Camera settings for food photography: Start using your camera in manual mode

Camera settings for food photography: Start using your camera in manual mode

Recently I started this brand, Fig & Fennel, as a way to professionalise (is that a word?) the freelance photography side of my business.

My food photography has improved massively over the years since I started my blog (if I do say so myself), and especially in the past months since investing in a photography course at the local college.

For a long time though, I was terrified of taking my camera off auto settings and into manual mode.

A DSLR can take great pictures in its automatic settings – cameras are very clever these days.

But without the control of manual mode, it is hit-and-miss. By switching your camera to manual you can make huge improvements to your food photography.

Start using your camera in manual modewith this short eBook guide to camera settings for food photography

Affiliate disclosure: This post uses affiliate links. If you purchase products or services via an affiliate link I’ll get a small commission (which supports the running of this site) and it won’t cost you anything extra. I’ll specifically point out each affiliate link in the post. Learn more here.

You can learn more about food photography in my other posts on the subject. Learn:

Camera settings for food photography

Lets start with the basics, shall we?

NB. While this information should apply to most DSLR cameras, it is based on my own experience and knowledge using my (affiliate link) Canon 1300D. I have tried to make the information about settings, etc. as generic as possible but if you use a different brand you may need to look up the way Canon’s settings ‘translate’ to your own camera.

Photography is all about light

There are three key settings on your camera that affect the amount of light coming in and hitting the sensor. The amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor is also referred to as the exposure. An over-exposed shot looks very pale and washed-out, and an under-exposed shot looks very dark and gloomy.

Examples of camera settings and exposure for food photography
Over exposed | Correctly exposed | Under exposed

Aperture

The aperture can be dilated, like the pupil of your eye, to allow more or less light into the camera. Each time you move the aperture setting up, the amount of light entering the camera doubles.

The aperture is measured in f/stop. A large aperture lets in more light and a small aperture lets in less light, however, f/stop numbers run in the opposite direction: The higher the number, the smaller the aperture (and vice versa). f/11 lets in less light, for example than f/8.

Additionally, f/stop numbers don’t double with each setting – even though the amount of light let into the camera does. f/stops can typically run from around f/1.4 at the largest aperture to around f/32 at the smallest aperture.

The aperture is set in the lens, not the camera body. My Canon 18-25mm lens though gives a range of f/4.5 to f/29, which is plenty of scope for normal food photography. The aperture ‘scale’ goes:

  • f/1.4
  • f/2.0
  • f/2.8
  • f/4.0
  • f/5.6
  • f/8.0
  • f/11.0
  • f/16.0
  • f/22.0
  • f/32.0

With each stop letting half the amount of light into the camera sensor as the one before

Though your camera may show settings in-between these, only these stops allow fully half (or double) the amount of light than the subsequent f/stop.

This article on photographylife.com gives a much more in-depth explanation of aperture and f/stops.

How to use AV aperture settings in food photography

The other thing to note about aperture is that a large aperture (ie. a low f/stop number) gives you selective or differential focus (where part of the image is in sharp focus and part of the image is in soft focus). Equally, a small aperture (ie. a high f/stop number) gives extensive depth-of-field, where everything in the image is in sharp focus.

I like to keep the aperture as large as I can when shooting food side-on or at an angle, as a sharp subject and blurred ambient background work really well for this type of shot. For overhead or flatlay images, a smaller aperture works well to keep the whole arrangement  in sharp focus.

Chaning the depth of field in food photography

Shutter speed

If the aperture is like your eye’s pupils, then the shutter speed is like your eyelid. They act as a pair of blinds that open and close extremely quickly.

The longer (or slower) the shutter speed, the more light is let in, and the shorter (or faster) the shutter speed, the less light is let in.

Shutter speed is measured much more simply than aperture – the setting is typically shown as, for example, 1/250 or 1/60, which means that the shutter is open for 1 250th of a second, or 1 60th of a second. You just have to remember that that’s what the number means. One 60th of a second is a longer length of time than one 250th of a second, so a shutter speed of 1/60 is a slower (or longer) shutter speed, and a shutter speed of 1/250 is a faster (or shorter) shutter speed. 

What shutter speed to use for food photography

Faster shutter speeds (for example 1/1000) let in less light. A fast shutter speed is great for getting a sharp image of a moving subject as they freeze action – for example in sports photography. A fast shutter speed will only work with ample lighting – in low light, a fast shutter speed will produce a very dark image.

Slower shutter speeds (for example, 1/15) let in more light. Slow shutter speeds can be useful for creating image movement blur (for example, when pouring a liquid) or when shooting in lower light. Be aware though that the longer the shutter speed, the more likely you are to create a blurry image by shaking the camera – for shutter speeds below 1/60 or so, use a tripod to keep your camera completely still.

Generally, I keep my shutter speed as fast as I can, depending on the level of light. As I prefer to shoot handheld than on a tripod, this allows me to be flexible and experiment with angles more easily. My go-to shutter speed is 1/250, though I may go down to 1/200 or 1/125 before I resign myself to being tied to a tripod for the whole shoot.

Photographing pouring liquids
A slower shutter speed (3.2 seconds) causes ‘motion blur’ with the moving liquid | A faster shutter speed (1 500th of a second) captures a ‘freeze action’ shot of the moving liquid

ISO

ISO is the measure of how light-sensitive your camera’s sensor is.

A lower ISO indicates that your camera is less sensitive to light (so the picture will look darker) and a higher ISO indicates that your camera is more sensitive to light (so the picture will look paler). As with aperture, as the ISO setting doubles, the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor doubles too. You can learn more about ISO at ShutterMuse.com.

Set your ISO depending on the availability of light. Generally speaking, the lower you can set your ISO (and still get a good image), the better, as a high ISO can result in ‘noise’ or grain in an image. As a (very) rough guide:

  • 100-200 for outdoors or in daylight
  • 400-800 indoors or in the evening
  • 1600 at night
Which ISO to use for food photography

Anything over 1600 will result in a very grainy image, so avoid higher ISOs, even if your camera offers them. If your ISO is set to 1600 and your images are still coming out very dark, adjust the aperture or shutter speed to get more light to your camer’s sensor.

What is the best ISO setting for food photography

Manual camera settings

On most DSLR cameras there are 3 ways to use manual settings:

TV

TV stands for Time Value, and is sometimes called Shutter Priority. Some brands of camera label this ‘S’.

For this setting, you set the shutter speed and the ISO, and allow your camera to set the aperture automatically.

In TV, start by setting the shutter speed to 1/250 and the ISO to 100 or 200, depending on the available lighting. Now, have a look at your images and adjust your settings as needed:

  • Are they coming out very dark?
    • Raise the ISO to 400 or 800
    • Or increase the shutter speed to 1/200, 1/160 or 1/125
  • Still too dark?
    • Increase the shutter speed even further (and use a tripod and external trigger to remove any shake from the camera)
    • Or switch to full manual mode and make the aperture larger (using a smaller f/stop)
  • Are they coming out very pale?
    • Lower the ISO to 100, if it isn’t there already
  • Still too pale?
    • Reduce the shutter speed (but watch out for ‘shutter shock’ – when the shutter moves so quickly that it is captured at the edge of the image)
    • Or switch to full manual mode and make the aperture smaller (using a larger f/stop)

AV (Aperture Value)

In Aperture Value, or Aperture Priority, you set the aperture and the ISO yourself, leaving your camera to set the shutter speed automatically.

Using aperture priority allows you to set the f/stop, which can be useful for controlling the depth-of-field.

  • For a limited or selective depth of field:
    • Eg. a stack of pancakes shot side-on in crisp focus, with the rest of the room out of focus, or blurred
    • Use a large aperture by setting a low f/stop like f/2.8 or f/4
    • Set the ISO as low as you can (100 or 200 is best), to make up for the large amount of light let in by the wide aperture.
  • For an extensive depth of field:
    • Eg. an overhead shot of lots of different dishes on bowls and plates at various heights, where you want everything to be in sharp focus
    • Use a small aperture by setting a high f/stop like f/16 or f/22
    • While a lower ISO is generally better, you may need to change the ISO up to 800 or 1600, to make up for the smaller amount of light let in by the small aperture.

M (Manual)

M stands for Manual. In this setting, you control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO all at once.

What are the best camera settings for food photography?

Not to take the cheat’s way out but the best settings do, of course, vary depending on the situation.

As a rule-of-thumb I generally prefer to use AV, so I can set the f/stop and ISO to suit the available light and the required depth-of-field, but I can trust my camera to adjust the shutter speed dynamically, which gives me one less thing to worry about.

Food photography normally involves a static subject – not a moving one – so I don’t generally need to consider shutter speed effects like freezing action or creating motion blur.

If I’m shooting in a busy kitchen or onsite at an event though, I’ll use TV and as fast a shutter speed as I can get away with, to capture the action in sharp detail. This can also be useful for creating freeze-action shots of a liquid being poured.

Sometimes – particularly indoors and in winter – natural light can be scarce. If I don’t have access to lights (which I usually don’t when I’m shooting onsite), I’ll either:

  • Continue to use AV, so I can control the depth-of-field, but use my tripod and external trigger to avoid any shake when the shutter speed decreases
  • Switch to full manual mode, so that I can set the shutter speed high enough to shoot without a tripod, and balance the ISO and aperture to avoid any grain and get sharp, properly-exposed shots

The most important thing though is to do what works best for you. Practice, at every opportunity and try taking a number of shots for every setup, using different settings.

Start using your camera in manual modewith this short eBook guide to camera settings for food photography
Camera settings for food photography: Start using your camera in manual mode