Learn how to see exposures
I see a lot of blogs with pictures of their food that are too dark. Learning how to get the perfect exposure takes time. After a while you will start to see the difference in images when they are too dark or too light, you’ll just know by looking at them.
Look at food magazines – my FAVORITE is Donna Hay. You can see a few teaser pages of each magazine online for free. She is a food stylist turned mogul and now has her own empire like Martha Stewart, but I’m pretty sure Donna wasn’t put in jail for insider trading.
Sorry, went off track there. OK so study these images and compare them to your shots. Get inspired, get ideas and see how amazing and luscious the color of the food is. They are perfectly exposed.
The way I judge an image of food for exposure is by looking at the details of the food. The food must look bright and vibrant, not muddy in color from being too dark or washed out from being too bright. The highlights should have some details and so should the shadows.
Are you judging your exposure by looking at your camera’s LCD (screen) right after taking the picture? That can give you a start, however, as I’ve mentioned in this post, your LCD is never accurate. It can be close, but will never match your monitor. Because of this, if you are not shooting tethered, then you really have to do an exposure bracket because if you are only judging your exposure based on your LCD, your images could be too dark or too light, consistently.
Why not just fix it later in Photoshop?
Your goal when shooting is to create an image that needs the least amount of fixing later. Why? Well once you have an image, any altering you do to that image to fix exposure is actually damaging the file.
Now, you can easily get away with this for images that are only on the web, but as soon as you need to print that image, if you jacked up the exposure afterwards in order to try to achieve the image looking like it had the right exposure in the first place, you’re going to see some digital noise or other digital artifacts in that file that will be very hard to take out. Printing will be the most demanding thing for your files. It shows everything. The web is much more forgiving.
Do an exposure bracket – the easy method
The best way to find the correct exposure is to do what’s called an exposure bracket. Its very easy. Instead of taking one picture then fixing it later, take many shots each with a different exposure. This first method is the easiest.
Most cameras these days have a setting called AEB – Auto Exposure Bracket
This menu above is for the Canon 5D Mark ii – your camera might have the AEB in a different location so you’ll have to look that up.
What this does is enable you to tell the camera to take three pictures, all with a different exposure. One that would be considered the correct exposure, or normal, that is the “0” position in the image above, then one that is darker, or under exposed (indicated by the red bar on the left side), and one that is lighter, or over exposed (indicated by the red bar on the right side). Once you set up the bracket as you see above, you then take three pictures without changing anything and all three will have a different exposure. Then when you download the files and look at them on your computer, you pick the best exposure and work on that file. Just remember you turned on the AEB or the next time you shoot you’ll be shooting another bracket without knowing it.
My only issue with this is that in a lot of cases, taking three pictures is not enough of a bracket.
Do an exposure bracket – a little more advance method, and the guaranteed way
While the previous setting helps to automate the process I suggest taking this a step further by manually taking as many as six images, all with different exposures to find the perfect one.
This is how you are guaranteed to find the right exposure.
I’ve been shooting since I was 8 years old and I will always take a range of shots to find the right exposure, especially if I am on location and I am not shooting tethered (and I have time to do it). It doesn’t matter if you are new to photography or have been shooting forever, an exposure bracket is very helpful. When in the studio, I am always shooting tethered so I am seeing immediately what the image really looks like on my computer, and I still do an exposure bracket, right at the beginning of the shoot.
The way I do my brackets is very easy and quick. I only change the shutter speed because I want my depth of field (how much is in focus vs out of focus) to be the same. I want to shoot at F-4.5. So to do the bracket I will not touch the F-Stop. Also, my ISO is always at 100 because I am shooting on a tripod. So I don’t touch that either.
- I put the camera on a tripod (makes this super easy)
- I select my F-Stop – in this case I wanted F-4.5
- Now, the only thing I am going to change during my bracket is the shutter speed. At my studio, my lighting is very consistent so I put my shutter where I think it normally would be – in this case that’s a shutter of ¼ of a second – I do this just to make sure I’m in the ballpark for exposure. If you have no idea – just guess. Take a shot. If its way too dark or light turn your shutter speed dial a lot, take another shot and see if you’re closer.
- Now I will slow my shutter speed down by turning the shutter speed dial by three clicks to the left
- I take a shot here – shutter on the camera says “3. This looks strange but it means 3 tenths of a second or .3 of a second – not ⅓ of a second (⅓ of a second is .33 not .3). Why they couldn’t use a period instead of the quotation I just don’t know.
- I will then take five or six more shots each time increasing the shutter speed until I know the file is too dark
I decided from those six shots that the best exposure was at a shutter speed of ¼ of a second. Now I know that is the exposure I want, I will finish working on the shot at that exposure.
Here is a video I made showing you how the shutter speeds look on the top menu of your camera. The number that stands for the shutter speed is not labeled on a lot of cameras – you’re just supposed to know that is the shutter speed so it’s very confusing for new shooters.