The Exposure Triangle
Hey there! If you're a new photographer trying to understand the basics of food photography or want to improve your shots, this post is for you! Photography is something I've aways had a passion for but never really pursued. I took a few photography classes in middle school and was fascinated by film and dark rooms. It's been a dream of mine to have a dark room of my own ever since! However, this post has nothing to do with film and everything to do with digital photography. Please keep in mind that I'm not an expert on photography or cameras, but I'm going to do my best to teach you what I know and what works for me! If you're looking for photography equipment and software, I've outlined everything I use in this post!
What Kind of Camera Should I Use?
There are so many different cameras out there! A lot of them are similar with just a few differences, and most food photographers will tell you to get a DSLR camera. However, I went against the grain and bought a mirrorless digital camera!
Why go mirrorless? Because my photographer boyfriend told me to and I trust his opinion.
Okay, that isn't the only reason! Just like how computers have changed over time, cameras are changing too. Mirrorless cameras use a newer technology and include a lot of good features. They're slimmer, have live preview features so you can see exactly what you're going to capture in real time on your screen, and the autofocus speed is incredibly fast! I purchased the Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless digital camera with a 35mm lens as my first camera and I loved it! It was so easy to learn how to use and super powerful and reasonably priced.
That being said, you don't need a mirrorless camera to take beautiful photos. You can still take amazing photos with a DSLR or even a smartphone! The same basic principles apply no matter what your camera is.
Below is a video of me going over the exposure triangle while photographing my edible chocolate chip cookie dough. I've also written everything out in more detail in this post.
What is the Exposure Triangle?
You don't need to be a photography expert to take great food photos, but understanding how to adjust the 3 basic camera settings and how they work together is very important.
The Light Meter
Before I get into those 3 settings, I want to discuss the light meter. This is something you should always be paying attention to so that you aren't over or underexposing your images. I make sure my light meter reads between 0 and -1 because it's better to underexpose than overexpose! Overexposing photos floods the details with light, making it more difficult to correct when you're editing. Adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect the light meter, so now let's discuss how!
Aperture is how wide your camera's lens opens when you take a photo. If it opens wider, more light is let in, and the light meter moves up so the exposure is greater (and vice versa). This is described in "F-stops", so it's shown on the screen next to an "F". You can see in the image above, my camera's aperture was set to f/3.6. They're fractions because it's a ratio based on focal length and diameter and other sciencey things that I can't explain and you don't really need to know for basic food photography. What you should know is that when you're adjusting your aperture, a bigger F-stop is going to give you a smaller lens opening (aperture) because it's a fraction. Since the aperture adjusts the amount of light coming through the lens, it also affects the image's depth of field, but that's a little more advanced so I won't go into details on that just yet.
2. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed does exactly what it sounds like - it controls the length of time that your shutter is open. A longer shutter speed allows more light to get in, which moves the light meter up and increases the exposure (and vice versa). This is also in fractions. The image above shows a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. The tricky thing about shutter speed is that if it's too slow and you or your subject move even a tiny bit, your image will be blurry. That's when a tripod comes in handy! I personally like taking photos without a tripod because I like to move around and get different angles. When I'm doing this, I keep my shutter speed at 1/125 or 1/250 and it's perfectly fine. The only reason I would go lower than 1/125 is if I wanted to capture a motion blur (which almost never happens), in which case, I would use a tripod. This isn't the only reason to use a tripod, but I'll talk about them more later. Action shots can be fun in food photography if you want to capture pouring, splashing, etc. For those, you'll want to increase your shutter speed.
ISO is the most confusing in my opinion. In simple terms, it's your sensor's sensitivity. Increasing your ISO adds more noise to your image which reduces quality. Because of this, I will not set my ISO greater than 1600. You want to keep it as low as possible, but it can be used to adjust exposure. That being said, you don't want to rely on this setting to expose your images properly. When I'm taking my food photos, I keep my ISO between 400-1600. The only reason I adjust ISO at all is to correct exposure after I alter my aperture to change my photo's depth of field. Proper lighting helps prevent having to increase ISO.
Putting the Exposure Triangle Together
Now that I've gone over all 3 points of the exposure triangle, let's put them all together!
Things to remember:
- Aperture can be adjusted to anything, but will change your image's exposure and depth of field.
- Shutter speed should not be lower than 1/125 if you're shooting freehand. Anything slower will require a tripod. I usually shoot at 1/125th - 1/250th of a second.
- ISO generally should not be greater than 1600. Adjust aperture and shutter speed as much as possible before resorting to increasing ISO.
|Setting Rules||NA||< 1/125 generally requires a tripod||Don't set to > 1600|
|What it Affects||Exposure|
Depth of field
The best way to learn how these settings work is to play around with your camera. Take a photo, adjust one setting, and then take the exact same photo. This will help you visualize what changed because of the setting you adjusted. Hopefully my explanations of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO have helped you understand how important they are and how they work together to expose images!
Feel free to reach out with any questions! I'm also happy to help with food photography over a coaching call.