Reader Request: My Photo Setup

August 09, 2011 By: Serena

The other day, fellow blogger Jenna suggested I write about my setup for taking food photos. Considering Jenna is an *actual* photographer, whereas I learned fairly recently by fiddling around with my camera dials, I wasn’t sure how much insight I could provide. But if any of these tips will make taking photos easier for y’all, I’m happy to share!

First, let me walk you through some of the challenges I often face when taking photos:

1. Tiny Apartment Kitchen

I know, for a kitchen so tiny, I sure talk about it a lot. While my kitchen is quite typical for NYC (especially Manhattan) apartments, it is probably smaller than most kitchen pantries in the rest of the United States. My kitchen also has an interesting feature that adds another layer of complexity – the pass-through. The intended purpose of the pass-through is so that one could “pass through” all the wonderful dishes one cooks to the dining area (that’s right, it’s not big enough to be a room. It’s an area). Considering I usually eat in front of the TV, all the pass-through does for me is provide you a lovely backdrop of my pile of mail or my front door when I’m trying to take photos of ingredients.

Another challenge about my kitchen is its lack of natural light. As many photographers and books “For Dummies” (yes, I own one) will tell you, and what I’ve learned since I started taking photos, is that natural light is AWESOME for photos and artificial light kinda STINKS. Well, especially for someone like me who’s just an amateur. Some people wish for a kitchen island or double-stacked ovens. I wish for a window.

2. Limited Natural Light Time

Again with the natural light. I am thankful I have a full-time job – hey, girl’s got bills to pay, you know? However, one tiny downside to this is that by the time I get home, the natural light available for me to take photos is quickly waning. During the winter, when it gets dark at 4:20pm, fuggetaboudit!

3. No Professional Photographer (Besides Myself)

Haha – I’m only partially kidding on this one.  While the majority of my photos are of food, there are rare occasions where I’d love to include my hands in the picture – for example, this shot from my Artichokes 101 post:

I know, it’s not practical to have an actual real-live photographer with me at all times for these silly photos.  But a girl can dream, right? ;)

Now that I’ve gone all Krissy Komplainer on you, I’ll share some tips, including how I get around the above constraints.  But first, this is my typical set-up.  A low bookshelf in my living room, with a pillow for my old-lady knees and a bright, sunny window.  Pretty rudimentary, right?

(Cat and hand weights optional)

1. Take Advantage of Natural Light

I take a boatload of photos on the weekend, when I have hours of natural sunlight.  I can’t emphasize enough the effect this has on my photos! Wake up early, if that works for you.  Weekends are great. And if you work from home, what are you waiting for??  This is also the reason I sometimes carry my ingredients from the windowless kitchen to the living room (where my best window is).  Believe me, I feel ridiculous when I’m making 20 trips back and forth to carry eggs, a lemon and 4 tablespoons of parsley.  But it is so worth it  – AND it gets rid of my aforementioned “pass-through kitchen background” problem.  Although now when you see photos on my blog with that backdrop you’ll know I’m feeling lazy (or it’s nighttime and there’s no use making the living room trek) ;)

Lazy photo from my BBQ Ribs post

2. Make Good Use of Your Camera’s Timer

 The above pattypan Magritte photo as well as the first photo in this post were aided by a stepstool and the self-timer on my camera.  Pret-ty nifty, huh? Get to know your self-timer – it will help you in your two-hands-necessary times of need!

3. Take Multiple Photos

Especially if you’re using a digital camera.  Chances are, your memory card holds hundreds of photos, at the very least.  I usually try to take photos playing around with different exposure levels and f-stops, so I can have my pick.  In this case, more is more.

4. Keep a Simple Backdrop; Dress It Up with Accessories!

I like to keep my plates and backdrop fairly simple, but sometimes I dress it up a bit with scrapbook paper backgrounds.  I think having these accessories on hand really add some polish to my photos!

White plates AND backdrop for my salted caramel brownies post

There you have it – as you can see, my photo setup is fairly rudimentary, but it works for me (for now).  One day, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have a windowed kitchen, ha! Until then, it’s back and forth between the kitchen and living room I go. ;)  Any photography tips you’d like to share?

Hopefully this has provided you with some ideas on taking food photos!  If there’s anything else you’d like to know more about, such as other behind-the-scenes tidbits of Big Apple Nosh or taking photos in restaurants  – comment below and let me know!

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32 Comments to “Reader Request: My Photo Setup”


  1. Macchame says:

    what a very insightful post!

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  2. I love the scrapbook paper idea! Thank you for the tips!!

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  3. This is going to help my anniegurumi page! Thanks Serena, so informative!

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  4. This is a great post! I am learning all about natural light and food photography, as well and love to see what others do. Like you, I have to leave the kitchen to get good pictures. If I’m going for good pictures, I schlep all of my items to the bedroom in the front of our house for their close-up. That room gets amazing light.
    I love the idea of using scrapbook paper as the backdrop. I’m going to have to try that!

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  5. This post was really helpful for me. My kitchen looks almost the same as yours, minus the lovely green wall. It’s just as small and has no window. The scrapbook paper idea is genuis, and the photographing of ingredients on the weekend. I’ll definitely use these tips.

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  6. It’s cool to see behind the scenes! I’m always impressed by your food photos. :)

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  7. Thanks for sharing your tips! I live in an apartment too, so I get what you’re saying about the bad kitchen lighting. I hadn’t thought of using scrapbooking paper as a backdrop. I’ll have to give that a try!

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  8. This is a REALLY great post!! It’s hard for me to take photos because I’m never home during the best times for light. Love this!

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  9. This is an amazing post!!! i always want to know how everyone seems to have nothing but free time to take pictures of food in NATURAL light, but it seems like you and I have many of the same issues…so great to see how you’ve made it work for you!!

    http://www.cupcakesomg.blogspot.com

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  10. That is a HUGE kitchen for NYC. Yes, I’m going to emphasize huge. I have many friends who live in Manhattan, and their kitchens are much tinier, and much crappier than yours. Love your photography! If you take photos (in my opinion), then you’re a real photographer! :)

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    • Haha, I guess it’s all relative, right? :) I hope one day to have a kitchen island and a window, which is a rare find in NYC!

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  11. always fun to get a glimpse behind the scenes!

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  12. and dude, at least you have a dishwasher. jealous.

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  13. thanks for the tips! it’s nice to see how your set up leads to great photos!

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  14. I love getting the inside scoop and have definitely noticed your backdrops. It’s good to know what they are. And, I have to agree, the natural lighting is key otherwise my photos are terrible. Maybe I need to learn to edit more though…

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  15. I love this post! Thanks for taking the time to put it together!

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  16. amazing and interesting post, tahnks so much by sharing, sometime sis not easy to me take pictures, LOL, gloria

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  17. Great tips, sweetie! I have similar challenges…that’s why I hardly take photos of things in my apt. LOL. I’ll have to try some of these out :) xoxo

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  18. Great post, especially since I’m always struggling with taking pictures indoors. Our condo really doesn’t get much natural light, so my husband and I are seriously thinking of getting a flash. :-(

    Also want to add that you have a kickass apartment for NYC! And yes, I agree with others who have commented that your kitchen is huge for NYC standards!

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    • Thanks! I think your photos of Claire are great and never really noticed the lack of natural light! Let me know if you get a flash – I’d love to hear more about it.

      Maybe I should move from saying “tiny apartment kitchen” to “ok for NYC, tiny for the rest of the US” kitchen ;)

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  19. Great post!!! Your food photos are always beyond gorgeous. If you ever need a flash, you might like the super cheap Canon speedlight: http://doublyhappy.blogspot.com/2011/05/im-so-flashy-canon-speedlight-270ex.html. The bounce feature is super helpful for dark kitchen shots.

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    • Amanda! Thanks for the reco! I’m also scared of flash (I just can’t get it to look nice) but the photos you took with it are gorgeous. I might just have to look into this!

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  20. Amazing! Thanks for sharing these tips! I am just getting into photography and need all the help I can get. I bought a used DSLR camera for $150 and have been having a ton of fun with it, even though I don’t really know what I’m doing. I think your photos are great :)

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  21. I, too, suffer from a kitchen with no natural light and a full time job. Therefore, most of my food pictures are horribly lit because I often take pictures of what I cook for dinner. On weekends the pictures are way better because I can take advantage of the light. Until I have my dream home this is probably gonna be a running theme with my blog.

    And thanks for the tip….I never thought about using scrapbook paper as a backdrop! Genius!

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  22. Testing…testing…is this working? Anywho, great post!!

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  23. these are such great tips and you do take wonderful food photos! i am in the works of re-shooting my jewelry and am definitely incorporating these tips. and yes to natural light! it’s totally the best :)

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  24. Love the scrapbook paper tip…stealing it!

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  25. Love love love this post! :) I also loathe taking photos in the winter. I rely on my lightbox then… but it’s such a pain that I usually just forget it and rely on RAW to fix it into something. Your photos are always so perfect!

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  26. You know, I want to take better pictures of my food and ingredients, but my kitchen is also far away from natural light, and I am just too lazy to make the wonderful effort you are making with your photos. Either that, or I’m too hungry! Most of the time I can barely get a shot of food on the plate before I dig in!

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