Do you ever look at someone else’s food photography and think, “I wish I knew how to do that.” When you use manual mode on a DSLR camera, you can!
Learning to use manual mode on a DSLR camera can feel intimidating at first. I certainly felt intimidated, overwhelmed even. But the more I experimented with my DSLR (or rather, K-Hubs’ DSLR!), the more comfortable I got behind the camera. And from there, the more my photos looked the way I wanted them to.
The secret to learning how to use manual mode is to become comfortable with trial and error. Be ready to take photos you won’t end up liking. And get ready for those photos that take your breath away.
I’m not lying when I say I was utterly intimidated by the thought of using manual mode. I was convinced I couldn’t do it. I’m not a techie. I don’t have a lot of patience. And I secretly thought I didn’t have even the basics for a good eye behind the camera.
But all of that was a lie. There are still tools I want to learn, new food photography styles I want to try, and new recipes I can’t wait to share with you. But now that I have developed a habit of experimenting with ideas, I can go forth to create the food photography I want! And it’s a joy to try new techniques out. Even though I still run into challenges behind the camera, now that I know how to use manual mode, I have a better understanding of what to do to correct the problem.
I believe the same is true for you! You have the eye, and you have the ideas, and we can’t wait to see them! So let me show you the basics of how to use manual mode on your DSLR camera so you can be in control of the beautiful pictures you create!
In this post, we’ll cover:
- Shutter Speed
- White Balance
- Tips to Practicing Manual Mode Settings on Your DSLR Camera
Aperture is the setting that creates depth of field in food photography. It also determines how much of the photo is in focus. If you want those breathy, dreamy, blurry background photos in your own food photography, then it’s the aperture setting you want to play around with.
This setting determines how wide open the ring in the camera lens is, and it’s measured as an f-stop number. The smaller the f-stop, such as f/2.8, the wider the aperture ring is in the lens, the shallower the depth of field, and the blurrier the background. The larger the f-stop, such as f/5.6, the narrower the aperture ring is in the lens, the broader the depth of field, and the more in-focus the entire image is.
While no one setting is more important than any other manual mode setting in a DSLR camera, I found that my photography started to look more and more like what I wanted it to when I experimented with aperture. As I learned how to use manual mode settings, this was where the magic happened. But the magic doesn’t happen all on its own. So let’s keep reading to learn about other manual mode settings in a DSLR camera.
Shutter speed affects how much light is let into photos based on how long the shutter is open. The shutter release, or the button you click to take a photo, can be adjusted to stay open longer or shorter, depending on your lighting preference.
Shutter speed is written as a fraction. The smaller the fraction (or the bigger the denominator/bottom number), the faster the shutter release opens and closes. This means the lens is open for a short amount of time, therefore letting in less light. The bigger the fraction (or the smaller the denominator/bottom number), the slower the shutter release opens and closes. This means the lens stays open longer, thereby letting in more light.
For example, a shutter speed of 1/90 is slower and stays open longer than a shutter speed of 1/250. This also means a shutter speed of 1/90 will let more light into a photo than will a shutter speed of 1/250.
The key to figuring out what shutter speed works best for you is taking, you guessed it, practice shots. And shutter speed works directly with aperture. If your aperture is set to a lower f-stop number, such as f/1.8 or f/2.8, for example, you might set your shutter speed to something faster (a smaller fraction with a larger denominator/bottom number), to offset all the extra light aperture allows in the photo.
But even these settings don’t work by themselves. And that’s why we’ll cover ISO as we learn how to use manual mode settings in our DSLR cameras.
ISO determines how sensitive the camera sensor is to the light source. The lower the ISO, the darker and crisper the photos will be. The higher the ISO, the brighter and grainier the photos will be.
A higher ISO is great for low-lighting situations such as night photography. A lower ISO is great for brighter photography, either with natural daylight or artificial light.
I don’t have an exact ISO that I permanently shoot with. Typically, though, my ISO is set to 400 or less. Where you land, likely somewhere between 100 and 400, will depend on:
- How bright your light source is.
- How bright you want your food photography to be.
- What your aperture and shutter speed are set to.
Even after setting the Big Three manual mode settings, you can still run into a problem if your color balance is off. So let’s move on to Automatic White Balance.
AUTOMATIC WHITE BALANCE
The Automatic White Balance (AWB) setting in your camera helps capture the true colors of what you’re photographing. Essentially, whites are white, blacks are black, reds are red, blues are blue, and so on. The vast majority of the time, you can leave the white balance setting in your DSLR camera at AWB. This lets the camera do the adjusting and thinking for you. If something is a little off then you can most likely adjust it during the editing phase of your photography process. A program like Adobe Photoshop has several options for adjusting colors to be true to source.
But sometimes AWB doesn’t work so well. The camera might overcompensate for a particular color or not adjust the colors enough. Additionally, if you photograph your food in an environment with extreme colors, it’s possible for your light source (the sun in natural lighting or a light box/tabletop lighting unit in artificial lighting) to pick up those colors and cascade them across your food.
I call the space where I photograph, such as a living room, kitchen, or studio, the external environment. It doesn’t appear in my photos, but it does impact the results.
An example of how the external environment can affect a photoshoot is wall color. If I conduct a photoshoot in a room with red walls, the wall color can affect my photos, even if the walls aren’t directly in the picture. As the camera and lighting unit partner to bring all the colors together, they capture some of the red from the walls, pulling that color into the image.
Another example includes the surface you are shooting on. Even if you are shooting on a background or surface such as white marble, the real question is, what surface is that marble on? In my case, the white marble you see in all of my photos is a slab placed on top of a honey oak kitchen table. My lighting source and camera manage to pick up the red/orange/brown/yellow colors from the kitchen table, even though the kitchen table rarely appears in my photos (when it does creep in accidentally, I edit it back out in Adobe Photoshop).
If you find that colors from your external environment constantly cascade into your food photography, you may want to adjust the white balance setting in your DSLR camera. Typically, if oranges and reds are creeping into your food photography, then adjust the white balance to a cooler setting. If your photography always looks a little blue or gray, then adjust the white balance to something warmer with reds and oranges. This creates a net balance that more accurately represents the colors of the items in your photos.
What’s the best way to figure out which balance is best? Trial and error. I took several photos, adjusting the color balance settings every few photos or so, until I found the white balance setting that worked for me. Because warm colors cascaded into my photos, I picked a white balance setting that is bluer.
Remember, though, if you end up getting a new table, painting the walls, or making permanent changes to your external environment, plan to adjust the white balance again.
PRACTICING MANUAL MODE SETTINGS ON YOUR DSLR CAMERA:
To bring everything together, try the following tips:
- Photograph fruits. I like to use a combination of green apples and blueberries (cool colors) with red apples and tomatoes (warm colors) in practice shots. Then I pay close attention to how clear and crisp the images are. I also check to see how true to form they look.
- Write settings on a sticky note and place it next to the food you’re photographing. This is a great way to come back to your photos and notes later on. By seeing what settings you used, you’ll more likely be able to pick out the styles that are right for you. Keep in mind, you might like certain features of one photo and features of another. Finding the right settings is often a mixy-matchy process.
- Practice with extreme settings. Even if you would never photograph food at an ISO of 1200, it’s helpful to see the impact of a particular setting and then compare the difference between that and, say, an ISO of 400. The same goes for shutter speeds at different levels. For example, you might compare photos set at 1/15 and 1/500. Being able to see the differences at extreme levels is helpful in troubleshooting when a photoshoot doesn’t immediately go the way you want and you need a starting point to figure out a solution.