January 18, 2011

Food Photography Basics #1 : Do I Need A DSLR To Get Good Photographs?


This is a question I have been asked a few times and is probably the best place to start a series of posts on photography. After all, photography starts with the camera and the best place to start anything is at the beginning. I am often asked questions and get the occasional mail about my photography so I thought it might be a good idea to put down some of my thoughts about my learning process in a series of posts on the subject.

Before I go further, let me make it clear that I am not an authority on photography. I am still discovering that there is so much out there that I don’t know about it, including what my camera and lenses are capable of. Most of what I do know is what I have picked up through extensive reading, a couple of very short term photography classes and lots of practise. My posts are also written from the view point of someone on a budget when it comes to spending on photography. If you are still interested, read on.



Cape Gooseberries (taken with a DSLR)


So, if you want a very short answer to the above question, then I would have to say no! Whether you are someone who likes taking pictures, or a food blogger taking pictures of food to post on your blog, the answer remains the same.
Since this is a food blog and we are talking about food, I shall concentrate on food photography for the rest of this post and the series. Though I said that you can shoot very good pictures with your Point& Shoot (which I shall refer to as a P&S, from now on), it doesn’t quite end there.

It  depends on what exactly you are looking for in your photography and your camera, to decide whether you want to progress from your P&S to a DSLR. I am assuming that many of you, like me, live with budget restraints and that even without the restraints you would like to justify your expenditure before jumping off the deep end!

It is most important to understand that it is not the camera that makes the photograph but the person who is behind the camera. Having said that, I must also say that the quality of the photograph taken with a DSLR is much better than one taken with a P&S. While the creative part of a photograph depends entirely upon the photographer, the quality resulting from advanced optics and technology of the DSLR is much better than that of a P&S.

The first step in deciding whether one needs (as opposed to wants) a DSLR is to ask oneself some questions. These are very valid questions (in my opinion) because not everyone looks at photographs and photography in the same way.


First the photography point of view:

 -  Do you want to just add a picture to your post that perhaps gives a visual representation of your cooking process and the final outcome?

 -  Do want your picture to look really good (visually, creative, colourful, balanced, artistic, etc.) while doing the above?

 -  How serious are you about your photography? Do you just want it to end with the picture and the post, or is it a passion and you want your picture to say something about you, your creativity and the way you see food?

 -  Do you see yourself, at some point, perhaps going semi-professional or professional and earning an income (however small or big) from your photography?


Then the camera itself:

 -  Are you technically challenged with the buttons and dials on your camera and think doing anything more than pointing at your subject and shooting is not worth the while?

 -  Or do you think that taking pictures of food is not a big deal? Does it seem like too much fuss is made about “staged” photography especially food?

 -  Do you use your P&S only to take pictures of food to add to your blog posts and not much beyond that?

 -  Are you happy with the ease that a P&S allows you by being able to shoot in the different auto modes at the turn of a dial?

 -  Do you think your P&S isn’t able to take the sort of pictures you would like because you are not able to tell it what to do, since it has a mind of its own (in the auto modes)?

 -  Are you frustrated with the limitations on the manual mode of your P&S because you are not able to change parameters on it to get the sort of photograph you want?

 -  Do you really want to carry around a camera which will not go into your bag, and you cannot just whip out a moment’s notice and take a photograph? Remember that a DSLR means carrying around a camera bag, lenses (at least one, maybe two initially), and also changing lenses depending on your need if you have more than one.

 -  Do you think it is important for you to get a DSLR because everyone out there in food blogdom who matters seems to be saying that a really good blogger should have one? (This could be a serious consideration for some people)


And the biggest question of them all. Can you really spare the money for a DSLR, and would you rather be spending it on something else more important?


Please understand that if your answers to some of the above questions make you think you should stay with a P&S, it doesn’t make you any less of a photographer. I have seen some excellent photographs taken with a P&S camera.
What matters is that you are happy with your choice, though I can understand that budgetary constraints do not make for a happy choice! Still you can look forward to the DSLR at the end of the rainbow when you finally get there, like I did.

I have personally found that when I am limited by my choices/ circumstances (whether in photography, or otherwise), many a times I push myself to the limits and beyond and becomes better at whatever I am doing.

These were some of the questions I asked myself when I started thinking I wanted to upgrade to DSLR. I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting the sort of pictures I wanted with my P&S, which was a Canon A550. My little camera gave me no control over apertures and shutter speeds even in the manual mode, even though it had a pretty good “Macro” mode to shoot close-ups, such as in food photography.

My P&S also had no manual focus, which meant that I had no control over which point of my photograph would be sharp and in focus when I was shooting in the “macro” mode. The camera would automatically focus on the point where it felt there was optimum light, which was not necessarily what I wanted. It also meant I had no control over the depth of field (how much stayed sharp and how much of the background was blurred) in my photographs.

These were just some of the issues that made me think of moving to a DSLR. To get a good idea of what I’m talking about, here are two photographs of some cape gooseberries taken with a P&S (Canon Powershot A550) and my DSLR (Canon EOS 450D/ Rebel Xsi). I have tried to keep the light, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure to the same level so as to compare the photographs with one another.


  
















                                                           

The photograph on the left was taken with the P&S and on the right with the DSLR. It was a bit cloudy and I shot in natural light. I have not edited the photographs, except for adding the name.
The settings in both shots are :
ISO – 200
Shutter speed – 1/200
Aperture setting is 2.6 on the P&S, and 2.5 on the DSLR (that’s the closest I could get to 2.6 on the DSLR)
Exposure compensation – 0
The metering – centre weighted average.
The focal length was 5.8mm for the P&S and 50mm for the DSLR and I couldn’t do much about this, as the first wasn’t within my control. The 50mm f/ 1.8II lens is what I usually shoot food with so I used that in the DSLR.

 I had to go much closer to the fruit with my P&S in macro mode whereas with the DSLR I shot from farther away with the 50mm lens, otherwise I couldn’t get the subject in focus range. I left the white balance on auto in both cameras yet the tones seem different despite this.

These are the differences between the photographs, as far as settings go. Yet you can judge for yourself the differences beyond this, in both the photographs. Both photographs could be adjusted for brightness and would look better.
With a DSLR, depending on my subject and existing light conditions, I could use a lens of my choice, adjust the amount of light, fix my point of focus and decide on what depth of field I wanted in my photographs. This would mean that I would have a lot more control over the outcome of my photograph, unlike with a P&S.




And take a photograph like this one. Here the ISO is still 200, the aperture is now 2.8, shutter speed is 1/125, while other parameters are as mentioned earlier with the other 2 photographs.
Or the first picture in this post where the ISO is still 200, the aperture is 3.2, shutter speed is 1/80, while other parameters are as mentioned above.

As I was saying earlier on in this post, I wanted to be able to shoot pictures in a manual mode which gave me freedom and flexibility with settings. I have nothing against shooting in auto modes nor do I think that photographs shot in these modes are not “true” or “good” photography. I had just discovered a passion for photography (not just food photography) and wanted to take it to the next level.

I spent a couple of months looking for answers to these questions. I asked a few friends (bloggers, non-bloggers, food and non-food photographers) and also read up as much as I could lay my hands on, because I needed to know that I wasn’t spending a few ten thousands of rupees on another camera if my P&S could give me the kind of pictures I wanted.

A lot of articles on the net convinced me I could work wonders with a P&S. That’s when I discovered that all P&S cameras are not the same. Yeah, I know most of you know this but I was pretty clueless then and thought most P&S cameras just pointed and shot! The higher end P&Ss do allow you to change aperture and shutter speeds as you choose (in the manual mode) and some of them even allow you to change the lenses which are specially made for these cameras.

Let me tell you again, if a P&S is what you have, you can still get pretty amazing pictures with it. Kamran at the Sophisticated Gourmet had a Canon Powershot A550 (same as mine, but he’s moved on to a DSLR now) and took some amazing food photographs with it.

Once you answer these questions, and probably some of your own, you should be able to decide whether you want to stay with your P&S, move onto a DSLR, or maybe just upgrade to an upper end P&S which are incidentally about as expensive as an entry level DSLR.
You might want to take a look at this post - 10 Reasons NOT to buy a DSLR camera!

If you do find some of the terms used here like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. confusing I shall try to de-mystify them as we go along the series. I would welcome your feedback about whether you found this post useful.
In the next post in this series I shall try to answer the question, “Which camera is right for me?”

1 comments:

Shweta Pandey said...

Hi Arpana,

I am very impressed by your write and blog. The way you have tried to explain every aspect of food photography shows your sincerity. It’s so wonderful to see how you want to share your knowledge.

Thank you!!