Monday, September 12, 2011

The Camera Never Lies ... But The Light Meter Might

First impressions are as important in the culinary world as they are in the business world. As human beings, we tend to embrace every experience with as many senses as we have available. Before we taste food, we smell it. Before we smell it, we look at it. And before we look at it, we can hear it being prepared and coming our way. How often have you been in a Mexican restaurant and heard the sizzling fajitas approaching before you ever see it? Like a Pavlovian dog, just hearing that noise causes you to salivate in anticipation.

For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while (and thank you, by the way), you may have noticed a trend over the last nine to twelve months that my food pictures have gotten better and better. Until roughly one year ago, I was taking all of the pictures you see on my blog with my cellphone camera. It was convenient, it was inconspicuous, and it did an okay job in better lit restaurants. The problem was trying to get a good picture at the darker restaurants, the Momocho's, the L'Albatros's, the Greenhouse Tavern's of the world. Even though my cellphone camera had a flash on it, it was so dark that the darn thing couldn't even focus.

So, I decided to upgrade to an actual camera. A Canon G12 point and shoot to be exact. And then over the course of the next year, I actually upgraded twice more, first to a Canon Rebel t3i and finally to a Canon EOS 60D. I won't go into the nuts and bolts of why I upgraded, but let's just summarize by saying that as I became more proficient, I realized I needed a more capable tool. And that is a perfectly valid reason why a lot of people spend more money and upgrade to a better camera.

The problem, however, is that from the cheapest point and shoot to the most expensive professional camera out there, if you don't take control of the camera, you will get crappy food pictures in restaurants. Many people put the camera in fully automatic mode, point the camera at a plate of food, and think that is all that needs to be done. In a well-lit restaurant or outdoors in the sunlight, you might be right. The camera can reduce the shutter speed enough where even being handheld is possible without blurring. But in a moderate to dimly lit restaurant? Game over.

Today I met up with a friend at Hudson's Restaurant in Montrose for a beer and some much needed catching up on our respective lives. We went back and forth about what we had been up to and when we got into my recent food photography, I was explaining to her that I always shot in Manual exposure mode because it gave me full control over the resulting picture. Since I am a bit of a control freak, this style of shooting perfectly fit with the pictures I was taking. She didn't believe me when I told her that were I to set the camera to one of the automatic modes, that it would take a crappy picture.

"Fine," I said, "I'll prove it."

We had ordered an appetizer off of the menu to split. I mounted my $1600 camera (including lens) to my tabletop tripod, set the little dial to the "green square" (which is fully automatic on my Canon), and pressed the shutter button. The on-camera flash popped up, the picture was taken and here was the result:

Auto Mode, Straight From The Camera
Wait a minute, now ... what is that large gray area at the bottom of the plate? That would be the shadow where the light from the flash couldn't reach to illuminate it. The other problem you may notice is that the light falls off the further back it goes on the plate, so even without the large shadow in the front, the light level isn't even.

Okay, then, so flash is out. By switching the mode from Auto (green square) to Program AE (P), the camera would still pick out all of the settings without using the flash. This would be equivalent to what most people would pick on their cameras when shooting food in a restaurant. Surely it must be better, right? Let's see:

Program AE (P) Mode, Straight From The Camera
Ack!! What's with all of the gray? Last time I checked, most restaurants served food on whites plates, not gray ones. The problem here is that the light meter built into every single camera (which basically measures the reflected light off of the subject) are programmed to expect 18% reflected light. This number was determined many decades ago when an analysis of thousands of photographs revealed that, on average, 18% of the light striking the subjects reached the film in the camera. So, in the case of Program AE (P) mode, since most of the scene above is reflected white light, the camera toned down the light in order to meet the 18% value. If you've ever taken a picture of a snowy day and wondered why the snow appeared gray and not white, this is the reason.

Okay, enough horsing around. It's time for me (the photographer) to take charge of the camera. In order to set the correct color balance, I pulled out my handy "gray card":

18% Reflective Gray Card
This is literally a 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" cardboard card that I keep with me at all times in my bag that is 18% reflective on one side. Resting the card on my water glass, I used my camera's controls to set the white balance. White balance, for those who might not know, is also referred to as color temperature. If you've ever taken a picture of something white and it appeared a bit blue or yellow, this is due to the type of lighting illuminating your subject. In Hudson's today, the lights above the bar were incandescent bulbs, which tend to make white look yellow.

After obtaining a proper white balance, I switched my camera into Manual (M) mode, selected my settings and took this picture:

Manual Mode, Straight From The Camera
This was the picture as it came straight out of the camera. The only alteration I made to all of the pictures above was to correct for barrel distortion and resize them for this blog post. As you can see, when *I* selected the shutter speed and aperture, I managed to capture what I think is a much better exposed picture. Of course, my camera thought the image was too bright, but I simply ignored its suggestion and went with my own.

Once out of the camera and into my photo processing software, I barely tweaked a few color settings to make the image look its best:

Manual Mode, Tweaked for Color
I'd suggest you open the images up side by side. The differences are quite subtle. And then open up the first two images and compare the first two to these last two. Big difference, eh?

Okay, fine, so this was in a moderately dim restaurant. What about a real challenge ... say, a really dark outdoor patio around 9 pm where I couldn't even see my dining partner's facial features anymore? I'll take that challenge.

Last Friday I met my friend Elizabeth at Basi Italian Restaurant in Victorian Village located north of downtown Columbus, Ohio. We arrived around 7 pm and they sat us at a quaint little table for two on the patio, just outside of the bar. As we ate and chatted, the sun began to set and by 8:30 or so, the only light source was from the thin sparse strings of white Christmas lights adorning the bar. At that point, I took this picture of our table:

The light you see reflected off the table came from those Christmas light strands. When the dessert finally arrived, it was so dark that not only did auto-focus fail to work, but when manually focusing the lens, I had to use the light from my cellphone in order to properly do so. Once I got everything ready, I pushed the shutter button to take the picture and fifteen seconds later, I got this:

Lemon Cheesecake with Blueberries
Now, granted, I did do some work on that photograph to optimize it. But it didn't take very long and I don't even think I could've gotten that picture had I set it to one of the automatic settings. By the way, just so there is no confusion, no flash was used to take that picture. And I don't lie, it really was that dark.

So what is the take away from all of this? If you want to take good pictures of food in not-so-great lighting conditions, you're going to have to take control of your camera and get out of the automatic exposure settings. You'll probably also need to get a tabletop tripod, too. Is my new rig a bit more conspicuous at restaurants? Absolutely. But I've discovered through a lot of trial and PLENTY of error, that there just isn't any other way to get consistently good pictures.

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