Photography 101: Overview

by Leanne Vogel (Healthful Pursuit) on May 7, 2011

So many images, good eats, and many lessons learned along the way.

Since sharing my thoughts on finding inspiration from other photography last week, a bunch of you asked me to write a photography post.

Eak, me? I am by no means a professional, but I’ll try to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and hope you find it interesting!

Camera used: Canon 50D

Favorite lens: Canon 50mm f-2.8

#1: Set up your background

Questions I ask myself while I’m preparing to take pictures of my food is:

  • What are the recipe’s ingredients?
  • What ingredient stands out the most?
  • What makes this recipe original?
  • What colors do I want to accentuate in the dish?

For this salad, I chose to setup a pile of the veggies that were in the salad, layout the homemade dressing, cups of water and wayyy in the back there you can see some chickpeas + roasted sweet potatoes. The pan didn’t make it to the final cut, but I had them on backup just in case.

For this shot, I chose the color red - to match the strawberries + raspberries in the parfait. Then I asked myself, “What else do I have that’s red?” APPLES!

#2: Simplify + Remove Clutter

So, now that you have your background, colors, and ingredients all laid out, it’s time to take a couple of shots.

The first few may/may not be horrible. It’s okay! You should be checking the screen of your camera to see if you’ve missed anything, or if things look out of place.

As you can see, there was a spoon + fork that were cut off from the picture. Having their nibbly ends dangling in the shot looked bad, so I removed them. Much better, right?

#3: Light Bounce

We’ll have to go into further detail on light bounces in a future post, but this will give you an idea.

Say you have your natural light coming from the right [as it is in the images below] how do you make sure that everything is lit up to prevent shadows?

You got it, light bounces. You can use a white plate, foam board, paper towel, aluminum foil, mirrors, you name it. My favorite is the classic white plate OR a binder wrapped in aluminum foil.

The picture on the left doesn’t have a light bounce – check out the bowl with the egg + pumpkin in it. Notice the difference? There’s other things that are wrong in these 2 pictures… but we’ll get to that next.

#4: Light Direction

So, we added a light bounce to the picture above, which helped with the lighting in the egg + pumpkin bowl. But did you notice that the nuts and raspberries were buried in shadows? No good!

Again, imagine there is natural light coming from the right and a light bounce coming from the left. If something is in the way of the natural light, or the light bounce, whatever is in the middle isn’t going to get any lighting.

This creates shadows.

In the picture on the left the bowl with the egg is blocking the light bounce from getting to the walnuts + raspberries.

In the picture on the right the blue bowl is getting in the way of the natural light hitting the measuring cup.

#5: Depth of field

I love creating that blur effect in the background of my images. It makes the featured dish so much warmer and inviting. Problem is, when you’re doing this, you have to make sure that everything in the dish is sharp and not accidentally blurry.

This balance is called depth of field. According to wikipedia,

depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. Although a lens can precisely focus at only one distance at a time, the decrease in sharpness is gradual on each side of the focused distance, so that within the DOF, the unsharpness is imperceptible under normal viewing conditions.

Aperture determines the depth of field/background blur of your picture. Lowering the f-number [aperture] will increase the background blur and increasing the f-number will decrease the blur. This is where the capabilities of your lens is very important. The pictures below were taken with a 50mm f-2.8 lens, we have another lens that has a f-4.5 maximum. I don’t use that lens often because I can’t get the same background blur.

The dish on the left has a higher f-number than the dish on the right. This means that the left image has a lower depth of field than the right.

You may have to click on the image to enlarge, but a good indicator is the flake of cilantro on the spoon. In the imagine on the right you can see that the cilantro is blurrier than the cilantro on the left.

#6: Processing

You’ve set up your background, de-cluttered the shoot, adjusted lighting and nabbed the perfect shot. You head to your computer to upload the images and…


I use a combination of:

  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3: to re-size and edit the exposure + temperature of the image
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5: edit crumbs, finger prints, sauce spills, etc.

The images on the left are untouched.

The images on the right have had adjustments to exposure + temperature using lightroom.

#7: Getting Creative [on a budget]

When we built our house we had every intention of using the dining room.

We NEVER have people over, so it wasn’t long until I moved the dining room set into the kitchen and set up a creativity room to store all of my blog things.

My favorites:

  • Trays
  • Placemats
  • Wrapping paper
  • Kitchen towels
  • White dishes
  • Colorful casserole dishes
  • Random cups + mugs [still have yet to find a plain white cup + saucer...grrr]
  • Fake flowers
  • Cutting boards

To save money and stay cost conscious [because I lose all logical spending habits when I get excited] I:

  • Asked my friends and family to watch for sales
  • Purchase seasonal items after the season – you should see all of the Christmas stuff I have for next year!
  • Stop at every single dollar store I see
  • Set up a budget for myself on a prepaid card
  • Look for damaged goods so I can request a discount

So there you have it, an overview of the photography tools + tips I’ve learned along the way.

Photography series: Homemade mini studio

If you found this post helpful, what other photography topics would you like me to cover?

What are ways you improve your photography?

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

chelsey @ clean eating chelsey

Thanks for all the good tips! I think my next step is buying lightroom or some other kind of professional photo editing software!


Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table

This is great – I am terrible at photography! One of my biggest problems is that I don’t have a tone of time to photograph and setting up props, extra ingredients, etc seems to be time consuming. Any tips?


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

I’m not going to lie, it is time consuming. Each “set” takes about an hour from the time I setup to my last picture. But it doesn’t have to be that elaborate. You can look for kitchen towels (they’re my favorite) and just place them down on the table you’re using to take your picture. If you don’t have extra ingredients, try using things around the house – extra bowls, cutlery, fake fruit… those are just some ideas…


Jenny (Fit Girl Foodie)

I love this! My biggest issue is that the lightening in my house super sucks so I have to take a picture in the same place or else it comes out super dark! :(



This is such a helpful post! I’m just starting to try to improve my photos, it’s nice to know how much work and effort everyone puts into to creating great photos. Llightroom makes a huge difference going to put that on my wishlist- especially cause I do most my cooking at night.



Thanks for doing this post, lots of great tips! I do most of these things now, which really help (especially using a light bounce and Lightroom) but I often feel like my point and shoot is seriously limiting me…oh well I guess I just need to save up for a better camera! Your photos are always stunning, you should be very proud of your skills! :)


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Thanks Lauren, I’m glad you found it helpful!


Sona Khosla

Last week we also did an article on food photography at iStockphoto: There’s some great insight from other photographers on setting up food photos here too. Have you submitted your stuff yet?


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Thanks, that was a great article! I haven’t submitted them, no. I totally forgot and was partially apprehensive just because I wasn’t sure I wanted others using my images… I guess I’ll have to look into it. Am I being weird by not wanting other people to use my stuff? haha


Nancy B

Even if you watermark your photos they are good enough for people to steal… you might as well make a few $ and see what the response is on iStock… who knows where it will take you :-)!


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Thanks for the feedback, Nancy!



Thanks for all of the wonderful tips. Your photos are always so beautiful!


Heather @ Kiss My Broccoli

Thank you for all the great photography tips! I’m a bit of a trial and error sort of gal and sometimes when I’m in a hurry, I don’t pay attention to things and end up with (what I deem) unusable photos. I swear sometimes I will take 30 shots of the same plate only to use 3 in the actual post! Haha! I don’t have the money right now for photo editing software, but iPhoto amazes me day in and day out…it has saved MANY an underexposed/low temperature shot!

I really need to experiment more with light bounce. I’ve tried it a few times and really like the effects, but I tend to forget about it most days.



Thank you!!! I can never quite get my photos to appear quite as I want them. Hopefully this will help! I usually get too hungry to do too much set-up, but I hope to use some of your tips to make my photos better! Thanks again!


Gina C

Hi Leanne,

You’ve got a wonderful site here…I’m curious though: What does Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 have that Photoshop CS5 doesn’t in terms of editing the photos for exposure, temperature and size?

Thanks for the insight!
Gina C


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Lightroom is great for editing exposure, temperature and size. So if that’s all you need to do, I’d say you’re good with lightroom. It’s hard to edit exposure and temperature in CS5


Alex@Spoonful of Sugar Free

Leanne, your photos are ALWAYS gorgeous, thanks so much for the tips!!! Did you teach yourself photography or did you take a class?


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

I taught myself + my boyfriend knows his way around cameras, so it’s been great to have his help.



These are some awesome tips! Thank you for sharing, Leanne!



These are great tips, Leanne! Thank you for sharing. As someone who’s extremely interested in photography and has been for quite a while; moving on to food photography has definitely been a neverending learning process! lately I’ve been struggling with creating nice set-ups. It always just seems like so much work! But the end result really is SO worth it, so when it’s a recipe I really like I get into it and have a lot of fun with it :) I really want to “invest” in some nicer props, though! I think it will not only make it a little bit easier to get a nice-looking shot but also give me a little more motivation. I’m getting kind of bored with the plates, cutting boards and placemats I have now! haha.


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

I agree with you, 100%. I’m always looking for cheap adds to my collection. The more you have, the more creative you will be!



useful lovely tips I agree with the suggestions you have given


Hester Casey - Alchemy

Great post Leanne. As you show, it’s tiny things that make the difference, such as removing clutter etc. Good tips on accumulating props and using colours.


Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga)

Canon 50D. would be interested to know your thoughts on it, more in depth and what camera you’d like to own. i have the canon rebel 2ti but am thinking i will outgrow it and want something else, of course :)

Photoshop. Realized i have it on my macbook and just realized this today! have been using LR 3 for the past 2 mos and love it in so many ways but there are things that annoy…would love to learn PS basics. Any tips for success?

Resizing issues to fit in the TS and FG crop boxes are the DEATH of me no matter what size file i export at for my vertical shots. I could go on and on about trying everything.

LOVE this post…more please!!!


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

You know, I love my err… my boyfriends 50D. For right now, I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m extremely new to photography though, so this could change in the coming months once I know what everything is.
It’s great that you already have Photoshop! I went to a Photoshop course a year ago when I wanted to be a web designer so I learned everything through it + my boyfriend helps me sometimes. There are however some fantastic videos on youtube. Whenever I want to do something in photoshop and I’m not sure what steps to take, I just search it on youtube. It helps a bunch!



What a great and informative post, Leanne! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it, in such a clear and concise way too! Did you say there was more coming? I can’t wait!!!! Now, I’m off to check out your Home Made Mini Studio… :)

p.s. Glad to see I’m not the only one who goes bonkers for kitchen accessories… ;)



Wow for someone that claims not to be an expert you are quite professional!


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Thanks Pola :)



Thx for these great tips!



SO helpful! I always forget about editing “in the view finder” and end up doing way too much work in Photoshop … Yogi + PT by trade, but have dreams of attending a Holistic Health Institute to complete a nutrition degree here in the states. Love it!


Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Editing in photoshop is a pain!


Kelli @ The Corner Kitchen

Such a great post, and so many great tips!! Thanks for sharing, Leanne!


Marissa Serritella

Great post – thanks! :)


Apron Appeal

The editing software I’m using creates a lot of noise on my photo after I’ve added effects…I think I’m going to have to learn how to use photoshop or die trying.


Tracy @ Commit to Fit

Great post, Leanne! Thanks so much for sharing your tips. I am always trying to work towards being a better photographer :)


Heather Eats Almond Butter

Thank you Leanne. This was so helpful! I envy your creative space. Haha – my photography stuff is spread among three rooms. I hate clutter, and it’s kind of driving me crazy. Need to organize!


Chrissy @ MyFareFoodie

Thanks for the tips! I too am a big fan of using a cutting board or place mat for my pics. Your shots look just as good as the ones in Bon Appetit mag! Thanks for sharing!


Justin (Lotus Artichoke)

This is a great post, Leanne. Thanks for all the tips. The contrasting photos are especially helpful. I’ve been doing photography for a loooong time but it’s only been the last few years that I got into food photography and only this year that I’m getting much more “professional” about it. I think I’ve also seen you over at Hannah’s (BitterSweet) site, too. Her work and tutorials are also incredible!


Leanne Vogel (Healthful Pursuit)

Thanks for introducing me to Hannah! I’d never heard of her blog, her photography is breathtaking, wow.



Just found your site and I love it (considering 2 of my favorite subjects are Nutrition and Photography).

In your depth of field pics your caption reads, “The dish on the left has a higher f-number than the dish on the right. This means that the left image has a lower depth of field than the right.” But higher f-numbers create *more* depth of field, not less.



Hi, love your site!
Reading your photo 101 overview and noticed your final sentence about depth of field is incorrect.
The image on the left has a LARGER depth of field than the image on the right.
thanks for all the inspiration!



Haha, just noticed Patricia’s post of the same. But glad for this refresher. I need to use my camera way better than the auto setting and I forget it all.


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