In this article we are going to explore two critical elements that have the potential to make a big impact on your food photography: depth of field and background choices. Even if all you have is a point and shoot camera, there is much you can do to improve your shots by paying close attention to these.
Depth of Field refers to the area of focus in your photograph. It is a combination of the aperture of the lens and your distance from the subject. Depth of field is controlled by the lens aperture that has been chosen either by yourself (if you have manual controls) or your camera (if your controls are automated). Controlling depth of field allows you to control what is in focus in your shot.
The background refers to what is viewable either beneath or behind your subject, depending on your point of view.
Depth of Field
Manipulating depth of field is an incredibly creative tool for the photographer. By using selective focus you can emphasize some parts of your subject and deemphasize others as you see fit. If you own a DSLR you likely know more about controlling depth of field than I’m going to get into here. For those who are either new to DSLRs or don’t own one, a DSLR is desirable because it allows for ultimate control. You control depth of field by selecting the appropriate aperture for the desired effect. The lower the aperture number, the narrower your band of focus will be.
The aperture is controlled by a diaphragm inside the camera lens that widens and narrows. The degree to which that diaphragm is opened or closed is referred to as the aperture. The aperture controls the amount of light that is allowed to enter the lens. The lower the aperture number, the larger the diaphragm opening (and more light allowed in) and thus the shallower the depth of field and the narrower the band of focus. The higher the aperture number, the smaller the diaphragm opening (less light allowed in) and the greater the depth of field for a deeper band of focus. It sounds like a lot of contradiction but you’ll get used to it eventually.
Many of you own a point and shoot camera. If you do, you are not completely without options. The first step is to turn your flash off and use natural light or controlled lighting. If your camera allows for some manual control, choose the lowest aperture possible. If not, choose macro mode. Macro mode is usually represented by a little flower icon on your mode dial. By telling your camera to shoot in macro mode, it will open up your lens aperture as much as possible, thereby reducing your depth of field and narrowing your focus. The result will be that less of your background will be in focus. This blurred background puts the emphasis where it should be, on your subject.
Another way to improve your close up photography is to use a tripod. When you’re isolating focus you want to make sure it’s sharp and using a good tripod allows for the sharpest photo possible. You may think you have a steady hand but once you start shooting with a tripod you won’t believe the positive difference in sharpness. Camera shake is especially apparent when you’re doing close-up work. If you don’t own a tripod, try resting your camera on a stack of books or placing your elbow on something solid as you take the shot.
When it comes to background choices and settings in which to place your subject, there are as many choices as there are photographers. Some may prefer a natural or real-life setting while others prefer a more stylized look. You may like something in between.
If you like the natural approach, choose an attractive yet uncluttered location in which to place your subject. Look through your camera’s viewfinder. Instead of looking directly at your subject, look at what else is visible around it. Remove unnecessary and distracting items or clutter. Ensure that your backdrop is not unnecessarily busy. When it comes to your surface, there’s nothing wrong with using a tablecloth with a pretty pattern, but you can also create visual interest by using texture. Experiment with swaths of fabric of different weaves. Coarse weaves can look fantastic close up. You can make pretend tablecloths with the smallest piece of fabric. It need only be big enough to fill the frame of your shot. Interesting pieces of scrap wood from your local hardware store, slabs of stone and cutting boards all make fantastic and visually interesting surfaces on which to place your plate.
Avoid crowding your subject with a lot of superfluous items. It’s usually best to keep things simple and not have secondary items compete with the main attraction. Placing your plate on your kitchen counter is great but move that bottle of dish soap out of the background.
If your tastes run towards a more stylized look, there are more than a few simple tricks to help you achieve the look you’re after. One of the easiest ways to get started is to use color. In this regard, choose surfaces and backgrounds with a specific aim towards coordinating with or complimenting your subject. When thinking about how a background or surface relates to your subject matter, you might choose complimentary colors (opposite each other on the color wheel) such as purple and yellow. Another approach is to create a monochromatic or tone on tone look by keeping your chosen colors closer to each other (beside each other on the color wheel), for example, shades of blue and green.
You can easily make these colored surfaces and backgrounds yourself. Foam core board is a great place to start. It is firm and lightweight which makes it easy to handle and long lasting. You can purchase it in different colors or you can paint it any specific color you like for a completely custom look. If you do choose to paint some yourself, choose a matte finish paint or buy a clear matte finishing spray to apply over your color. Shiny paint and surfaces will cause errant reflections. Depending on your point of view you may only want one board: when shooting downwards for example. You can also use one board as a surface on which to place your subject and another for your background.
Alternatively, you could use a board as a background behind a subject which has been placed on a natural surface like a table, cutting board, etc. The larger the background board is, the further back you will be able to place it from your subject without seeing the edges. If you are using a point and shoot camera, this means that you are more likely to be able to achieve that desired blurred background effect. Generally speaking, when using a board as a background, you want that board to be blurred.
As with everything else in photography, keep experimenting and comparing your shots as you make changes. You will soon see what works best for you.