Persistence, persistence, persistence.
Yep, that’s right folks. Sheer, bloody-minded persistence. But I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. Wanna know why? Just take look at what my food photos used to look like…
Eek! I mean, crap, right? And that’s why, with some level of authority, I can say… ‘If I can do it, so can you!’. I mean, I’m no expert when it comes to photography, but I’ve learned enough along the way to get my images consistently posted on Foodgawker and Tastespotting.
Why share my humble learnings with the food blogging world? Mainly because, when I first started out, I craved all and any information out there on how to improve my chances of getting my photos onto the curated food sites, namely the big daddies, Foodgawker and Tastespotting. Why was it so important to me? Partly, it was because I desperately needed to feel creatively validated; partly it was because I’d heard how useful it is in terms of driving traffic to your food blog. So, now that I’ve finally achieved what I set out to do, I want to share what I’ve learned. You know… pay it forward. I figure that if I can help even one person, then this post is worth it. So, with that in mind…
Ready to begin? Let’s go…
So, from my experience, there is a distinct learning period when you first start out – you’re trying to figure out what the food sites want and whether or not you can give it to them (or want to give it to them!). The first images I submitted (yep, those crap ones above) were the ‘snaps’ I had already taken of some previously made dishes. While I may cringe at them now, I felt pretty proud of them at the time and couldn’t wait to share them with the cooking community. You can imagine, then, the sense of disappointment when they were rejected. Despite telling myself to be philosophical about it, it felt personal. And it kept feeling personal as the rejections rolled in. At one point I seriously contemplated chucking it in.
So I had two options – either I had to concede that it simply wasn’t worth the effort, or I had to put aside my bruised ego and make a real go of it. I decided on the latter and went head-on in into research mode – really studying the images the food sites were accepting and recognizing the enormous difference between their photos and mine. That is the first important step here…
Acknowledging the gap…
So, I began to read anything I could get my hands on about how to get the premier food sites to accept your images – I was voracious! I also bought a few food blogging books, which were seriously helpful – the most user friendly one to start off with, was Matt Armendariz’s ‘Food Photography for Bloggers’. Another helpful, easy to read book for beginners was the e-book ‘Tasty Food Photography’ by Pinch of Yum, which provided helpful video tutorials on post-editing. The next two books were more advanced: ‘Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots’ by Nicole S. Young, which focused on professional food styling with a heavy emphasis on post-editing, and my personal favourite, ‘Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling’ by Helene Dujardin. I felt this book had a more balanced coverage of all aspects of food photography without over-emphasising any one part. I particularly loved her food images and made good use of a lot of her suggestions for styling and presentation.
After all this research, I began to get a much more realistic view of my own photography (yep, that was a downer!) and could start picking more easily those shots which had potential and which were bad eggs. I started experimenting with my set-ups, the props (I began collecting odds and ends from antique stores and kitchen shops), and the composition and lighting of my shots. This research and experimentation started paying dividends and I got my first ‘accept’ (see image below) very quickly afterwards. Yee ha! What a moment that was! I literally screamed! You’d have thought I’d won Lotto!
Now, the competitor in me started kicking in. Rejected images only made me more determined to do better next time. While frustrated at the limited reasoning as to why an image was rejected (Tastespotting always stick doggedly with ‘Composition’ as their reason, while Foodgawker at least provide broad categories), I resolved to use it to better my photography. And one thing I learned along the way – more often than not, their decision was absolutely right. As I became more practiced, I could look back at those early rejected images and completely understand their reasoning. But then.. just occasionally.. it has to be said.. there’s no rhyme or reason for their rejection. You compare your rejected image to some images on their sites and you can’t help but question their decision. The simple fact is, it’s individuals who are judging your images and that of course means that subjectivity enters the equation. Nothing you can do about that.
You learn to let the sense of injustice go and move on.
However, for those shots which genuinely just don’t cut the mustard, or which make you cringe a little when you look at them, here’s a suggestion. Reshoot them. For example, my photo of chocolate brownies (see image below left) was justifiably rejected because, as you can see, the composition and lighting were pretty bad. So, some three months later, I decided to make the brownies again and redeem my photography efforts. The result was the image to the right which, frankly, was a much better shot and this time it was accepted.
Likewise, my mini pavlova photo. The image (see below left) was rejected both for composition and for lighting. Truth be told, I took the photo at night with the room light on, so the white balance was completely off (and one thing the food sites dislike more than anything – particularly Foodgawker – is bad lighting!). So, many months later, I remade the pavlova and reshot it (see below right) to much better effect. And, as you can see, my pavlova making had improved as well!
Making those photos better had a lot to do with researching how to a: use a camera, and b: take food shots. I spent many hours researching my camera and its capabilities. And, I learned about how to take photos of food – this was much more complex than I imagined. As I discovered (and am still discovering), there’s a real art to making food look good. Part of the equation is camera angles – learning which angles suit which food. For example, flat food, like biscuits, tend to look better from overhead (though you can stack the biscuits and then take a photo from side on). Tall foods like cakes and drinks tend to look better from side on or at a three quarter angle (though you might want to add an overhead photo if the topping is pretty gung-ho). If in doubt, I tend to take pictures from various angles and then pick the best ones.
Now, an invaluable tool I must mention. Right from the start, and for a number of months while I was learning, I kept a digital record tabling all the submissions I made, showing when I made them, who I made them to, what the photo was of, whether it was accepted or rejected and, if the latter, why. You might wonder why on earth I’d torture myself in this way, but truly it is such a valuable resource if you are genuinely looking to improve your skills. Over time, you begin to see trends in the reasons your photos are rejected – mine were almost always either composition (awkward angle) or lighting (dull/unsharp). These trends show you where the gaps are and what you need to work on. They also, on the other hand, show you what IS working. If you have any accepted images, study them just as much as your rejected ones – figure out the commonalities amongst them and do more of it! You’ll find the list of rejections will start to be interspersed with more acceptances (I always highlighted these in vivid red!) and, eventually, they’ll start evening out and even reversing, and that’s real cause for celebration!
On the subject of cameras, I would have to say that the camera you use can make quite a bit of difference, though I’m a great believer that it’s the photographer that makes great photos, not the camera. I’ve seen bad photos come from a DSLR and fabulous ones come from a ‘point and shoot’. That said, I had been using a high-end ‘point and shoot’ – a lovely camera – but I had already begun to suspect that a lot of my rejects were happening due to its limitations. The main issue was when I took close-up photos of objects from a three-quarter angle – the objects closest to the lens often looked disproportionately larger, hence the many ‘awkward angle’ comments I received. I discovered over time that this issue is common to ‘point and shoots’ due to their fixed lenses and the suggestion was to move to shooting food from a bird’s eye view, which I did from that point on.
I have to be honest though, working around camera issues in that way soon frustrated my need to be creative and I resolved to buy a DSLR. Budget dictated that I could only afford an entry-mid level camera, so I asked around and did some online research and decided on the well-established and well-reviewed Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550D. While it came with two kit lenses (18-55mm and 55-250mm), I very quickly added a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens (otherwise known as the ‘Nifty Fifty’). Thanks to the new camera and lens, I could now take great three-quarter angle shots without the props looking distorted and, even better, explore the magic that is ‘depth of field’ – you know, where the food is in perfect focus, but everything else disappears into soft, dreamy fuzziness…
And, on that note, it’s absolutely essential to learn your camera through and through. Once I got my new DSLR in my hot little hands, I spent countless hours playing with it and learning the ropes with regards the Holy Trinity – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. I started taking photos on ‘automatic’ and gradually moved through ‘aperture’ to ‘manual’. What once seemed mind-blowingly complicated, became more and more intuitive.
The key is practice.
One thing I discovered along the way, and which Ihad no idea about when buying my camera was that it, like most entry and mid-level DSLRs, had a cropped sensor – in my case, a crop factor of 1.6 (if you want to know more, I encourage you to research online). This meant that my lovely new 50mm lens, a common food photography lens, essentially operated like an 80mm lens. In other words, I was perpetually zoomed into the food I was photographing and it was virtually impossible to capture a table full of food and dishes unless I stepped back a fair distance or placed the set-up down on the ground. Frustrating for sure.
So, after a year and a half of working around these limitations, it came time to decide whether to upgrade to a full-frame camera or purchase a wider angle lens to compensate for the crop factor. For budgeting reasons and because I felt my camera still had a lot to offer I chose the latter, purchasing the highly regarded Sigma 30mm 1.4 ART lens which, on my camera, equates to a 48mm focal length. Finally, I could enjoy the same angle of view that full-frame camera users get with their 50mm lenses and my ability to make better food photos increased dramatically.
Mind you… it’s my opinion that just taking a good photo these days is not enough. If you want your photos to stand out amidst the ever increasing hoards of eager food bloggers, you definitely need to know how to edit your photos. At the very least you need to know the basics – white balance, cropping, brightening, sharpening, increasing contrast and saturation. If you’re taking JPEGS (compressed images), in part these adjustments are done for you, but, if you’re taking images in RAW format, you’ll most definitely need to edit your images. PS: If you’re not familiar with these terms, do a little afternoon Googling.
Editing your photos doesn’t need to be scary. There are a bunch of free, super easy and user-friendly editing software packages out there, including Gimp, PicMonkey and Google’s Picasa. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop – the big boys of the editing software world (these you’ve got to pay for). Many food bloggers use both of them, as do I (though I only use a fraction of their capabilities). They are a little intimidating to start with, but there are loads of great online tutorials that can help you make sense of them. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer something somewhere in the middle of ridiculously easy and drop-dead scary, you might be interested in the more affordable Photoshop Elements which brings together Photoshop’s most commonly used editing tools, as well as a bunch of useful presets.
Now, just before I leave the topic of editing, a word of caution. While it’s tempting to get carried away with the editing side of things, go easy… the food sites don’t like obvious manipulation (I know this from embarrassing personal experience), so keep your image enhancements subtle! Trust me, even subtle enhancements can make a world of difference.
And, while we’re on the topic of what the food sites like and don’t like, I suggest you get real familiar with Foodgawker and Tastespotting‘s rules for submission. These give you the low-down on their submission do’s and don’ts, as well as their preferences around how your photos should look. From my own observations, I find Foodgawker to have a really consistent set of styling preferences – they want photos to be bright and sharp, with the food not too close, yet not too far away. They’re also a stickler for lighting, so make sure you use natural daylight as your source, or artificial light that mimics daylight. That means no overhead kitchen lights and absolutely no camera flash!
Personally, I find Tastespotting to be less transparent with regards their preferences. They seem to be less concerned with lighting, brightness and sharpness and more concerned with composition, though their criteria around that remains a bit of an enigma, at least to me. Basing my opinion on what consistently ends up at the top of their page, it would seem that they appear to prefer clean, uncluttered compositions.
As you can see, it can be a bit hit and miss as to which photos make the grade, but I guarantee that the more you practice and the better your photos become, the more likely it is that your photos will be accepted. And, yes… it is hard work, especially at the beginning. But…
It is most definitely worth the effort…
There’s nothing quite like the pride you feel when you have not only cooked something fabulous, but presented and photographed it beautifully too and, yes… had it accepted by the food site of your choice. At the end of the day though, it’s important not to let one individual’s judgement of your photograph impact on how you feel about yourself or your abilities. It’s just not that important. Think of the process as more of a fun challenge and, with persistence and a dose of light-heartedness, your efforts should ultimately pay off.