Tripods for food photography

*Article written for Manfrotto

It’s often said that the most important tools for a photographer are a creative mind and a trained eye. Light, composition and the subject matter all determine how powerful and impactful your image is going to be. Photographic equipment is just the means to help us achieve our vision, right??? Well, we all know it’s not that simple and having the right equipment can take your work to a completely different level.

If I were to give just one piece of advice to someone who is starting their food photography journey, it would be to use a tripod that has the right features for the type of photography you’re doing. I used to think of the tripod as a relatively boring piece of gear, but I was surprised by how much things have changed in the tripod market. Impressive combinations of light weight, flexibility (in terms of use case) and rigidity have been made possible through the use of new materials and technologies. Above all, a great tripod needs to have the stability to prevent any camera shake and to safely support the weight of the camera and lens (especially my heavy macro lens which I use a lot in food photography).

I recently had a chance to test several of Manfrotto latest products to see how useful they can be in food photography and this is what I discovered. When I first tried the new Manfrotto 055 carbon fibre 4-section tripod, I instantly knew it was a keeper. Not only is it stronger and more stable than its aluminium counterparts, but it’s also lighter, making it easier to transport within the studio and in the field. It’s extremely rigid, with Quick Power Lock levers for the leg sections, which operate with speedy simplicity. The levers are designed to provide for comfortable single-handed opening of all leg sections and offer powerful locking of every leg section.

The standout feature of this tripod is the centre column which has the ability to rotate 90 degrees and is great for shooting flat lays, an integral part of food photography, as well as macro and close-up shooting. It makes it very easy to switch to overhead orientation whenever you need it.

The legs of the Manfrotto 055 tripod are made of four sections which means that when it’s collapsed, it can actually fit inside carry-on luggage or bag. I cannot emphasise how important it is for when you have to take it out and about. The tripod is light but at the same time it feels incredibly sturdy and strong. This picture below was taken on a sunny but very windy day. Despite the weather and the fact that the tripod was on a hill, it remained rock steady, with no signs of camera shake.

When it comes to the tripod’s head, I’ve been impressed with the surprisingly light XPRO Geared Three-way pan/tilt tripod head (MHXPRO3WG) which is a beautifully compact, precise and reliable 3-way head.  The combination of levers and micrometric knobs allows you to adjust your camera’s position quickly, and with very high precision. The whole thing is a piece of art, if you ask me – it looks good and is a pleasure to use.

Another tripod that I know I’ll be using regularly is the very novel JOBY GorillaPod® 3K PRO Kit. If you’re looking for flexibility, this tripod will give it to you. Literally. Its legs are basically a series of interconnected ball joints, allowing them to move in virtually any direction. The tripod can grip practically anything it can wrap its legs around – a bit like an octopus! It’s an ingenious design, which is also compact and light-weight. I was impressed that it could support the combined weight of my camera and macro lens. No easy feat!

The GorillaPod is perfect when I’m photographing fungi on the forest floor, for example. There usually isn’t much available light in the woods, so slower shutter speeds are needed. A small, versatile tripod like the GorillaPod is the perfect solution.

Fungi Macro Photography

Article written for Fujifilm UK.

Different types of fungi require different conditions and habitats. At this time of year, in autumn and early winter, they seem to appear almost everywhere. If you’ve never tried capturing them before, now is the time to give it a go – they are great subjects for macro photography!

The best place to begin is your nearest wood – you are more likely to find a good range of different and visually interesting varieties of mushrooms to photograph, especially after a spell of particularly wet weather. They often appear literally overnight and some of them can be gone by late afternoon so it really is worthwhile to do a few trips. 

Fungi photography with Macro. Fujifilm XT3
25 image focus stack Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/8sec – F10 – ISO125

Fungi can be quite hard to spot if you’re not looking out for them. My advice is to slow down. I mean really slow down and take your time. Look around the base of trees, falling branches, decaying stumps, rotting logs and under piles of leaves. Kneel down – you’ll soon start to see a whole new magical world under your feet. Feel free to even use a magnifying glass! The things to look out for are either pop of colour, interesting shapes, textures or perhaps intriguing clusters.

Puffballs. Focus on the texture.
Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/15sec – F8.0 – ISO320
Gills. Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/125sec – F5.0 – ISO125
Trumpet chanterells. Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/13sec – F6.4 – ISO160

Before you go to the woods

Mushrooms like a dark and wet environment where not much sunlight can get through – all the places where you’d least like to be! You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time at the ground level. That’s why it’s important to wear comfortable, ideally waterproof clothing. Wellies or good boots are a must. I also tend to use tick repellent. Because it’s likely to be wet, a groundsheet, or even a bin liner to place on the ground will help prevent you and your kit getting wet or dirty. It is very likely that you’ll be working with slower shutter speeds as there isn’t much light in the woods so whenever possible use a tripod – there are mini tripods available or the ones that allow the camera to be placed close to the ground. For those extra low angle shots or if you’re shooting from the ground, a camera bean bag will prove very useful.

Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/13sec – F4.5 – ISO160

One thing to be careful about is the fact that some of the mushrooms you’ll encounter will be poisonous and potentially deadly, so you have to be aware of the toxins and spores and act with caution. You should never handle fungi unless you know them well – if you find, for example, that you need to clean bits of leaves or dirt off a mushroom, it will be safer to use either a soft brush or a latex glove instead of picking them off with your fingers. Wash your hands before eating or touching food.

Composition

Composition is such an important element of macro photography and is crucial if you want your images to have an impact. 

It’s definitely a good idea, especially if you’re just starting, to stick to some of the classic compositional rules – there are some aspects of composition which stand out more in macro photography than they do in other areas. Here are just a few to think about when you’re composing your photo:

Pay attention to the background. 

Single mushroom 35 image focus stack X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/8sec – F10 – ISO200

Throwing the background out of focus will not only help isolate your subject but it can also hide the things you do not want your viewer to see. You may want to very carefully remove any unnecessary twigs or leaf litter to ensure you have a ‘clean’ composition. Avoid anything that could cause distraction in your shot but please don’t damage any vegetation for the sake of a photo. 

Simply blurring the background is not enough – you need to choose a background that will look interesting and will contrast well with your subject. For example, bright red fungi will really stand out against a green background (again, this may sometimes involve a little bit of ‘gardening’ – moving leaves away from the subject or behind it if they are a different colour to the subject). Colours are one reason why macro photography is so interesting.

Fly Agaric. X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/30sec – F6.4 – ISO125. Red colour of the mushroom contrasting with green foliage

Experiment with different angles, whether it’s a bird’s eye view or a worm’s (or bug’s) eye view to create a compelling perspective. A low shooting angle usually looks far more natural and it also allows you to capture the beauty and texture of the gills underneath the mushroom cap – this type of angle often produces the most striking composition. 

Remember the rule of thirds – placing important subjects not in the centre but near 1/3 of the way from the edges. It looks more natural than when the subject is placed right in the middle of the frame. You can always crop that later while editing. 

3 image focus stack. X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/4sec – F6.4 – ISO125

Look for symmetry and patterns.

Having said that, the above are just guidelines and it’s not something that you have to stick to all the time. Rules are there to be broken. Don’t overthink and feel like you have to follow every single one. Be bold!

Sometimes it’s really difficult to find a good composition, especially if the scene looks very cluttered, with lots of leaves and dirt. You don’t have to include the entire subject – often isolating smaller details and focusing on shapes and textures can create very powerful and intriguing close-ups. Try to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way. 

Hedgehog mushroom. 4 image focus stack. X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/20sec – F7.1 – ISO160

Don’t forget to have some fun! Get creative and try different angles. Pick out details, experiment with different apertures and decide which one you like best. Getting that perfect shot requires creativity and lots of imagination. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to capture a tiny bit of wildlife in your image. A little ant or tiny slug perhaps making its way to the top of the mushroom.

Try to incorporate a little bit of wildlife into your image!

Drama

The challenge with fungi is that they thrive in dark places where natural light is limited. If you are lucky enough to be taking mushroom photos on a sunny day and the light is beautiful – that’s fantastic! To make your photos more artistic and dramatic, shoot with backlight which produces a beautiful contrast between the subject and the background. Typically, dappled highlights will create attractive bokeh, like the sun shining through leaves.

35 image focus stack X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/8sec – F11 – ISO200

Most of the time, however, and definitely in England, that will not be the case during autumn and winter months. Even when you do have enough light available, mushroom’s gills and upper part of the stem are getting less light than its cap so if you’re shooting from a low angle, which is often the best choice for creating more dramatic shots, a good idea is to think about adding extra light. I like to use either a small reflector or LED light or if none is available, a white card or aluminium foil will work as well. The advantage of supplementing light is that you can manipulate it until you’re happy with the result. 

Unedited. One with LED light pointing at the gills, the other without.

Being 3-dimentional, fungi can be challenging to photograph with a shallow depth of field. A lot depends on how they are shaped, as well as whether you want to include the details in the background or foreground. Be prepared to experiment with settings. If you can’t achieve the depth of field that you need in one frame in order to have your subject sharp from front to back while at the same time have a beautiful out of focus background, think about ‘focus stacking’ where you take a few images of a subject with different focus points and later combine them all together in Photoshop or other application. There is also a lot that you can do in post-processing to make your images look more dramatic. Intensifying colours, accentuating the texture and contrast to add crispness and detail are just some of the functions that you can use.

Single mushroom backlit 25 image focus stack Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/60sec – F9 – ISO160
Foraged mushrooms. Fujifilm X-T3 & 80mm f2.8 XF LM OIS WR Macro 1/4sec – F13 – ISO400

“More than full frame.” Review of Fujifilm’s medium format GFX50S MKII and the FUJINON GF 35-70mm f/4.5-5.6 WR lens

Fujifilm recently approached me to ask if I could test their newest and most affordable member of the GFX family, the GFX50S MKII and the new FUJINON GF 35-70mm f/4.5-5.6 WR lens. I have been using Fuji X series cameras and lenses for some time, but had only dabbled with full frame cameras, let alone a medium format camera. Medium format cameras have long been used in commercial photography, producing extremely high-quality images, suitable for really significant enlargement (or cropping).

 I’ll never forget the moment when I looked at the first image I took with the GFX50S MKII. I had photographed some cherry tomatoes on their stalks, as I often do. The quality of the image was absolutely mind-blowing. Despite being an overview shot (not a macro image), the level of detail of the individual hairs on the tomato stalks was fantastic and as a result the image had potential I simply could not capture with my existing equipment.   

As a food photographer, I have a passion for capturing evocative images that stimulate the emotions. Having the means to capture the most minuscule details and textures was a game changer for me.

GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/500sec – F5 – ISO320.
GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/25sec – F6.4 – ISO200.

Needless to say, I was excited to test this gear both in a studio environment, as well as ‘out and about’ to see what this camera and lens were really capable of and to push them to their limits a little bit.

The first thing I noticed when I held the camera in my hands was just how light and compact it was. I found the camera grip very comfortable and all the controls are well placed and quite intuitive. ISO, shutter and aperture settings are easy to adjust – in that respect it felt a lot like the Fuji X series cameras I normally work with. The same goes for the lens. The new FUJINON GF 35-70mm lens is an extremely  portable zoom lens, weighing only 390g (13.7 ounces). I was expecting something heavier and bulkier, so it came as a nice surprise that I could easily fit the camera and lens inside the same shoulder bag I use for my Fuji X-series cameras. 

The GF 35-70mm lens is a moderate wide angle zoom, equivalent to a focal range of  28-55mm on a 35mm full frame format camera. It’s well-suited for storytelling and creating larger food scenes or flatlays, and considering it’s a medium format lens, it’s also surprisingly  affordable. Even at wider apertures, it was excellent for creating a well-focused image. 

GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/800sec – F5.6 – ISO250
GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/320sec – F5.6 – ISO 1250

Several things about the camera and lens combination really impressed me. 

Colour capture is simply magnificent – I found that the new camera was incredibly accurate at reproducing natural colours. Unless I wanted to play with the colours to get a desired effect, the out of the camera JPEGs were pretty impressive. I was kind of hoping this to be the case given that Fujifilm is well known for exceptional colour rendition. 

GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/40sec – F10 – ISO400. No colour correction necessary.

The most striking thing for me, however, is the amount of detail captured within images. I found that every image contained the possibility of many different photographs, because there was sufficient detail to crop down to very small areas – something which just isn’t possible on a camera with a smaller sensor.  More cropping possibilities means more creative possibilities – and this will be very important from a client’s perspective! The GF sensor is about 1.7x larger than the sensor in a full-frame camera, which means that in addition to high resolution, it also has really good low-light performance and excellent dynamic range.   

Particularly at lower ISOs, the GFX 50s II is sublimely sharp – it will reveal things that your eyes won’t catch. A bit intimidating, at times! This was the case with the image below.  It wasn’t until I looked at the zoomed version on a large screen that I spotted tiny eggs on a kale leaf in the middle of the table! I decided not to remove them, just to demonstrate the resolution of the medium format sensor.

GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/20 – F7.1 – ISO640.

The image below was taken on a really dark and rainy day. I was visiting a food market in London, outside but partially sheltered which made it even darker. The camera’s high ISO performance in low light is very impressive and having a weather sealed, dust and moisture resistant body and lens is a major bonus – particularly in London weather!

GFX50S II & GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR. 1/125sec – F5.6 – ISO1250

Perhaps most importantly, I found that the extra dimension offered by the GFX camera  really inspired me to create. I had so many ideas for photographs that were enabled by this camera and the possibilities that it offered, but sadly I didn’t have enough time to capture them all.

Here are a few more images that were taken with some of the other GFX lenses. I had the opportunity to use the GF45-100mm F4 R LM OIS WR, the GF80mm F1.7 R WR and the GF120mm F4 R LM OIS WR Macro lens. They are all incredibly versatile lenses and I was impressed with them all, but I have to say the 120mm has my heart. 

GFX50S II & GF45-100mm F4 R LM OIS WR. 1/200sec – F6.4 – ISO160
GFX50S II & GF80mm F1.7 R WR.  1/25sec – F8.0 – ISO400
GFX50S II & GF120mm F4 R LM OIS WR Macro. Done with a use of a soft box.

There’s no question that the GFX camera and associated lenses have the ability to change one’s perspective on how you capture images and the way you see things. By bringing medium format capabilities (both in terms of cost and form factor) within the reach of photographers like myself, Fujifilm is really changing the game.  It is indeed “more than full frame.”

Overcoming Depth of Field Limitations

Some methods and equipment allow altering the apparent DOF, and some even allow the DOF to be determined after the image is made. For example, Focus stacking combines multiple images focused on different planes, resulting in an image with a greater (or less, if so desired) apparent depth of field than any of the individual source images. Similarly, in order to reconstruct the 3-dimensional shape of an object, a depth map can be generated from multiple photographs with different depths of field. This method is called “shape from focus.”

Other technologies use a combination of lens design and post-processing: Wavefront coding is a method by which controlled aberrations are added to the optical system so that the focus and depth of field can be improved later in the process.

from Wikipedia article which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting uses only two lights. The key light is placed directly in front of the subject, often above the camera or slightly to one side, and a bit higher than is common for a three-point lighting plan. The second light is a rim light.

Often a reflector is placed below the subject’s face to provide fill light and soften shadows.

This lighting may be recognized by the strong light falling on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the upper cheeks, and by the distinct shadow below the nose that often looks rather like a butterfly and thus, provides the name for this lighting technique.

Butterfly lighting was a favourite of famed Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell, which is why this style of lighting is often called Paramount lighting.

From Wikipedia article which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

Windowlight Portraiture

Windows as a source of light for portraits have been used for decades before artificial sources of light were discovered. According to Arthur Hammond, amateur and professional photographers need only two things to light a portrait: a window and a reflector. Although window light limits options in portrait photography compared to artificial lights it gives ample room for experimentation for amateur photographers. A white reflector placed to reflect light into the darker side of the subject’s face, will even the contrast. Shutter speeds may be slower than normal, requiring the use of a tripod, but the lighting will be beautifully soft and rich.

The best time to take window light portrait is considered to be early hours of the day and late hours of afternoon when light is more intense on the window. Curtains, reflectors, and intensity reducing shields are used to give soft light. While mirrors and glasses can be used for high key lighting. At times colored glasses, filters and reflecting objects can be used to give the portrait desired color effects. The composition of shadows and soft light gives window light portraits a distinct effect different from portraits made from artificial lights.

From Wikipedia article which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.