10 Ways to Improve Your Food Photography

By Bree Hester / 04.21.15

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Taking beautiful photos of food is more challenging than one might imagine. After years of being a portrait photographer, I did not think that it would be difficult to take pictures of food. I decided to start a food blog and figured that taking drool-worthy pictures would be a piece of cake. (No pun intended.) Turns out I had a lot to learn.

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Once I figured out a few key things, my food photography improved dramatically. Not only did I have to take photos, but I needed to learn some food styling tricks to help me create a scene, not just put some food on a plate.

 

Here are my top 10 tips to improve your food photography:

1. Use natural light whenever possible. Natural light is the most flattering and you can alter the mood of your photo easily just by changing where the light source is coming from. And if the light is not found in your kitchen, try another room. I have shot in my garage, bedroom, living room – where the light is, my food will go. Reflectors will be your best friend. I use white foam core or a white binder to direct light where I need it.

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2. Use a higher aperture. Food really needs to be crisp and clear. One way to achieve this is by using a higher aperture. I like to shoot somewhere between 4 and 5.6. You still get nice depth of field, but have a better chance of getting everything in focus.

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3. Give your photos a sense of place. Having only a plate in the scene doesn’t tell much of the story. Add a fork, glass of water, or a crumpled napkin to make it appear that someone is actually participating in the scene.

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4. Shoot quickly. You don’t have a lot of time to work with food. It wilts, dries out, or changes its appearance quickly. Set up your shot (including props) b​efore y​ou add the food to the scene. When the food is ready place it in the scene, and save time by having everything in its place. From there, work quickly to get as many different angles and shots as you can.

5. Only use a garnish that makes sense. I use ingredients that are actually in the dish to garnish plates and area around the plate.

6. Start clean. And then mess it up. For instance, when I am shooting something like a pasta dish, I start with the cleanest shot I can get. Then I mess it up. Maybe I twirl some pasta on a fork, or break the bread that is served with it, spill a little sauce, or take a bite out of it. Same with props, start with simple propping and then add to it instead of removing as you go. You can always add but you can’t always take away.

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7. Shoot things in groups of 3 or 5. Even numbered groupings don’t lead your eye around an image like odd numbered groupings will.

8. Take lots and from different angles. The beauty of digital photography is that we can take lots of images. Often, I can’t tell if something is out of focus or there is something distracting in the image until after I have downloaded my card and inspected closely. Recompose your shot in camera multiple times. Take a lot of images and from different angles. Straight on, close up, ¾, and overhead are popular food angles.

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9. Keep some tools close by to help you. I always have long-nosed tweezers, Q-Tips, paper towels, clean paint brush, and baby wipes nearby when I am working on food shots. This will help with crumbs, fingerprints on plates, and a myriad of other issues that you will come across. Having a small tool kit is so helpful.

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10. Collect interesting things to use as props. I have lots of linens in different colors and textures, salad size plates (food looks better on smaller plate – it doesn’t get lost and create a lot of white space), utensils, and containers that I use to prop my food shots.

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Homemade Dog Cookies + Doggie Bags for All!

By Kim Vargo / 04.09.15

It’s been a bit of a rough winter for our two rescue pups, Jack and CC. Walks have been shorter due to the cold, they’ve each gotten the sniffles (and proceeded to pass them back and forth between each other incessantly), and although spring is finally here, it’s been far too long since they’ve rolled around in a patch of green grass. Wanting to show them some extra love, I whipped up a batch of super simple homemade dog cookies inspired by this recipe!

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With only 5 ingredients, it took less than 10 minutes for prep and 30 minutes in the oven. I used regular baking flour and organic oats, but for sensitive stomachs or allergies, gluten-free flour and oats can be substituted all the same.

 

INGREDIENTS

6 oz jar of sweet potato baby food
1 ¼ cup flour
½ cup rolled oats
2 Tbsp honey
1 egg, beaten (optional)

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There’s hardly a tutorial for this recipe, as you simply want to mix the first 4 ingredients together – everything but the egg. Once it’s been properly mixed, it should be non-sticky and easy enough to ball with your bare hands.

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I sprinkled additional flour directly onto my countertop and flattened the dough with my hands to a height of approximately ¼”. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter to create my shapes, I then laid them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Tip: The cookies do not grow during the baking process. Feel free to load those baking sheets with as many as will fit!

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At this point, you can brush the beaten egg onto the tops of your cookies before baking, as this will give them a golden brown finish. I then popped my sheets into a preheated 350-degree oven and allowed them to bake for 30-35 minutes. In total, this recipe made 2 dozen cookies.

Once cooled, I bagged a handful of the treats for Jack and CC’s very best doggie friends using these Pinhole labels and party bags! Scott and I took the kiddos on a walk and dropped them off to their pals in the neighborhood, which resulted in a handful of adorable photo texts and videos of the happy recipients!

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Of course, our two eagerly gave the cookies a healthy test run. They were received with paws applause, and we rewarded their tricks with many, many treats. Until they were gone, these two wouldn’t leave their dinner station until they’d been given a proper dessert – to which we happily obliged. (Can you even resist these mugs?)

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I’ll be keeping this recipe at the ready for future love sessions, as our supply didn’t last long! We still have a handful of goodie bags, so you better believe that their gang of puppy friends wouldn’t mind, either.

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Almond Biscotti Recipe for Mother’s Day

By Bree Hester / 03.30.15

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My family’s recipes are just as valuable to me as family photos. They are rich in tradition and history and I treasure them more than anything. The problem is that a lot of the recipes that my mom, grandmother, and sister use are not written down. Or they have steps or ingredients missing. Not always helpful. And the end result? Well, not always how I remember them.

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For Mother’s Day, I thought it would be nice to make a recipe box of family recipes that I can keep to pass on to my children. I collected recipes that we use often at holidays, birthday meals, or remind me of members of our family. I was careful to write down how I made it, and hopefully, they will turn out for years to come. I will make a few more recipe boxes to give to my brother and sister, and cousins. We are going to keep our family recipes alive for generations to come.

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My mom’s favorite dessert is almond biscotti, freshly whipped cream, and fresh berries. I make these biscotti for her whenever she comes to visit and send them to her on her birthday. These are a crisp, twice baked, almond cookie. Perfect for dunking into an afternoon coffee or tea.

This dough will seem dry when you are mixing it, but it does come together. You can add a tablespoon of water if you like.

 

Almond Biscotti

¾ cup blanched whole almonds
4 Tablespoons cold butter
½ cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla or vanilla bean paste 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Roast the almonds on a baking sheet until the begin to color, about 3 minutes. Finely chop ¼ cup of the almonds. Coarsely chop the remaining almonds. Set aside.

Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix until completely combined. Add egg, almond extract, and vanilla.

Add cooled almonds, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Mix until combined. The dough will be dry. If it does not come together, add a tablespoon of water.

Divide the dough in half. Roll into logs. (Add a little flour to the counter if starts to stick.)

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Place onto the prepared baking sheet, about 2 inches apart, because they will spread. Pat down slightly. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until slightly brown and firm on the surface. Take out of the oven, cool for 10 minutes, and slice on an angle with a serrated knife. Put slices back in the oven, and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until crisp and golden brown.

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Let them cool completely on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream and fresh berries.

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What’s In My Camera Bag?

By Kim Vargo / 03.26.15

When I last left off, I shared 3 tricks for snapping better interior photos right now, a question that I’m often asked by friends and family. There were no fancy tools other than a tripod, and every tip could be implemented with a simple brain shift. That first question is typically followed up with, well, okay, but what kind of camera do you use?  

Here’s the truth: I’ve been using the same DSLR camera (which stands for digital single-lens reflex) for almost 10 years! That’s most certainly a relic in the digital world, but I say this to assure you that my camera bag holds a handful of some pretty basic photography gear. I’m a simple person when it comes to my equipment, as evidenced by my three go-to lenses. So, what’s in my bag? Below, from left to right: Sunpak tripod, Nikon D200 camera with a Tokina 12-24mm wide angle lens (strap by Couch), 50mm f/1.8 lens, 20mm f/2.8 lens, lens cleaner and an extra battery.

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In a nutshell, my 50mm lens (commonly nicknamed the Nifty Fifty) is one of my favorites, as it’s great for portraiture and capturing everyday details. The 20mm lens is perfect for wide shots without too much distortion, and I use this most frequently for shooting interiors. Also for interiors, the wide angle 12-24mm lens is one step shy of a fisheye, and while it can easily capture a room in its entirety, it does distort your photo. At the same time, it can be pretty fun for capturing landscapes, parties and giving your pets the “bobble head” effect!

To show you how a lens can drastically change the look and feel of a photograph, I took a snapshot of my living room using each of them. Starting with the 50mm, you’ll see that the focus is almost entirely on the stack of coffee table books. I used a low aperture to create the widely loved bokeh effect:

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From the same place, here’s a wider view of the room using the 20mm. You’ll notice that there are actually two chairs in the room, and I left it in the foreground for a dose of interest:

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Without moving, I swapped in the wide angle 12-24mm, and when zoomed out at 12mm, you’ll see both frames above the couch, two full chairs, our ceiling fan and even the edge of our media center on the opposite wall!

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While the photo above isn’t the most flattering photo of our room – you can notice now how the wide angle lens distorts the size of our furniture – it’s still a lens that I use almost daily. By shifting my camera position and shooting horizontally, the living room now feels more inviting:

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By the third setup, the books were no longer the focus, but it goes to show how choosing your equipment carefully will change the view from behind your lens, quite literally. When travelling, I pack as much from my camera bag as possible, always remembering not only an extra battery, but the battery charger as well (I learned that the hard way)! And while my gear has been with me for the better part of a decade, it doesn’t mean I don’t have my eyes set on this guy. A girl can dream, can’t she?

 Kim Vargo

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Mom’s Night Off Magnet Recipes: Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos

By Bree Hester / 03.01.15

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Every once in awhile this mom needs a night off.

As much as I love to cook, getting dinner on the table each night takes nothing short of a miracle. We have busy lives, and I spend a lot of time shuffling kids around from after school activity to activity. And that is not taking into account work events, PTO meetings, and other things that I have going on.

Sometimes I need a little help. I don’t want my kid’s to have dinner in the car from the drive-thru or have a pizza delivered.

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I had a few tried and true recipes printed onto magnets that live on the fridge. They are made with mostly fridge and pantry staples and can be made with minimal effort. When I need some help, I point to the fridge and let dad or the kids pick a recipe leave it to them to make all on their own. Everyone wins. I get a night off from dinner duty, dad and the kids have fun cooking, and everyone eats a great dinner.

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This recipe for Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos is really simple. You simply add everything to a slow cooker and turn it on. 3 to 4 hours later, you have a flavorful base for tacos, burritos, nachos, or taco salad. You can make this ahead of time and reheat it, or even freeze it. There will be a lot of liquid leftover from cooking, I like to reserve some if I do reheat it to keep it moist.

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Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos

6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 cups salsa (salsa verde is my favorite, but any kind you like will work) 1 bottle beer
3 cloves minced garlic
½ teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons honey 2 Tablespoons lime juice

For serving – corn tortillas, cheese, tomatoes, cilantro, sour cream, chopped onion, sour cream, pickled jalapenos.

Add chicken, salsa, beer, garlic, oregano, cumin, salt, and honey to the insert of a slow cooker. Cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or HIGH for 3 hours.

Using a fork, shred chicken. Add lime juice. Add to warm tortillas and top with cheese and other toppings.

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