You don’t need a big posh Canon – camera advice for bloggers

I’ve been a photo hobbyist since I got given  my first serious camera as a fourteenth birthday present. A Zeiss Ikon  ‘folder’ that took a mere eight shots to a roll of film, far cry from today’s digital wonders. It had an f4.5 lens, very slow by today’s standards. Being something of a tech head  I’ve subsequently probably owned as many cameras as Tiger Woods has golf clubs. Ranging from a tiny Minox ‘spy camera’ to a massive Bronica EC that weighed 2.5 kg and sounded like a gun going off every time the shutter was pressed. I’ve photographed friends’ weddings with a pair of hefty twin lens reflexes slung around my neck as backup to the one on the tripod – an extreme take on the ‘belt-and-braces’ theme.  Won a prize from The Scottish Tourist Board for a pic  of a ‘best bull’ competition at Moffat Show. Directed food shoots for Food & Wine, Intermezzo and other publications. I bought my first digital camera back in 1999. Somehow, I’ve managed to amass 13,242 (and counting) photos on my computer’s hard disk. So while I’m not a pro, I’m not a dummy either.

The recent food photography seminar, organised by The Irish Food Bloggers Association in conjunction with Bord Bia (or was it the other way round) was a brilliant event.  I gleaned a heap of nitty-gritty from both Sharon Hearne-Smith and Jocasta Clarke and, equally important, remembered a lot of things I’d forgotten. At the same time I came away feeling that, had I been a virgin snapper, I might have picked up a few misconceptions. Like I should immediately go out and buy an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera, preferably a Canon, shoot in RAW and process my pictures in Photoshop.

This article is not about ‘How to take better food photographs’. It’s about not spending more than you need to. The three cameras in the picture above are my own, all of them in current use for ‘something or other’.

The diddy one on the left is a Nikon Coolpix S8000. It cost €175. It has a tiny sensor, offering 14 megapixels. It has a 10 x zoom lens, far longer than I’d need for any kind of food photography. It takes impressive photographs provided you don’t need images bigger than 10 x 8 inches. This is certainly far bigger than the 550 pixel wide shots I need for my blog. Big bonus is, it’s inconspicuous, great for taking shots in restaurants.

The one in the middle is brand spanking new, a model released only a couple of weeks ago. It’s a Fujifilm X10 and it cost me €500. It has a larger sensor than the 8000 and a quality, all glass f2 lens, a moderate 4 x zoom.   The f2 lens will allow me to use it hand held in fairly low light without camera shake and without having to up the ISO rating (high ISO speeds degrade the image). Used at the maximum aperture it will allow me to fade out the background.  Used with care I should be able to get decent image quality up to A3. I’m confident that this will become the camera I’ll use 90% of the time indoors and out, unless I need (a) the versatility and (b) the impressive quality of the big rascal on the right.

This monster  is a Nikon D2Xs, which I bought second hand shortly after the new super-sexy D3 came out. The D2Xs was top of the line of  of  Nikon’s professional cameras until they introduced the D3 which has what’s come to be regarded (erroneously, as it happens) as a ‘full size’ sensor. For the record a D3X will set you back around €6500, body only. The lens on my D2Xs is an f1.4 85mm – which translates to 105mm as the D2 series have a slightly smaller than ‘full size’ sensor.  It’s a beautiful lens, pin sharp with a capacity  for dissolving the unwanted background into beautiful patterns of faded light that can look really artistic. The 85mm focal length and the very wide aperture of f1.4 make it possible to focus selectively on parts of the subject. Drawbacks? Yes, the lens is bloody expensive and its closest focusing distance is not much under 3 feet.

Any one of these cameras will, with a bit of thought, skill and care, produce nice photos of food on plates, like any car will get you from A to B. Some, though, do certain things better or easier. Think Fiat 500 for nipping into town, big SUV for the school run and – but only if you can afford it – Ferrari for fun and pose.

Some good advice

If you haven’t yet got started on the digi trail but are dying to produce blogworthy shots of your lovely food I’d suggest you set aside a budget of around €450 and buy IF SIZE + WEIGHT ISN’T A CONSIDERATION  a base model DSLR from a reputable manufacturer. I’d suggest Canon (EOS 1100) or Nikon (D3000) and here’s why. These companies have been around a long time and, over the years have manufactured a wide range of lenses, using the same mount as their present day digital cameras. Spend €400 on the camera and buy a used 50mm f1.8 lens, of which there are plenty around. It will set you back, I’d say €50-60. This will be a much better lens in quality terms than  than the cheap plastic-lensed zoom that comes bundled with the camera. Especially for food photography. The sensors used in these cameras (known as DX-sized) are smaller than the size of a 24 x 36mm frame for which the lens was designed but much larger than those used in a compact, hence higher resolution. This will give you a moderate telephoto aspect – about the equivalent of using a 75-80 mm lens on a 35mm film camera. This longer effective focal length, combined with the wide (f 1.8 ) aperture will give you the option of having the main subject in sharp focus while, at the same time, blurring the background detail – take a look at any cookery book and you’ll see what I mean. The 50mm lens, used on a Camera with a DX sensor also makes a great portrait lens. Keep the zoom for your holiday snaps.   One of the most difficult tasks facing the photographer about to buy his or her first digital camera is to address the issue of image quality. No other hi-tech field has as poor a track record when it comes to defining the virtues of the products they sell as the digital camera industry.

Megapixels – and why they aren’t the Holy Grail

A manufacturer normally issues one statistic as an indication of quality, the number of megapixels the sensor captures — about as meaningful as the maximum possible speed indicated on your car’s speedometer. Or like saying only people whose partners have king-size willies can have great sex.

Image quality is down to a combination of factors. In rough order of importance these are:

The optics

Here’s a really good easy-to-understand piece on camera lenses http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-lenses.htm

The sensor

This will tell you why pixels aren’t everything http://gizmodo.com/5155942/giz-explains-why-more-megapixels-isnt-always-more-better

The processor – which includes the ‘firmware’ that manages the conversion from beams of light to binary numbers. But remember – your average food blogger is not looking for shots suitable for printing A4 and larger in a magazine or for a cookbook. He/she merely wants pictures that will enhance their blog. Sure a ‘fast’ (which means low ‘f’ number) lens is desirable so you can do that ‘selective focus’ thing. There are a few mid-priced non-SLR ‘enthusiast’s compact’ cameras around that will achieve this – like the Olympus XZ which has an f1.8 lens, the Samsung  EX1 and my own X10 all of which cost between €399 and €550. The flashguns on these cameras are pretty Mickey Mouse but on-camera flash doesn’t work well for food photography unless you bounce the flash or shoot into one of the special shades or brollies available. Most professionals these days prefer to use natural light anyway. Some of you may already own digital SLR’s and if you do, fine. If so, don’t be suckered into trading up.

What  the Professionals use and Why it’s Irrelevant

Jocasta Clarke at the seminar said “Most pros use Canons”. This is not exactly true. Professional usage, worldwide, is split roughly 50/50 between Canon and Nikon. The reason why most pros in Ireland use Canons is because the Canon advertising and marketing operation here has always been more switched on than its Nikon equivalent. Furthermore, professionals use Nikon and Canon because the build quality (of the pro series at least) is a given. But also because these two makes have a wider range of lenses and accessories than the rest. There is absolutely no reason why your Sony, Olympus, Pentax etc should, in capable hands, not take just as good photographs as the guy with the Canon.

One thing you should have is a tripod. Go for a good sturdy one unless you are intent on using it on location wyhen you’ll need one you can carry. If you travel a lot on foot, it’s worth noting that the handy Manfrotto monopod can allow you to take sharp photos in low-ish light and double as  a walking pole.

The  RAW  Deal

Simply put, most digital cameras are capable of saving in two modes, some in three. One is as an image – a ‘jpeg’ as it’s called. Some but not all of its characteristics can be modified using special software – atb the risk of degrading the image. The second is as a RAW file. RAW is saved as a string of characters. When the image is modified certain of these characters are replaced with others and therefore the image does not degrade. Many camera manufacturers have their own version of RAW so it’s worth checking if the RAW conversion program you decide to use supports your camera. Most do, except for very recent models which can take some time to find their way into the latest version of the program. The third image designation is a ‘tif’ – an image of the highest quality usually produced by creating a RAW file, manipulating in software and saving in the .tif format. This will be a huge image and will eat memory in camera or computer. Your average blogger need not concern themselves with tifs. Most cameras can record RAW files  and jpegs (in a choice of  qualities) simultaneously. I’d suggest you shoot in RAW + the largest jpeg you can fit into your blog. That way, if you get lucky and end up with an image that doesn’t require any software jiggery-pokery you can slap it down on the page and get on with real life!  

To process raw you will need a RAW developer/converter.

This is a software program that does three things: 1. It allows you to tweak the image by increasing/decreasing exposure; changing the white balance and messing around with a whole load of other factors that will, hopefully, ensure you end up with the food shot of your dreams. 2. It enables you to convert the files from RAW to jpeg or tif images. 3. It also allows you to change the image file’s size so it can be incorporated into your blog without using masses of bandwidth.

But…

The learning curve for some of these programs is pretty steep if you are to exploit their capabilities to the full.

Nikon and Canon have their own programs, which do not necessarily work with other manufacturers’ RAW files – a point to bear in mind if, like me, you are a multi-camera user.

Many  professionals use the Adobe ( a software manufacturer) programs – Lightroom and Photoshop, which can be chain-linked. They don’t come cheap and there is a steeper learning curve than Nikon Capture NX2 or its Canon equivalent. Capture NX2 is excellent and fairly intuitive but it won’t handle Fuji or Canon RAW formats.

There are many cheaper programs that will do the job.  I’ve also used a program called Silkypix for years, with a variety of cameras and got excellent results. THe version designated ‘Pro’ is particularly good. Many people reckon Silkypix is  not user-friendly but I find it logical enough and nice to use, with lovely skin tones if you do any portrait work. A single user license will set you back about €90. A program called ACDSee gets very good results and costs only $79, a fraction of the Adobe product. 

Most of these are available for download on a 30-day trial basis.I’d suggest you download a few and see which you like before investing cash. There are a few free programs too. Anyhow, that’s about it. There are better people than me around who can show you how to take decent shots. But I hope this will be helpful to some.

Finally, as encouragement to all those who don’t have the latest megabucks pixel muncher… SOMETIMES, YOU JUST GET LUCKY! 

Ciutadella harbour, Menorca. Early evening, late July. A convenient wall did duty as a tripod substitute. The light was right, beautiful luminosity. Framing was exact – there was no need to crop. No critical details lurked in the corners where lens definition can fall off. I took this shot, a jpeg, on a Fujifilm camera boasting a mere 3.3 megapixels.  Naomi our designer, used it, unprocessed, as a double page spread in F&W Magazine. As I said, you can get lucky.