Camera Comments

The photos on my blog are taken with an SLR camera Canon 350D/500D and a Canon 50 mm Prime f/1.4 USM lens. The older photos in the posts from 2007 were shot with the kit lens 18-55 mm. A few photos were also shot with the small Canon IXUS 900is, which I use when it’s not possible to bring the big camera with me.

I’m not that tech savvy myself, so for the further detail elaboration I give the word to my unofficial photo adviser, who posted this comment on my Why I Never Get Tired of noma post.

I decided to create this page to gather all the camera comments here so they are easy to find in the future. Feel free to add any comments or questions about photography here! :-)

“As Trine’s unofficial photo advisor, I’d love to explain how the photos are made. Forgive me for getting a bit geeky here, but – as I try to tell Trine – an understanding of a few basic photo principles is necessary to get good shots. Her goes:

Trine uses a Canon 350D [Update: Now upgraded to a 500D]. It’s a consumer end digital SLR, but a great, rugged camera that’s not too big to carry around. The new version, the 450D, would be the one to go for at the moment. The more “pro” Canon 40D is a very nice camera but a bit bigger and thus heavier to lug around.

She also has a small Canon IXUS 900is for emergency use – but it’s no good under low light. It simply hasn’t got the lens or the chip for it.

But even when talking about SLRs, the camera itself is really not the issue. It’s the lens that does the trick and that’s why SLRs are the ones to go for: You can change the lens.

Too avoid using flash (and you don’t want to use flash when shooting food) you must have a lens that lets as much light trough as possible – that is: It most have a wide aperture .

The lens’ F-number denotes the relationship between the lens’ focal length and the aperture (the width of the pupil, so to speak). The lower F-number, the bigger the opening (in relation to the focal length) and the more light gets through your lens. You want as much light as possible, as you want to expose your film (i.e. your chip) in the shortest amount of time possible – to avoid shaken images.

To control these settings, Trine runs the camera in “P”-mode. That means that the camera controls the aperture and the shutter time, but that she can set the ISO herself and turn off the Flash. Personally I prefer the “A”-mode, so I can control both aperture and ISO while the camera controls shutter time. Full auto mode (on Canon cameras the auto symbol is a green square) is a no go, as the flash will pop up all the time and instantly ruin your photos, not to mention your relationship with the waiters and the other guests.

The kit-lens (an EF-S 18-55 mm zoom) that comes with the 350D and 450D is an ok lens in good lighting conditions, but not a great one when shooting at low light. It’s got a max aperture at 18mm of f/3.5 (and that’s too wide an angle for food photos). There is an IS version of this lens that will probably do better under low light – I haven’t tried it, though.

So Trine uses a Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 lens instead of the kit lens, to get as much light into the camera as possible. It’s a fixed lens (that is, no zoom).

When using an aperture as wide as f/1.4 the depth of field (DOF) becomes very shallow. That’s why it’s only possible to focus on a bit of the dish, and that makes the photo look “macro”-like. Fortunately a shallow DOF has been made quite popular by professional food photographers during the nineties, so what is basically a shortcoming of optic laws is now considered a nice touch :-)
The EF 50mm is not a macro lens – in fact that’s a bit of a problem as you’ll need about 45cm or more of distance between you and the dish when shooting with the 50mm at f/1.4. That is sometimes hard to achieve at a restaurant as you’ll have to get up from your chair or lean back. Be careful not to fall :-)
The best photos on this blog are shot at lunch time when light is good. Even when using a f/1.4 lens, the light at restaurants at night can be tricky. So it’s often necessary to step up the sensitivity of the camera’s chip to ISO 800 or ISO 1600. Even on a camera like the 350D, which is quite good at avoiding too much pixel noise, images shot at ISO 1600 will show some noise. Besides, the colours may often be too warm due to artificial lighting.

Too improve on the most problematic images they are run through Photoshop. Noise may be removed with the plugin Noise Ninja that can eliminate some of the pixel noise. Contrast and colours are adjusted with levels and sometimes a cooling “photophilter” or some manipulation of the Red, Green and Blue channels is needed. [Update: Since this page was written Trine has abandoned shooting JPGs and now all images are shot as RAW and adjusted in Photoshop's RAW Import. Absolutely recommended.]

Be careful, though, when removing noise with plugins like Noise Ninja – the crispy details may disappear too. Sometimes this may be counteracted by applying a sharpen filter, but the general rule is: The more you fiddle around with the image in Photoshop, the more quality you loose.

I guess that a great photo solution for food photography would be a fast, high-end zoom lens fitted with an Image Stabilizer (like this one). The IS will allow using a narrower and thus sharper aperture and shooting at shutter times well below the magic 50th of a second without any signs of shaking. But such lenses are typically more bulky than the 50mm and it’ll probably cost’ya the mean buck:-).”

26 Responses to “Camera Comments”


  • Thanks a million Klaus. That’s particularly the information/advice that i needed. These days relating to certain due diligence to carry out!

  • Do you find great use of the 50mm in your more normal photo shots, ie. not in restaurants? The 35mm might be too wide …

  • I think I did see a journalist use one of those at a event last year. I don’t know. I don’t wanna carry too much gear around and let the tech stuff overshadow the food enjoyment, if you know what I mean. But for other occasions where light is important it could work!

  • What do you think of using this in a restaurant? It’s around $20 USD online. I’m wondering if dimming the output enough so it doesn’t bother other diners will still produce a useful amount of light.

    I already bought a similar light that is slightly bigger and brighter, but it does not have a dimmer. It was enough to light my bedroom, so I think it’s too bright. ;) I may keep it for other uses, but I’m considering buying the other one and testing its usefulness for food photography.

  • New-ish lens which might be worth checking out, if you shoot with a crop-sensor camera – the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 with VC (aka IS or VR). I’m a little wary of buying lenses made by most third parties, but the specs are very tempting. The minimum working distance is only 29cm, versus 45cm or so for the 50mm f/1.4. And hopefully the combination of f/2.8 and VC will work just as effectively as f/1.4 on its own (if not better), with the added bonus of slightly greater depth of field.

    I’ve only seen a few sample photos online, and they were mostly taken with the older, non-VC version. The photos are nice and sharp, but I didn’t like the way it rendered the out-of-focus areas. It’s a little expensive too. Still, I know I’ll have to go to a store and test it out before I make a final decision.

  • Cool, Thanks so much for the link JC!

  • Here is a YouTube video by pro photographer Joe McNally about the way he grips his camera (SLR) when shooting in low light:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDsx3-FWfwk

    I need to do more testing/practicing, but initial results were very good. I simulated a typical restaurant food photography situation, sitting at my desk in dim light, shooting downward at something in front of me while arching back slightly. The lens was a 50mm f/1.4. Using a slightly modified version of the grip, I was able to obtain acceptably sharp images at shutter speeds as slow as 1/13s! (For the test, the aperture was set to f/2.8, if it matters, and ISO was adjusted as necessary.) I’ve never been able to get anywhere close to that before. I’m wondering if I can do even better after enough practice, but I’m already very impressed with the improvement afforded by that method just on my first few attempts.

    The downside is that the grip all but requires you to shoot using your left eye. I use my right, but I’m willing to switch eyes when necessary – it’s a small sacrifice to make in order to obtain better photos in low light.

  • Ok, time for a tech update.

    Since writing the first post for the tech discussion and inspired by JC’s comments, I’ve turned into a big fan of RAW. Forget everything about shooting JPEGs – RAW is the way to go. By bypassing the camera’s built in image processing, you gain so much more data, and the amount of detail and colour you can pull out from a RAW image is incredible.

    The verygoodfood photo workflow is now like this:

    Shoot in RAW with the 50mm 1.4, balancing ISO and shutter time to hit 1/60 or up.

    Import with Photoshop’s RAW import, while

    – adjusting white balance by using the grey-point-tool (pick an area that you know is supposed to be of neutral colour). This is the must important step to avoid the yellow, low light photos.

    – adjusting exposure, contrast, vibrance and clarity. Nice tools to bring out crispness from a slightly dull photo, yellowed by low light. Exposure might typically need a huge boost. Be careful to balance brightness and exposure.

    After the image is imported into Photoshop, I run an action that 1) resizes the image for use on the blog, 2) runs the Sharpen filter, but then 3) fades the filter to 30% to avoid too much crispness. Finally it 4) exports the image as JPEG 75% quality.

    By bulk-importing images (the Photoshop RAW-import handles multiple images) a hundred images may be processed in an hour, still while adjusting each image individually.

    As Trine mentioned, the trusty old EOS 350D committed suicide. The new 500D (with built in HD video) may be the way to go.

  • Thanks for the elaboration and update, Jesse! :-)

  • A few things that I’m very late mentioning, but I thought I’d share anyway:

    1) Cameras with lower pixel density will handle high ISO better. In other words, fewer megapixels is better, OR a full-frame camera is better than one with a crop factor if they have roughly the same megapixels. But of course a large generation gap is even worse; yesteryear’s 6MP cameras won’t perform as well as today’s 12MP cameras. For example, my Nikon D70s is over four years old, and despite having much lower pixel density, it is worse at ISO 1600 than the D300 is at ISO 3200. And the full-frame D700 and D3 are at least one stop better than the D300.

    (On a side note, sorry to have to tell all you Canon shooters this, but Nikon is ahead in high ISO contest right now, with the D700 and D3 (and their other current-generation cameras are about equal to Canon’s, ever since they switched to CMOS sensors). Canon is way ahead in the affordable high resolution camera contest though, since Nikon has zero. I think Canon is still ahead in the clean long exposures contest as well.)

    2) After a few thousand shots with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G AF-S, I’ve found myself shying away from maximum aperture when shooting at the minimum focus distance, which is where I always am when shooting food. Oftentimes, it’s just too little depth of field, and I’m finding that I’d rather deal with some high ISO noise. ISO 800 isn’t always as bad as I thought it was. ISO 1600 on my camera is terrible though. :(

    So, if you’re willing to sacrifice two stops of light, the best lens for food photography is a manual focus tilt-shift lens. On the Canon side, that would be the TS-E 45mm f/2.8, and on the Nikon side, the PC-E Micro-Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D ED. The Nikon is almost twice as expensive as the Canon, which is already very expensive, but it has the added bonus of being a 1:2 macro lens, with a minimum focus distance of 25cm vs. the Canon’s 39.6cm.

    Why are these lenses the best? Besides being optically superior to the super-fast 50mm lenses, tilting the lens allows you to increase the depth of field significantly, without stopping down the aperture. So you have more artistic control over your photos, versus being forced always to shoot with very little depth of field. You give up two stops of light and autofocus, but that’s what a high ISO-capable camera and a lot of practice are for. ;)

    However, it’s understandable that a lot of people won’t want to spend that much money, and/or don’t want to give up autofocus. In that case, one last bit of advice:

    3) In a dark restaurant, do whatever you can to put more light on your food. For example, use your mobile phone as a light source. And if you can, use a small, hand-held mirror to reflect whatever available light there is onto your food (a folding compact mirror would be easiest).

    4) Oh, forgot to mention. A right-angle viewfinder is a neat little accessory that can help give you some different perspectives from which to photograph your food.

    Yes, I am a huge nerd. :D

    P.S.: Trine, re: your October 23 comment above, that just means you must dine only with other food photographers. ;)

  • Hi Tim

    You’re too kind :-) Thank you.
    To provide som information about the king crab photo. Yes, it was shot at night but in May where it’s light until very late in the evening. I’ve checked and this photo was taken at 8:40pm which would be quite bright still in late may.

    I do (try to remember to) take several photos of each dish and sometimes I move the plate or myself to ensure I have enough material to get lucky.(Which obviously is annoying to my friends or the people I dine with, as it makes them wait for me).

    When I shoot at dark places the pics get a yellow tone that I cool with a tool in Picasa, for example, or Photoshop. Picasa also has a sharpen effect that sometime provide a delightful touch – but be careful not to sharpen to much ;-)

    Good luck
    Trine

  • Thanks a million Klaus. That’s exactly the kind of information/advice i was looking for. Now i have some homework to do!
    Cheers
    tim

  • Hi Tim

    Congratulations on your gear! Yes, with the 50 mm you’ll have to lean back from time to time. That’s part of the compromise between price and quality.

    The DOF will get very shallow indeed at 1.4 or 1.8. Stepping up to 2.0 or higher you’ll have a better chance of getting a bigger portion of the dish in focus. So every time you can trade off some shutter time for a smaller aperture, do that by stepping up the f-number.

    But of course, the higher f-number, the more light is needed. So to compensate for the smaller aperture, you can choose a higher ISO, as you mention. This will introduce noise, but luckily the 450D isn’t as prone to noise as most Nikons are. You can remove (some of) the noise with filters like Noise Ninja.

    Also, a handy trick is to underexpose your shots. Step the exposure down one or two steps (thumb on the exposure button, turn the wheel left) and adjust the exposure or the levels later on in Photoshop. This can buy you a step down in ISO or some shutter time. With bright, white plates or tables cloths in sunlight or halogen lighting, it can be necessary to underexpose to avoid clipping (large areas of pure white).

    JC mentions a way of steadying the camera: Hold it with your right hand only, put your right elbow firmly on the table, and support your right wrist with your left hand. Hold your breath and squeeze the trigger (sound like a snipers’ course :-)) You can get decent photos with a shutter time down to 1/40 this way. Snap a couple of shots – just in case.

    Halogen spots are your friends, by the way. They provide a sun-like quality of light to your photos.

  • Hi Trine
    I continue to marvel at the quality of your photos, especially in the recent pots such as the decadent day at Geranium and Noma. After reading some camera discussions on a Food Blog :-) I picked up a 450D with the Canon 50 mm f/1.4 lens. I immediately went to a restaurant and clicked away using random settings. Some shots were impressive and I almost began to think that maybe I had some talent – but it was obviously just luck. I’ve never been able to achieve the same quality again … and now I’m actually trying. I have to lean well back to get anything in focus I then need to crop to get back to the essential element I was trying to capture. But the low DOF leaves me with only a small part of the dish that isn’t blurred. Sometimes the effect is great; but often you want the whole sardine to be sharp! And overall, quality can be limited due to the necessity to boost the ISO to 1600 in low light.
    The DOF effect is evident in your photos, too, and you use it to good effect. But shots like the recent King Crab and Mussel Stock – Ashes and Leek at Noma shows clarity from the left rim of the dish across the crab and out to the right – and it was obviously shot at night. Any secrets you care to reveal? Do you have a single favoured setting that you always use? I have a lot of Danish dishes that I need to capture next week!
    Cheers
    Tim

  • Ellemieke, thank you for reminding me and for binge interested in reading about my Oud Sluis experience. I have posted it just now.

    Best
    Trine

  • I,am waiting for your oud sluis diner?

    best regards

    ellemieke

  • Yes, I struggle with the colours too from one photo to another. I also agree that spending a lot of time on one piece doesn’t necessarily make it better.

    July is the primary month for vacation in DK, but many also take time off in August or September even ;-)

    Yeah, I’m really sad that it’s been very difficult lately to find time for blogging. Unfortunately. It shouldn’t be a tendency, however!

    Can’t wait to see/hear more about Urasawa. Hope you’ll enjoy it!

  • Thanks. :) Unless a photo is really bad and needs a lot of work, my workflow is: raise exposure if necessary, set color temperature/tint and RGB hues, then export to JPEG and fine-tune levels, curves, color, and hue, fix lens aberrations and perspective if necessary (mostly for architectural photos), rotate/crop if necessary, resize image, reduce noise if necessary, and finally sharpen with unsharp mask.

    Oh, I forgot the first, most tedious step: compare multiple shots of the same thing to select one to post-process.

    I didn’t spend too much time on any one photo, maybe 5-10 minutes. The most difficult thing was getting the colors of the plates to be somewhat consistent from photo to photo, while keeping the colors of everything else where I like them. I should start batch editing with Adobe Lightroom instead of doing the photos one at a time in Photoshop/ACR.

    I’ve shot a couple of things I haven’t edited/posted yet, but nothing major – just some ramen and sushi photos taken with the macro lens. My next big meal will be Urasawa at the end of the month. If I have time to do any serious baking, I’ll be sure to shoot that as well.

    VGF has been quiet lately. Is August holiday time? (I mean, in real life, not a holiday from blogging, heh.)

  • Jesse, thanks so much for sharing your experiences! And apologees for taking such a long time to reply! :-(
    I took a look at your photos and the sushi ones are GORGEOUS!! Wow. How much after-editing have you done there?
    I totally agree, a short-distance macro lens would be a must have for any foodie blogger!
    What’s the next foos you plan to shoot?

  • Okay, so I’ve tried out my new macro lens in a couple of different restaurants – one with fairly dim light (but still more than, say, Kiin Kiin at night), and one that is pretty well-lit. It’s really, really great to be able to shoot close-up, but for something like a large bowl (yeah, one of the restaurants was a ramen place, heh), I still had to lean back just a bit to get the entire bowl in the frame. However, being able to shoot close-up gives me the ability to try different compositions.

    I rather appreciate the greater depth of field of this lens compared to an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens. I can still get background blur, but more of the food is in focus, which is nice. The downside to the lens is, even though it’s called f/2.8, the f-stop gets worse the closer you focus. At 1:1 (lens maybe an inch away from the food, greater magnification than I am ever likely to use), it’s f/4.8; typical shots are in the f/3.0-3.3 range. So you’re looking at over 2 stops less light compared to an f/1.4 lens. If you were shooting at, say, 1/30 sec with an f/1.4 lens, at the same ISO you’ll have to shoot at 1/8 sec or even a little slower, which is difficult unless your hand-holding technique is excellent. However, it also makes me wonder if the reason some of my shots with my 50mm f/1.8 lens don’t look sharp enough is because of low light plus poor technique, or simply because of the extremely shallow depth of field. Regardless, when I consider my experience with this lens in the darker restaurant, I don’t know if I would use it in typical very dimly-lit fine dining situations. I guess I have to try it once to know for sure.

    I enjoy macro photography in general, so the lens is still a keeper for me. But for dark restaurants, a situation where large aperture is king, it’s questionable. It’s too bad there isn’t a short-distance macro lens with an aperture larger than f/2.8, because it would be perfect for foodblogging. At any rate, I plan to get the 50mm f/1.4 lens sometime in the near future – I don’t like raising ISO beyond maybe 400 when shooting food (if I remember to raise it at all). Nikon is announcing new products this week…

    I don’t know if Canon’s macro lenses have the same variable aperture, but I am guessing they do. I think Canon’s lower-end DSLRs do better in the high ISO department than the lower-end Nikons, so it might be a viable option if freedom of composition is important to you.

  • JC, you’re right. “IS” is a typo. I have corrected this.

    Allan, yes actually I, personally, have been rather pleased with the 50mm lens outside dining rooms as well. Big buildings at close counter, however is a problem. But I don’t photograph such buildings that much so in those few cases I would swap with the kit. I have found that it’s excellent at shooting people and faces. It’s not too often I need to stand up. Also I would imagine that you would not need that because you’re (much) taller than me…
    But as to your question whether or not to choose the 35 price was the issue here. For the more heavy tech stuff I let the advisor comment not to risk giving uncorrect info. :-)

  • Allan, my hands are far from steady. :( I am jealous that Canon users have a 35mm f/1.4 lens. I checked out the specs of the 35mm and 50mm lenses at bhphotovideo.com:

    35mm: 1:5.5 magnification, 30.5cm minimum working distance
    50mm: 1:6.66 magnification, 45.7cm minimum working distance

    Going by those two specs, IMHO the 35mm is the clear choice. However, it is almost 4x the price of the 50mm. The minimum working distance of the 50mm is *just* long enough to be annoying but not unusable. If cost is a concern, I’d live with having to lean back a bit to take photos (I can get away with not standing because I’m about 5’11” (180cm)).

    But of course the most important thing, if you don’t want to use flash or raise the ISO, is the aperture. For a little bit more money than the 35mm, there’s the 50mm f/1.2 lens (which I’m even more jealous about; Nikon really needs to re-release theirs). It’s not *that* much faster than f/1.4 (maybe 1/2 stop?), but it’s still faster. That would be my top choice.

    Assuming a new camera is out of the question ;), you can look into Focus Magic software. I demo’d it years ago, and couldn’t get it to work for me, but I didn’t really know what I was doing; maybe you’ll have better luck. Otherwise, there’s the usual tricks to combat shaky hands: underexpose slightly with a faster shutter speed, shoot RAW, shoot multiple shots in burst mode, practice to improve your hand-holding technique, etc. Or if you have no shame, use a compact camera with a tabletop tripod. ;)

    If you want some of your shots to be completely in focus, maybe you can try keeping the aperture wide-open, but shooting directly overhead.

    Re: IS, at a short focal length like 35mm, it might give you an extra two stops or so, which I think makes f/2.8 equivalent to f/1.4. But something tells me it’s a little less than two.

    I actually found 50mm on my camera (1.52 crop factor) not to be wide enough quite often when I was taking photos around Copenhagen a few months ago. But I like architectural photography; for shooting people, 50mm on a non-full-frame camera body makes a good portrait lens.

    Yesterday I ordered a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. It may prove not to be very useful for dinnertime food photography, aside from Japanese restaurants, which tend to have brighter lighting than fine dining restaurants (and the lens should prove most useful for shooting sushi). I’m especially looking forward to using it at Urasawa. The minimum working distance is actually a little too short for 1:1 magnification macro work of non-flat subjects, but I think I can live without that much magnification when I don’t have a full-frame camera. I should get the lens by Friday; I’ll let you all know how it works out.

  • Great that you made a “camera comments” page on your blog as we were talking about lenses in e-mail and we might as well get everyone’s opinion.

    First of all, the reason I wrote you an e-mail is because I’m wondering if I should get a new lens, primarily for low light – hence of great use in restaurants. Now I use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, but I often have to go up to a pretty high ISO (800+) to get the aperture and shutter speed I want/need. I beleive I’ve narrowed my “wish lish” down to two lenses, a 35mm and a 50mm.

    As I understand it you often have to stand up to get a good shot of the plate as the zoom distance is too close for a 50mm, hence I was wondering why you went for the 50mm instead of the 35mm?

    The cameras the two of us have don’t shoot full frame (like e.g. the 5D or the 1DS Mark III) and with regular EF lenses we experience a 1.6 “crop factor”, which means that your 50mm will have a zoom of 50*1.6 = 80mm.
    Anyway I just checked the pictures I took at Herman and Geranium and they avg. 38mm and 33mm respectively. Just 3 photos out of 25 are 50mm or above.
    My question about going for the 35mm or the 50mm might be answered right there with my average zoom I guess :)

    Do you find great use of the 50mm in your more normal photo shots, ie. not in restaurants? The 35mm might be too wide …

    I agree that high aperture and a shallow DOF often looks cool, but sometimes the entire plate is wanted in focus and I prefer a lower aperture/higher f-number to get a larger DOF. Just wanted to add that as it’s probably just a question of preference and the respective shot.

    I’m not sure you’d get better pictures with the EF-S 17-55mm lens you mention as it’s “just” f2.8 and while IS might make it possible to step down a notch in aperture it might still not be enough.
    What aperture do you usually shoot with at dinners, in the night – not lunch as I suppose you have no problems at all here.

    JC’s right, the only Canon lenses with fixed focal length that have IS are those with high zoom (200mm+). Unless you consider your steady hands the Image Stabilizer ;)

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    All the best
    – Allan

  • First, great idea! Now I can be a nerd without feeling like I’m spamming or hijacking your blog posts. :D

    Second, the 50mm f/1.4 USM doesn’t have IS (Image Stabilization). :( (I looked it up because, as a Nikon user, I got jealous for a second, hehe.) Nikon’s equivalent doesn’t either. I’m hoping Nikon updates their 22-year-old lens with AF-S (USM in Canon-speak) and hopefully VR (IS) soon, so I can replace my 50mm f/1.8 D without guilt (though I doubt they’ll add VR).

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