Food Photography, the Technical Basics

Food Photography, The Technical Basics

In my last post about the creative process behind photo shoots I mentioned that I am going to write about artificial lighting for food photography very soon. I was getting started on it when I realized there is so much basic info to go over before breaching the topic of lighting.

I want to quickly go over the basic setup that I have. If you already know the basics, feel free to ignore this post and wait for the lighting post that will come next week!

The Camera
You will want to get yourself a digital SLR camera that has a hotshoe with flash-sync contacts and tethering capabilities. Most modern DSLRs have both of these features. I personally use a Canon 5D Mark II. (I am selling my Mark II and upgrading to the Mark III. Email me if you’d like to buy my MKII!)

The Lenses
The Canon EF 100mm F2.8 L is my favorite lens for shooting food photography. This is not to say that this is the best lens for food photography. It is just the best lens for my style of food photography. I highly recommend trying a bunch of different lenses and seeing which suits your style. Before committing to a lens, I like to rent it from for a week to get a feel for it. Finding your go-to lens is like finding a wand in the Harry Potter world. You just have to try them out and figure out which one suits you.

All that being said, I can say pretty confidently that these are the most popular focal lengths for food photography:

Oh, I also love the Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens. It has a cool effect.

Side note: You may notice that all of the lenses I mentioned are one focal length. In other words they can’t zoom in and out (like a 24mm-70mm lens). These are called primes lenses. Prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. The benefit to zoom lenses is the flexibility it gives you, but it’s a tradeoff. I personally like to stick to prime lenses.

Advanced tip: If you can afford them, I also really love to use Zeiss lenses. They are really beautiful lenses!

The Tripod
Some food photographers love tripods, some of them hate them. I personally could not do a shoot without my tripod. Well, I guess I could do a shoot without out it but I’d rather not. A tripod allows me to get the perfect composition in my frame and then tweak the light to be perfect for that composition. If I was to do handheld my composition would shift every time I take a shot simply because of hand movement.

When I first started food photography I used this tripod leg & head combination:

Manfrotto 055XPROB Aluminum Tripod Legs
Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head

It was a great combination to start off with! I now use Gitzo’s 5 6X Systematic 6-Section Tripod (Giant) with the Manfrotto 405 Pro Digital Geared Head. I also love this leg/head combination but it is more on the pricey side. The only reason I upgraded was because I need legs that can go pretty high (the Gitzo legs go up to 9′) and a tripod head that could support a medium format camera (the 405 pro head can support up to 16lbs). So unless you need really tall tripod legs or are planning on working with a medium format camera sometime soon, I’d stick with the cheaper ones. It’s all about finding the right tool for the job!

Whatever you decide on, I highly recommend getting a geared head for your tripod. It allows you to make micro adjustments which is awesome for food photography. It’s just the best! In my opinion. =)

What does it mean to shoot tethered? Tethering simply means you connect your DSLR camera to a computer. From your computer you can use software to control your camera settings and view the images you take on your monitor. Most modern DSLR cameras support this feature.

It is possible to do wireless tether (even a wireless tether to your iPad and iPhone) but because this is a post about the basics, I’m going to stick with explaining the less complicated, wired tether.

Here’s what you’ll need to purchase to make basic tethering possible:

-A cord to connect your camera to your computer. Most cameras have a mini usb port for their digital terminal (check your camera’s manual to make sure) so you will want to get a mini usb to usb cable. Get one that is nice and long- at least 10′ so you can set your computer up a good distance away from your camera. Here’s what I use.

Side note: If you are on a professional shoot, be sure to bring a few of these cables with you. They can be finicky and stop working at the most unexpected times.

-Tethering software. You will need to buy a software that allows you to control your camera and images from your computer. There are a lot of tethering softwares out there. Here is a pretty comprehensive list of them.

My 3 favorite tethering softwares:

A lot of these softwares have demos. I’d recommend downloading them and seeing which you like best. None of them are perfect. Capture One has some bugs when dealing with non-Phase One cameras, Aperture 3 doesn’t allow as much control as I’d like, and Lightroom 4 is a pretty heavy (meaning slow and cumbersome) software… In my opinion.

I tend to use Capture One. It’s great for capturing, organizing, editing, and sharing images. Play around with the demos and find your favorite. Most of the softwares are pretty intuitive. Just plug in your camera and turn on the software.


So there you have it. Some of this info is pretty basic but I just wanted to mention all of it before sharing the lighting post that is coming next week. Bust out your camera, get it tethered and when I put up the lighting post you will be ready to dive in!

Disclaimer: Talking about photography gear on the internet can be a dangerous thing. Photographers get worked up when they talk about their equipment. You know who you are! Because of that, I just want to say that everything I say in this post is simply what works best for me. I’m not sharing this info to start a heated debate on all the differences between Canon vs. Nikon or film vs. digital. That being said, if you have a different process or suggestion I’d love to hear it! Just, ya know, use your nice internet voice.

Aubrie LeGault - These posts are great- thank you. Even though I think I have the basics down it’s still great to hear what you say and what works for you and is always a good refresher course. I love that you noted at the end that this is not an equipment contest and to use your “nice internet voice” …well said!

Shree Vella Photgraphy - Great stuff! Thanks for the tips. Ive not done any food pics for a while.. this is great! ;)

Behind the Scenes with Vanessa K. Rees | Crunchy Creamy SweetCrunchy Creamy Sweet - […] for each shoot but I do put a lot of behind the scene photos on my instagram account. I also have a whole blog post about my […]

FOTÓGRAFOS GASTRONÓMICOS: VANESSA K. REES | Verparacomer - [...] Bases técnicas de la fotografía gastronómica [...]

Stephanie S - Just wanted to say I am a new follower and admirer of your work. I take tons of photos for myself and can’t wait to get my first real job doing this. Your photos are a lot like what I aspire mine to be. Thank you for your posts and willingness to help newbies;)

Atria - Thank you so much, your blog and posts are so motivating!
Last year I bought external camera flash and it got a little dusty, but right now I just have to start using it!:)

May I ask you for two things:
- do you think I can achieve similar results using external flashes? I have such a small flat and I travel a lot to my parents home, this is why I wonder whether I should invest in second flash or studio light?
- do you really use 800 W power? Do you think, let’s say 250 W would be sufficient?
- last stupid question: can I synchronize external flash with studio light?

Thank you so much for your answers and again, for a great posts!


Artificial Lighting 101 » V.K.Rees Photography - [...] I’m going to assume you are familiar with some photography basics. If you haven’t read this post, I’d recommend it. I’m also going to assume an understanding of what aperture, iso, and [...]

The Lesson of the Studio (Don’t Be A Lazy Photographer… Well, Not Too Lazy, Anyway) » s-rinehart photography blog - [...] that, I’d like to point you over to Vanessa‘s recent blog posts about the creative and technical aspects of what she does. You should pop over there anyway. It’s an amazing blog with some [...]

blogverparacomer - Thankyou so much Vanessa. Not all professionals are happy to share this kind of info with newies, they forget that they too were newies at some point. You don’t, and that is something to be grateful. Can’t wait for your next post. And congrats for the Saveur’s.

The Vanilla Bean Blog | photographs + links - [...] reading this blog post about El Hogan and her creative process. As a mother it struck such a chord. These posts by Vanessa (V.K. Rees Photography) and her tips for food photography are fantastic. I am really excited about [...]

Kiran @ - I agree with Jennifer — you have to start a workshop or something ;)

vkrees - Jenn- Thanks lady! I love my geared head. <3

Jenn - Great post Vanessa! Love to see that I’m not the only one who loves using the geared head on their tripod :)

Oh and a HUGE CONGRATS on being a Saveur finalist!!!! You totally deserve it :)

vkrees - Heidi- Glad you found it helpful! Hmmmm… I’m not sure about the weather. Since I only shoot indoors I haven’t had much experience with that. That being said, I always have a filter on my lenses simply to protect the glass. =) UV filters are the way to go!

Heidi @foodiecrush - Love, love this. Ordered the tether, I’ve been going back and forth forever so this put me into gear. Question, do you ever use a lens filter when you’re in inclement weather? I don’t want to mess my lenses up but not sure what to purchase (50 mm and 100 mm Macro). Any suggestions?

Anna @ Crunchy Creamy Sweet - Love this post, Vanessa! Thanks for sharing!

Jen @ Savory Simple - Such useful information!

Denise - Great tips! This is such an insight. I would have to remember all these. Thank you for sharing Vanessa!

Heather | Farmgirl Gourmet - I just recently discovered your blog and I am a huge fan. I appreciate this post tremendously. I was just discussing buying a new tripod tonight and the manfrotto came up. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with all of us.

Elodie {Framing Plates} - Jennifer is right! Thanks Vanessa for all your tips and once again amazing photographs. You are a really inspiring lady.

Kristen - As always, I appreciate you sharing your expertise! Such great info here, Vanessa!

Ashley - Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I love your concise + informative explanations and cannot WAIT for more. :)

vkrees - Sarah- I actually do mean the 100mm macro lens. =) I love it. I don’t often use it as a macro lens though. I rarely shoot super close.

Emily {Jelly Toast} - Another wonderful post, thank you! I just upgraded from an older model Sony to a Canon 6D, and am loving the world of full frame. On my cropped body, I used my 50mm lens pretty much exclusively. When I bought my new camera (even though I realized the focal length would be different than on my cropped body) I bought another 50mm lens as well as a 24-105mm lens. It turns out, that I have hardly used my new 50mm and am considering returning it and buying the 100mm macro due to the fact that I have used my variable lens at around 100mm and love the look it gives. Thank you for your words of advice and I am so looking forward to your lighting post next week! These gloomy rainy days are getting me desperate to become more familiar with my artificial lighting options. Thanks again!

Erin - another great post! thanks for detailing your gear setup!

thyme (sarah) - Again, I really am enjoying these articles. I realize some of the choices are personal but it is so good to read what is the personal preferences of each photographer. When you say your favorite lens is a 100mm fixed lens, I assume you are not referring to the 100mm macro lens? I have the 100mm macro and I love it, but I absolutely must have it on my tripod to avoid the slightest shake. I’m wondering if this is the 100mm equivalent to my 50mm fixed lens (which I love). Thank you again for this series. I’m not to the tethering stage yet and I know that I SHOULD be!!

Jennifer - someone should just start offering photo workshops ;)

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