be the difference between a decent photo and a great one. If the background is ugly upholstery or a woman's bare breasts (strip clubs only), it will distract from the subject of your shot: the food. Move your plate away from Jasmine's chest and use the wood-paneled wall instead. If you can't find a decent background, use a menu. Be creative. Chefs understand that details count. So should you.

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