5 Things You Need To Do To Improve Photography

Improving photography – it’s the one goal I heard over and over again when I asked what everyone’s goals were for 2013. Since my last 5 Things post really took off, I decided to start another one focusing on how to improve photography. I’m talking more about your thought process rather than equipment used (although I do have plans to write that too). These 5 things are meant to change your perspective on photography. Maybe it’s something you’ve never thought about before. Or maybe you found yourself in a photography rut and can’t get out. When you really think about these 5 concepts, you’ll start to see the world differently.


Improving Photography: Define Your Style
Brown Sugar Cinnamon Coconut Cookies

1. Define your style. – There are so many types of styles, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost. So how do you find your style? I was at a conference a few months ago where some of the panelists talked about finding your voice. In order to find your voice, you have to try out other voices to see what does and doesn’t work for you. Although they were referring to writing, it applies to photography as well. Your style is your voice. Food photographers have all kinds of styles. Some use props. Some don’t. Some go modern with a simple bowl and spoon. Some layer all kinds of props in the background. Some go for white and bright colors. Some go dramatic with dark lighting.

If you’re not sure what your style is, how do you take your photos right now? Do you use bright colors? Props? Simple? Whatever it is, try the opposite. You may feel frustrated with the first shoot, but don’t give up! Try it two or three times. Listen to your gut. If you still feel uncomfortable, then it’s not the style for you. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s all about finding your voice.

Improving Photography: Push Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Left: Easy Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudge; Right: Creamy Lemon Fudge

2. Push out of your comfort zone. Take a look at your last five photo shoots. Are there similarities? Are there differences? There are a few blogs I’ve noticed lately that have the same exact shots. The same plate, the same background, the same napkin, even down to the same food styling. The only difference is the food itself. I know you love this setup because it worked or maybe you were photographing all in the same day, but if you keep doing the same exact setup, not only are you not growing, your pictures become boring (especially if you do a round up or recap and the photos are side-by-side). Break up the monotony! Change out the props. Use different colors. Style your food differently. Maybe you have two separate cookie shoots to do. If you pile cookies onto a plate for one, do something entirely different for the other. Line them up in a row or stack them on top of each other. If you feel that you must style the cookies the same, at least use different props or a different background. Challenge yourself to make it an entirely different shoot, even if they are shot in the same day.

Improving Photography: Push Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Cauliflower “Steaks” with Olive Relish and Tomato Sauce

Another trend I’ve also noticed is posting photographs with very similar angles. I’m guilty of this too and trying to improve on that. For example, look at my Cauliflower “Steaks.” Sure, I have four photos, each with a slightly different angle, but I now see them as boring. Maybe I just needed one overhead shot and one eye level shot then get rid of the extra two. They don’t add anything new to the post, so why waste the space? Now when I edit photos, I try to pick only one of a certain angle. Sometimes it’s the same angle but one wide shot and one close up, but at least they are different enough to add to the post. Next time you shoot, try shooting at different angles. Instead of the usual 45 degree eye level shot, get down low to capture the filling in a sandwich cookie. Or grab a chair and shoot overhead to capture that beautiful tart. Or if your food flows upward like a jar or glass, shoot vertical instead of horizontal. If you do shoot vertical, shoot at eye level then raise your camera above that (but not all the way overhead). See which shots really capture the food. Remember, there is no hassle in deleting, so experiment and shoot away!

Improving Photography: Finding Inspiration
Smores Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

3. Find inspiration. – If you’re like me, you are always looking for ways to improve your photographs. Look around you. Cookbooks, magazines, blogs, Pinterest. Photos are everywhere! Pay attention to them. Which ones do you really like? Which ones make you roll your eyes? Do they have props? No props? A lot? Minimal? What about the lighting? Are they bright? Dark? If you don’t like a photo, why not? Too many props? Too dark? Too boring? I have a folder on my computer of photographs that inspire me. When I am having trouble styling, I browse these pictures and try to visualize what I want. Don’t confuse that with copying – my pictures very rarely end up like any of them. I may like the way one picture is styled but has too many props. Or there may be one with cool props but the styling is too complex.

Improving Photography: Tell A Story With Props
Award-Winning German Chocolate “Cake” Sandwich Cookies

4. Tell a story with props – I know some of you are rolling your eyes right now and are getting ready to close your browser. Just wait! Although I am a strong believer in making the food the sole subject of your photographs, I am also a strong believer in details telling the story. You want your photographs to be inviting. Sure, maybe a bowl of ice cream is enough to make the recipe, but adding a spoon or even making a bit of a mess with the ice cream scoop invites you in and makes you want to pick up that spoon and lick the screen (and makes the scene more realistic. Come on, ice cream is messy. And you can’t tell me you’ve never licked the scoop before).

Take my German Chocolate “Cake” Sandwich Cookies photograph for example. Sure, I could’ve just stacked the cookies onto a plate and called it a day, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I added a glass of milk to emphasize how rich these cookies are (every person who ate one commented needing a glass of milk). On the left, you see a spreader with some filling on a cookie. This emphasizes the process of making the cookies. I added a bit of tan burlap underneath for some color since the photograph is full of dark brown. I thought about dark green to complement the coconut, but several of my past coconut recipes already used dark green.

I think a lot of people complain about props because they can be overused and overshadow the food. Using patterned dishes is tricky because the pattern may detract from the actual dish. If you are new to using props, start out small. Use solid colored dishes (white is always safe). If you feel that your photo is too plain with white dishes, add a napkin or place mat for some color. Think about how you eat a dish. Do you use a spoon or fork? Or maybe you’re giving cookies as a gift. Whatever your dish is, think about the details.

Improving Photography: Ask For Feedback
Double Peanut Butter Surprise Cookies

5. Ask for feedback. This is one I still struggle with but appreciate the most. I like to bury my head in the sand and pretend there is nothing bad to say, but I know criticism is one I have to face if I want my photographs to improve. For awhile, food styling stumped me. Last month, I reached out to a friend who was good at styling and asked about her thought process. She explained that she tries to tell a story. It wasn’t just treats thrown on a plate. It was a Christmas recipe, so she styled it as if it were a gift for someone. And sometimes, it is just good to get another opinion. I have another friend who brainstorms ideas with me and share what she has so far. Then recently, I was invited to join some Google+ communities that critique your photos. I haven’t posted anything yet, but not only do you get feedback, you also learn from others posting. If you are nervous about harsh feedback, start with a friend or two that you know will be honest.

What did you think? Is there anything you would add to the list?