This is a (lengthy) blog post we’ve been working on for a while now. Every so often we learn something new and valuable about marketing, styling & photographing our cakes that seems like a miniature revelation. They also seem like things we wish we’d known from the beginning; so we thought we’d compile a post of our new found knowledge for others to refer to.
Photographing cake (and food in general) well is possibly the most important thing you’ll learn, especially if your business depends on selling cake. You want possible clients to aspire to not only have your cakes, but have the moment or lifestyle associated with them. This might sound snooty to some, but what we mean can be interpreted on different levels. Too many cake makers just point and shoot and never make their cakes look the best they can; why sell yourself short?
The ‘aspirational’ ethic can be used to sell a gorgeous five tier, golden, heavily detailed, sugar flower festooned wedding cake that costs £800 or a box of 6 cupcakes for £8. It’s all about want. Look at the small box of our Raspberry Rose and Lemon Daisy cupcakes below. Cupcakes like these shouldn’t cost the earth and we don’t suggest that you have to have a lavish lifestyle to buy them. What we are trying to sell with this photograph is something special yet simple like just 30 minutes in your day to sit and enjoy one. What we are trying to say is that you can have these cupcakes and why shouldn’t you? A small price and a spare half hour to enjoy them is all you need to give up. Photographs of your cakes should not stop at just showing the cake, they should extend into making someone desire your cakes and see them as something special to have!
Anyway, let’s get right into the actual photography part. It is true that you eat with your eyes first, but that is especially true when it comes to running your cake business online or compiling a portfolio. The first thing you’ll need to make your food tantalise the taste buds of clients is a damn good camera with a few essential extras. Shop around for a camera that suits you and your budget. We’d recommend getting a Nikon or Canon camera; preferably one where you can remove and swap lenses; as you progress and learn more you’ll want to experiment and try more techniques so this will help. We shoot everything with a Canon D200 DSLR (DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex) and swap between two lenses.
For our first lens we use a manual (you focus everything yourself rather than the lens do the work) 50mm lens which is perfect for depth of field and for grabbing lots of light. If you want to really focus in on say a few macarons in the foreground and have a simple tea set or table setting in the background we’d recommend this kind of lens. This can be seen in the photograph below. You can see that lots of lovely morning light floods into the lens and that we’ve manually focused in on the carnations to capture a playful and more dramatic Depth of Field.
Our second lens is an automatic (the lens does all the focusing work) 18-55mm lens that came with our camera. You can set this lens to be manual or automatic which is great for trying out different depths of fields etc. We use this second lens to take photographs like the table setting below because it keeps pretty much everything in the image in focus. For this image we wanted each of the mystery ingredients to be featured instead of just focusing in on one or two leaving some to blur into the background.
Other bits of of our ‘most used’ photographic kit include a Starblitz 2200BA flash (from around 1983, but it still works a charm), frosted yet see through carrier bags (lovely cheap flash diffusers), a collection of lens filters (great for getting good colour balance), white craft / foam boards (an excellent and cheap way to reflect light and reduce shadows) and a Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Light flash diffuser.
Northern Exposure: Getting to Know the Basics of Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO
Now you know roughly what bits of kit to get to take good photographs don’t expect that to be it. That’s just the beginning. There’s a whole load of other things to read, learn and experience. We’re both lucky to have a fair few years of understanding visual things or working with cameras to have helped us out. One of us has a history in stop animation and the other half of Juniper Cakery has a degree in design so we’ve picked up tricks along the way. This doesn’t mean we know everything; we’re still learning and having light bulb moments today.
Simply put, aperture is the hole in the lens of your camera that lets in light. If you’re working manually (which we recommend you at least try) you need to set how big this hole should be depending on your light source. You set them in something known as f-stops. You may have seen them before; they look like this f/1.4 or f/2.8. The basic rule to remember is that the more light you have the smaller your want the hole in your lens to open and vice versa. Think of aperture like your eyes. When the light is so bright it’s blinding you what do you do? You squint and your pupils shrink to limit the light entering. When it’s dark your eyes and pupils open wider in order to gather more light to see.
The larger the f-stop (eg, f/8) the smaller the aperture is. So if you have lots of lovely light flooding into your lens you should make the aperture smaller by using a larger f-stop number. Have a look at this illustration taken from Wikipedia about aperture size and it’s respective f-stop number (if you get confused maybe you should keep a note of it)…
In the photograph below we had lots of light flooding into the lens on a bright morning. For this shot with lots of light happily shining on our cupcakes we made our aperture small with an f-stop of f/5.3. You don’t want to go crazy and make your images too blanched and overexposed (a wee photography sin we’ve committed at times). You want them clear, bright and polished.
The below photograph of our Blueberry Pancake cupcakes was taken on a really dull and overcast day with hardly any light making its way into the lens originally. With this in mind we set our aperture to open wider on f-stop f/1.8. Hey presto, with a wider aperture to let in more light we snapped a lovely photograph that looks like it had lots of light bouncing around it anyway! (Note: We also used our manual 50mm lens to capture this shot which helps gather extra light too.)
Play with aperture when you get a chance, especially when you have a manual lens. Try using a wider aperture / lower f-stop number in normal light to keep your foreground subject sharp and your background burred. This creates what is known as Depth of Field which is great for all photography, but for food photography it’s especially dramatic. In turn, using a smaller aperture / higher f-stop number helps make everything in the foreground and background in focus. In the photograph below of our Raspberry Rose & Cookies ‘n’ Cream we used a wider aperture / lower f-stop of f/2.5 to focus in on the Raspberry Rose cupcake in the foreground. This then helped nicely blur the other cupcakes adding more attention on the closest cupcake.
Now we roll onto learning some basic knowledge of shutter speed. Shutter speed is basically setting how long you want the aperture to stay open. When you photograph an image your aperture is set to let certain amounts of light in, but then you need to set the shutter speed to time how long to let that light in for. It works looks generally like 1/100 or 1/30 (or sometimes as just a number like 100 or 30) when set and works similar to aperture; the more light you need in your photograph the longer you need your shutter to stay open (however, the longer you need it open the more you’ll need to use a tripod. The longer the shutter is open the more your image will be blurred from handheld shaking.)
To photograph our Snickerdoodle cupcake on a day that was overcast and stormy yet still had a some light to work with we set our shutter speed to 1/50. This is a slow shutter speed that stays open longer than a higher shutter speed to let in more light.
The lower the shutter speed number the longer it lets light into your lens so this is great for low light situations. The higher the 1/ number the quicker it opens and shuts. Say you were photographing your pet cat gobbling down it’s food… what shutter speed would you use? A higher one! You need to get a nice focus and sharpness and your cat is not going to stop or wait for you to snap it. Luckily you’re probably here to learn how to photograph things that don’t go climbing up trees (or your legs). Anyway slow, medium and fast shutter speeds are approximately…
Slow – 1/13 – 1/100
Medium – 1/105 – 1/300
Fast – 1/305 – 1/1000
Now to learn a little bit about ISO. ISO comes from the good ol’ days of film photography. Have you ever had to buy a pack of camera film and seen ISO and a number (usually 100, 200 or 400) alongside it? The number is the film’s ISO rating and tells you how sensitive the film your buying is to light. The higher the number the more sensitive the film is to light. Even if you’re using a digital camera and aren’t going to be touching film in the near future ISO still needs to be considered and set accordingly.
The general idea with ISO is that you get a better quality photograph the lower the ISO rating, however, different rules and conditions need to be taken into consideration. For example, If you’re photographing a cake stand full of cupcakes set up in the garden with a gorgeous summer afternoon tea setting then you’re more likely to need an ISO of 100 or 200. This is because of all the nice summer sunlight you’ll have. Your camera (or film if you’re doing it the old fashioned way) needs to not soak in too much light! It needs to resist the light a little bit.
If you’re instead shooting a birthday cake taking pride of place on your dining room table surrounded by party-ware then you’ll generally need to set your ISO to 400 (or in some cases 800). With the lower amount of light indoors you need a sensitive ISO that will grab as much light as possible.
Below is a photograph of an Afternoon Tea themed Raspberry Chambord & Dark Chocolate Truffle cake we took. The ISO for this photograph is 500 because it was taken indoors.
Bright, Young Thing: The Importance of Knowing About Light & How to Use It
One of the major tid-bits of photography wisdom you’ll learn is that you should know and worship light. The majority of photographers try to utilise natural light only, some only photographing with something called ‘The Golden Hour’ (which is the hour of sunrise and of sunset – the best quality of natural light available). We try to do this as much as possible, however, we work insanely long and eyelid shattering hours. Sometimes using natural light is not possible when you’re finishing a large cake at 1am for the client to pick up in eight hours time. In this case you need to be savvy and collect some good equipment!
Below is a photograph of a box of 12 Raspberry Rose and Cookies ‘n’ Cream cupcakes taken during the sunset ‘Golden Hour’ at around 7pm mid-September time. Note the golden hue that shines into the photograph and helps make a great level of contrast.
When you can’t photograph your work within ‘The Golden Hour’ then it’s time to whip out the white boards and maybe even the flash and flash diffuser. White boards are a simple and cheap way to bounce light around to help reduce shadows and get lovely bright photographs. Yes, there is a point when you can just edit away on some photoshopping software, but that can reduce the quality of your photographs if you don’t have the experience or know-how. Plus, by getting your images as perfect as you can before uploading them to your laptop or computer the better; you’ll get to spend less time having to edit things and you’ll be ten times less stressed! Sound good?
Below is a photograph of a slice of our Raspberry Chambord & Dark Chocolate Truffle cake that we snapped mid-day. We used a large foam white board at the head of the table. Then to reduce the heavy shadows that were looming to the right we had another white board held at the side. Look at all the lovely white light flooding the image. The brightness paired with the white table setting helps make the dark chocolate cake really stand out.
What Are You Looking At… Vogue: Showing Off with Composition & Angle
Enough of light, for now, as we’ve established some of the basics in this area. Now let’s move onto another important part of food photography; composition. Composition is something that is perhaps a little harder to explain and grasp. With everyone fitted to the rafters with cameras and image based social media profiles composition seems a little lost. The majority of images are simple point and shoot. What is this? You do what it says on the tin basically. You point your camera or image taking device at your subject and you shoot. No set styling or composition required. For food photography that dazzles and that needs to sell your product composition is important. We’ll go through some basic angles and composition positions in this post, but we’ll go into a bit more detail in a later post on styling as props tend to play a key role in how your composition comes together.
One basic rule to begin with when working on compositions is that three is definitely a magic number. Odd numbers in photographs (and arranging subjects into triangle formations) make your brain and eyes wander and so this adds interest to an image. The brain automatically pairs items off so throwing a nice odd number into the mix helps makes the brain work and keeps the viewer’s eyes and attention on the photograph and subject(s). Below is a photograph of some Chocolate Ganache & Rose macarons in which we toppled three macarons atop each other as the main focus of the image. In the background two macarons are nestled inside of a teacup which keeps the number of macarons odd.
Rule of Thirds
Another thing that will help you develop good and unique compositions is to understand how to use the grid system known as the ‘Rule of Thirds’. If you have a good camera this is something you can switch on and off in the settings. The grid is simply a set of intersecting lines that appear in the viewfinder of your camera that help you position things well in the shot. If you can’t set or find out how to set up a grid on your camera then you’ll have to use your imagination and train your eye to see one and work to it.
Below is a basic 800 x 531 pixel Rule of Thirds grid with the four intersection points marked with red circles. You can download this and lay it over your photograph in your photo editing software (change the grid’s opacity so you can see through it) to check images you’ve already taken. This is a basic Rule of Thirds grid, a more mathematical one follows the infamous Fibonnacci Spiral which we’ll talk about the part 2 installment of our ‘Let Them See Cake’ post!
Using the grid system basically means that you should consider when you position things in your photograph. You should move around, change focus and play with angle. The four intersecting points of the grid are places where you should try to position your subject. You don’t need to place your subject onto all points though, but it’s a good and easy way to begin when learning. The theory is that we are naturally attracted to things that mimic the propositions of the Rule of Thirds. It’s that “three is the magic number” thing again. Here are a few basic compositional positions using the Rule of Thirds grid that we use…
The Full Centre Position
Another theory of the Rule of Thirds is that our eyes scan an image more naturally along the four intersecting points than dead centre of a photograph. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have your subject centred in your photograph. It just means that that you need to consider how your object is centred. You do this by making sure your intersecting points run through your object like in the image below!
The Third Position
This position relies on your subject sitting more to the side of your photograph leaving a third of the grid essentially free. Look at the below photograph and note that the side of the cake ends on the vertical line on the left. This has left the far left side of the photograph ‘un-filled’. Even though we’ve ‘dressed’ that side with small retro milk bottles and striped straws they’re not the main focus or part of the main subject.
The Horizon Position
This grid position uses the non-focused background, foreground or table setting to help provide part of the composition. It works essentially the same as the Third Position above yet along the horizontal lines of the grid. Try to view your object like something growing out of the horizon. Note that the bottom of the cake sits on the lower intersecting points of the grid and along the lowest line leaving the majority of things under the line ‘free’.
The Dispersed Position
We call this one The Dispersed Position because it relies on the items in your shot being dispersed yet placed strategically. Each object sits on one of the four intersection points. The great thing about this grid position is that you can use the triangle formation (and the use of three items or focal points) really well. You can also cleverly make your items look random, but really they’re not! Look at our image below and note that whilst we’ve placed our cupcakes in a triangle formation we’ve placed the top two cupcakes at a slight angle and the front cupcake is slightly off centre. They all sit on an intersection point so despite the off centred cupcake and the angled back cupcakes the composition still works.
There are a few staple camera angles and composition shots that are used over and over again. These are just a few that we use…
The Ariel Shot
This is a fun angle and is great for showing off cakes; especially when you’ve worked hard on decorating the tops of them! We used this angle to photograph a Raspberry Chambord & Vanilla cake we then topped with our delicious Raspberry Chambord macarons and edible rose petals. This creates a cool graphic style look and is great to play with. You can centre your cake (or other foodstuffs) or even place it half off-shot and style with cutlery, plates, doilies, cups or ingredients.
The Tilt Shot
This shot shows off a good amount of the top and front of your subject. We call this ‘The Tilt’ as you lean and tilt into your cake. This is a nice simple angle if you want a good shot of your full cake or cupcake.
The Head On Shot
This angle needs you and your lens to focus on your subject pretty much head on. This gets the general shape of a cupcake or the front design of a larger cake. Most cakes (especially tiered) are photographed head on so the tiers, height and shape of the cake are seen well.
The Peek Shot
This angle is supposed to mimic the viewer cheekily peering (or peeking) into a box of cupcakes. It gives the effect of the viewer already having the box in front of them ready to gobble up!
The Up Close & Personal Shot
This angle requires you to move in close to your subject. This shows off your food and the styling really nicely. Add some interest to your photograph by tilting your camera a little either way or ‘cropping’ off a little bit of the image (see the cupcake at the left).
– Set your camera to store your photographs in RAW. If you are serious about photographing your cake (or food in general) and want it to be as professional as possible then go through your camera settings and set your images to RAW. This does take up a lot of space as RAW files are large, but it is worth it. You’ll get much better quality that can be converted via your camera software later into a readable JPG format. It’s like having the original negatives to work from if you shot in film.
– Invest in a few data storage facilities. You’ll be snapping lots of photographs and should keep most of your out-takes (except those horrendous blurred monstrosities) just in case. The amount of times we’ve gone back to an old photoshoot and thought “Why didn’t we use this shot too?” is insane. Generally, when we photograph one subject (eg, a cake or a box of 6 cupcakes etc) we take around 20-50 snaps… sometimes more. All these photographs need to be kept safe somewhere so invest in a few options; a large USB flash drive stick, an external hard drive and something like Dropbox (which is amazing for storage and if you constantly need to transfer photographs to different devices).
There you have it! Our contribution into the food photography discussion of tips and tricks. We hope this post has helped anyone stuck in rut in terms of what to do photography-wise. Keep posted for our next ‘Let Them See Cake’ blog post where we’ll be tackling styling and photoshoot set design!