Learning how to shoot food in manual mode is the most powerful way to improve your food photography. Learn everything you need to know in this post — detailed explanations with lots of example images.
To buy the best and most expensive DSLR camera is not a guarantee that you end up with great food photos you will love. Even if DSLR cameras do a great job by figuring out which settings are the best, letting the camera do its thing and completely rely on that is not a good idea. You don’t have full control over the outcome when shooting in auto mode.
So, although I’m a firm believer that good camera equipment is essential for professional food photography, the most powerful equipment in food photography is YOU. Your camera does a great job on its own as I said before, but that it is possible to do an excellent job, it needs you: your eyes and your understanding of food photography.
Learning to shoot in manual mode is the most powerful shift towards great food photos. Your vision will come alive, and you don’t need to be afraid that your photos don’t look like you expected. You know exactly what is in focus and how much, or what shutter speed you need to take those miracle images of floating powdered sugar.
In this blog post you will learn about:
- Shutter Speed
- White Balance
- How to shoot food in manual mode
But before we jump into the details of the different settings lets talk about how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO play together in the so-called exposure triangle.
All three elements work together to determine how much light reaches your camera sensor and how bright or dark your images appear. No matter which of the three elements you adjust, it has a direct impact on the other two elements. You need to find the right balance between these three that your pictures are neither underexposed nor overexposed.
That means that you can control the exposure in your photos by adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. But you shouldn’t make the decision which settings to adjust only because of the exposure. Every one of these three elements has another impact on your photo, not just on the exposure.
What is aperture?
Every lens comes with a built-in aperture ring, and it controls how much light can travel through the lens to reach the camera sensor. With adjusting the aperture settings you have control how open or closed this ring is and therefore how much light can reach the sensor. Aperture is measured in f-stops. The smaller the f-stop number, the wider the aperture = more light can come in. That means that f/2.2 is a wider aperture than f/5.6. But aperture settings also control how much is in focus and what is blurred out in a photo — also called depth of field.
What is depth of field?
Depth of field refers to the zone of sharpness and the focus within your photo. An aperture of f/2.2 creates a shallow depth of field that just the focus point is sharp and clear and the rest in the photo is blurry. With an aperture of f/5.6 more details are clear and sharp, and the background is less blurry.
Here are a few example food photos that you can see how aperture affects the shallow depth of field and also the settings of shutter speed and ISO. All following example shots are taken handheld with a Canon 6D with a 50mm 1.4 lens. All photos are unedited.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/1.4, Shutter Speed 1/250, ISO 125
You can see that almost everything is blurred out and just a small spot is in focus and sharp. Because I shot with such a small aperture number, I had to increase shutter speed that the photo is not overexposed.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.5, Shutter Speed 1/125, ISO 320
An aperture of f/3.5 works fine for this picture because the cookies are sharp and in focus and the rest of the picture has a nice blur to draw the attention to the cookies. You also see that I had to adjust shutter speed and ISO that the image has enough exposure.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/6.3, Shutter Speed 1/60, ISO 400
In this picture, more details are clear and in focus. For me, it’s too much in focus, and such a narrow depth of field makes the photo less interesting, and the attention on the cookies gets a bit lost. I also had to decrease shutter speed and increase ISO to levels I would never shoot handheld.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/22, Shutter Speed 1/60, ISO 4000
The highest possible aperture on my camera is f/22, and you can see that it is absolutely not suitable for this kind of photo or food photography in general. It looks unnatural to have so much in focus. It’s not how our eyes work, and we are not used to this.
I also had to increase ISO to 4000 what I don’t recommend. Why? You will read this below when we talk about ISO.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the shutter is open. It kind of works like an eyelid, that means, that when you press the shutter release button the shutter opens and closes again. The shutter speed is expressed in fractions of a second like 1/60. That means that the shutter remains a 60th of a second open. The slower the shutter speed, the longer it is open, and the picture is more exposed. A faster shutter speed makes the photo darker. But shutter speed is also used to create effects of freezing action or blurring motion.
In the following images, you see examples of different shutter speeds in still life photography taken handheld and action shots taken with a tripod.
Shutter speed examples – still life food photography
SETTINGS: Aperture f/6.3, Shutter Speed 1/10, ISO 100f
I don’t recommend to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/10 for food photography and especially not when shooting handheld as I did. The shutter remained that long open that unwanted motion from my (shaky) hands was captured. I needed to increase aperture and lower ISO that the image is not overexposed.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/4.5, Shutter Speed 1/30, ISO 100
A shutter speed of 1/30 is still not recommended when shooting handheld, you still see captured movement, and the image is blurry. I lowered the aperture to balance the faster shutter speed to have enough light in the picture.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.2, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 320
1/160 is the shutter speed I prefer to get sharp photos when taken handheld. I decreased the aperture number and increased ISO to have enough light.
Shutter speed examples – action shots
The power of shutter speed is even more visible when taking action shots like pouring syrup or dusting powdered sugar. The following pictures of sifting powdered sugar show the difference between slow and fast shutter speed.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.5, Shutter Speed 1/30, ISO 100
The shutter is too long open for this kind of shot. You can see that the powdered sugar looks like lines.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.2, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 320
There you can see that the shutter speed of 1/160 is still to slow but better than the previous one. Because the shutter speed was faster, I had to increase ISO to keep the amount of exposure.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.2, Shutter Speed 1/1000, ISO 2500
The shutter speed of 1/1000 brings much better results. It looks like the powdered sugar is floating, and you can see single sugar crystals. But because the shutter speed is that fast, I had to increase my ISO to 2500 and produced a lot of image noise as you can see. Most of the noise can be removed in the editing software, but I did not edit the photos to show you the differences in how all settings affect your food photo.
ISO measures the sensibility of your camera sensor. A lower number means that your camera is less sensitive to light. A high ISO brings in more light but the higher the number, the less sharp is your image.
What ISO to use?
It’s always the best to stay as low as possible with the ISO to create a crisp image with more details. I always recommend to start at 100 and don’t go higher than 320 for the best possible image quality. The higher the ISO, the more noise is in the image. You can reduce image noise with your editing software, but there are limits. So, make sure that you stay with the ISO as low as possible. Bumping up ISO should be your very last choice to increase exposure in your image.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/2.8, Shutter Speed 1/80, ISO 100
You see that the picture has absolutely no noise. The grey background and also the cookies are completely smooth. Because the sun was already setting, I had to decrease my aperture and also the shutter speed to have enough exposure with ISO 100.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.2, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 320
ISO 320 is the highest ISO I shoot with. You can see that the image quality is still good and that little noise in the background I could easily remove in post-processing. Because I increased ISO, I could go down with aperture and up with the shutter speed.
SETTINGS: Aperture f/3.5, Shutter Speed 1/500, ISO 1000
Here is a lot of noise in the image. You see that the whole photo looks dotted and the quality is very bad. I don’t recommend to shoot with such a high ISO in food photography.
White balance in food photography
It’s good to know how white balance in photography works, but with shooting in RAW, you can do color and temperature corrections very easy in your editing software. So don’t stress out about white balance settings. But because it’s a part of shooting in manual mode for me, I want to cover it as well.
Color temperature is calculated in Kelvin (K). Daylight color temperature in food photography is 5500K. When the light is very orange, you need to bring your white balance number down toward 4000K or even lower. When the light is blue-ish, you need to set the white balance close or above 5500K.
White balance examples
SETTINGS: Manual White Balance 4500K
You can see that 4500K is too cool for the image and makes it very blue. In fact, the background should be black and the backdrop grey. Both appear blue. That means that the light was more blue than orange and the settings below 5500K intensified the blues and made the image too cool.
SETTINGS: Manual White Balance 5500K
The 5500K white balance setting worked fine for that light temperature and represented the colors as they look for real.
SETTINGS: Manual White Balance 6500K
You can see, that the image is too warm. So the 6500K were too high for the color temperature in which the image was taken.
SETTINGS: Auto White Balance
I set the camera on auto white balance to show you what the camera thinks how it has to balance the color temperature. It set the white balance to 4650, and I think that the image is too cool.
Did you read my blog post about How to Take Great Food Photos in Low Light Conditions? There I show an example photo of challah bread how blue-ish it was and how it looked after editing in Lightroom. So don’t stress out on white balance settings on your camera. But if you want to have FULL control over the image how it comes out of the camera, you need to consider shooting in manual white balance as well.
HOW TO SHOOT FOOD IN MANUAL MODE
STEP 1: SET YOUR APERTURE
For food photography, I recommend staying between f/2.2 and f/5.6. It’s a choice depending on how much you want to have in focus, which angle you choose, what kind of food you shoot, and how much light you have.
I always shoot between f/2.2 and f/3.5. I rarely go below or above. It’s my style to create more blur in the image to draw attention to the main subject.
STEP 2: SET YOUR SHUTTER SPEED
Because I shoot 90% handheld, I prefer to stay between 1/80 and 1/160. I always start with 1/160 because this is for me the best shutter speed for super sharp images when taken handheld. And if I need to, I go down to 1/80. If you shoot with a tripod, you can go significantly lower than that. Choosing the right shutter speed is also depending on if you take action shots for example.
STEP 3: SET YOUR ISO
Start with 100 and if you have already enough exposure, that’s awesome! If you need to increase ISO for more exposure, make sure that you don’t go higher than 320 for the best possible quality and the less noise in the image.
If an ISO of 320 still doesn’t bring in enough light, consider shooting on a tripod to lower your shutter speed. Read here what else you can do when shooting in low light conditions.
I recommend this order because the aperture is the most important setting to create the look you are after. The shutter speed is depending on if movement is in the picture, so this is for me the second most important setting to support your photography style. The ISO is responsible for good quality and should always stay low anyway.
With shooting food in manual mode, you can improve your food photography tremendously. It’s the foundation of professional food photography, and every food photographer should know how to set up their camera to have full control over the outcome.
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the three settings you can control for exposure. Changing one of those three settings has a direct impact on the other two.
If you want to have full control over the image straight out of your camera, you need to set custom white balance as well depending on the color temperature of the light.
Now it’s your turn! Do you shoot in manual mode? Leave a comment and tell me what you think!