Travel Photo Tips: What is aperture, and how does it affect my pictures?

You’ve schooled yourself on ISO, and you’re starting to get a handle on shutter speed. Next stop? Aperture. This particular setting is exceedingly important when trying to wrap your head around the basics of manually controlling a camera, but it’s also one of the more confusing. For starters, not every camera and lens can achieve the same f/stops (in case you couldn’t guess, aperture levels are measured as f/[number]), and similar to shutter speed, changing the f/stop does more than just one thing.

Tweaking the aperture can change the outcome of your photo in a drastic way. But before you go cranking that number beside the “f” on your camera screen, let’s break down the basics on what aperture is, what it affects and why you should care. Read on for a few pointers that every shooter should know.Have you ever noticed those black blades within your lenses? In optics, an aperture is simply the hole through which light travels. As you can imagine, changing the size of that hole can make a huge difference in the look and feel of your photographs. There’s an exhaustive definition of the topic over at Wikipedia if you’re interested, but we’re assuming you stopped here because you’re just looking for the long and short of it. Here are a few general rules to understanding aperture:

  • The lower the f/stop, the more light is allowed in.
  • Exceptionally low f/stops (f/1.2 through f/2, for example) are only found on a handful of lenses, primarily professional DSLR lenses.
  • Most point-and-shoot cameras only stop as low as f/3.5 (at best), limiting the amount of light you can fetch when shooting in dimly lit scenarios.
  • You’ll pay dearly for exceptionally low f/stops. A Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 can be found for ~$100; the same lens with an f/1.4 rating (just one step lower) is three times more expensive at ~$300.
  • Lower f/stops narrow your depth of field; a shot at f/2 will have a very tight focal point, with a tremendously blurred background, whereas a shot at f/14 (as an example) will focus on the foreground and background with essentially no ‘bokeh‘ to speak of.

Now that you’ve got a grip on that, we’re going to break down the most common uses of aperture when it comes time to compose a shot.

  • A lowered f/stop can be artisically chosen if you want to focus in tight on a foreground subject while introducing a silky, beautiful blur (that’s the ‘bokeh’ we mentioned above) around the subject. This is great for focusing on a person with a less-than-exciting backdrop.
  • A higher f/stop is useful for capturing vast groups, where you want the persons on the edges to be just as sharp and in-focus as the person in the center of the image.
  • A lower f/stop is very useful for letting more light enter an image during dimly lit or dark situations; this prevents you from having to boost your ISO (and thus, inject noise and grain) or dramatically slow your shutter speed (and thus, potentially introduce unwanted blur from hand-shake).

Let’s look at an example of how lowering your f/stop can be beneficial at night and in situations where you want oodles of bokeh surrounding the subject. The image below shows an identical shot at f/1.4 and at f/8, both taken in a dimly lit room with very little ambient light around. Lowering the f/stop allows a tremendous amount of light to flood in, in turn giving us a useful image without resorting to firing a flash. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop when you’re in dimly lit areas — your images will thank you!


Now, let’s look at an example of injecting bokeh into a shot. These two pictures were taken with a f/1.4 (left) and f/16 (right) aperture. You’ll notice the shot on the left has a soft, silky, progressive blur surrounding the focal point. This highlights the subject and simultaneously hides the ho hum background. The f/16 shot has most of the background in focus, effectively destroying your ability to focus only on the foreground subject and disregard the lackluster backdrop. On the flipside, your backdrop is in focus, so if that is your goal for a shot, now you know how to accomplish it. The moral of this story? Lower your f/stop if you want to introduce bokeh, bring out the foreground subject and blur the background; raising the f/stop will help you to focus on a larger image, such as capturing an entire soccer team.


Our suggestion now is to give it a try! If you have a camera where you can adjust the aperture manually, try placing your camera in Aperture Priority (the “A” mode on the dial) and stopping it completely down as low as it’ll go. This will vary based on the lens, but toggle the f/stop and lower it to the smallest number allowed by whatever lens you are using. Focus close on a foreground object, and snap the shot. Check out that bokeh! If you’re having a hard time getting the bokeh effect, try holding an object out in your hand and focusing; that’s an easy way to get the background to blur nicely. Now, try that same shot with an aperture of f/8 or greater in order to see how wide your focal range becomes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of aperture to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in aperture for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the aperture to help you focus on your kids while blurring crowds behind them, ensure that your entire background is in focus in self-portraits, and more. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO and shutter speed, you’ll be three steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • The lower you set your f/stop, the more light you’ll have access to. This allows you to rely less on a boosted ISO and a sluggish shutter speed to still get a usable image in low-light situations.
  • If you need to focus on a large group of people, or you want the ocean behind you to be sharp, use a higher f/stop.
  • If you want to introduce artistic blur (or ‘bokeh‘) into your images, use a lower f/stop.

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO and shutter speed can be seen here.

Travel Photo Tips: What is shutter speed, and how does it affect my pictures?

Now that you’ve got a grip on ISO, it’s time to talk about shutter speed as it relates to light. What is it, and how can it be tweaked to better the photographs that you’ll take on the run? A great question, and we’re glad you asked. Simply put, shutter speed refers to the length of time that the shutter stays open while snapping a photograph. In general, the longer a shutter remains open, the more light is allowed in. And the more light that is allowed in, the brighter a picture becomes.

There’s a fine line that is walked with shutter speed. If you don’t leave the shutter open long enough, your images will turn out too dark to be useful. Having a shot that’s too dark can spoil an otherwise great vacation memory, and it’s nearly impossible to brighten an overly dark photograph using Photoshop (or a similar editing application) without adding a lot of noise and grain. On the flip side, leaving the shutter open too long can result in a couple of negative outcomes.

We’ll discuss these and walk you through an example after the break, so grab your advanced point-and-shoot, interchangeable lens camera or DSLR and read on get a better feel of how changing the shutter speed can change the outcome of your snapshots.As usual, we’ll try not to dive too deep into aspects that you don’t really need to understand. But there are a few basic things you’ll need to know about shutter speed in order to make quick adjustments as you’re shooting different scenes — assuming you’re not shooting on automatic mode, of course. Your travels won’t always put you in an optimal place for taking shots, leaving you with limited options to control the amount of light that floods into each shot. Adjusting shutter speed is one of the quicker ways to do just that.

Shutter speed is referred to in terms of seconds, or fractions thereof. For example, you may see a “400” on the data monitor of your camera. This means that you’re set to shoot at 1/400 of a second. This is just a small fraction of a second, which means that the shutter will open and close extremely quickly. If you see an “8,” that means you’re set to shoot at 1/8 of a second. In the image below, the “30” signifies that this camera is currently set to shoot at 1/30 of a second.

Here are a few general rules to keep in mind while adjusting shutter speed. These won’t apply in every single scenario, but these are good guidelines to keep ingrained in your mind when you’re trying to figure out shutter speed extremes on the fly.

  • If you’re shooting a still subject handheld (without a tripod), it’s generally tough to hold the camera still enough to eliminate blur from a shot at a shutter speed slower than around 1/80 of a second. Sometimes you can get as slow as 1/25 of a second while holding it still, but that’s more the exception than the rule.
  • If your subject is moving at all, and you’re forced to hand-hold the camera, I’d recommend shooting at 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure little-to-no blur is introduced. If you find that 1/160 of a second still isn’t quick enough, a bump to 1/200 or 1/250 of a second should suffice.

Of course, both of these points are assuming you do not want blur in your shots. There are certain scenarios where some amount of blur is desired, such as capturing the beauty in flowing water in a babbling brook. But in those cases, you can start at around 1/100 of a second and move slower. Here’s an important point, though: when you desire a certain amount of blur in a shot, you’ll almost certainly need a tripod. Why? Because you only want a certain portion of the photograph to be blurred (the water, in the previous example), but you wouldn’t want the rocks and surrounding plants to also be blurred.

Let’s look at one simple example to give you a better grasp on how adjusting shutter speed makes a difference in your photographs. You’ll need a camera with a manual mode; most point-and-shoot cameras do not allow users to adjust shutter speed, but a few of the more advanced models will. Essentially all interchangeable lens, Micro Four Thirds and DSLR cameras will, however.

Similar to our ISO example, we’ll have you head to a room inside your home. Find a subject — a phone, a coffee mug, any kind of still object — and place it on a table or on a bed. We’ll be shooting this with various shutter speeds. There are a lot of other variables to consider, of course, but this simple example will show you how shutter speed itself directly impacts the outcome. Let’s start with a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second, and disable your flash for the duration of the example. Fix your ISO on 1600 (since you’re indoors in a low-light scenario) and your f/stop number as low as it will go (f/2.8 or f/3.5 if possible). Focus on the subject and shoot. What’s the outcome? Probably a dark shot, but if you can make out any of the subject, you’ll notice that it’s impeccably sharp.

Now, adjust that to 1/250 and shoot again. What’s the outcome? Probably a slightly brighter photograph, and one that’s still sharp. You should get the impression that you’re moving in the right direction. Now, adjust to 1/160 of a second and shoot again. Your image should be even brighter, and if you have a steady hand, still sharp and blur-free. Now, the fun part. Adjust to 1/50 of a second and re-shoot. You probably noticed just how slow the click was. But how about the outcome? It’s probably a very bright image, maybe even too bright, but it will almost definitely have some level of blur to it. Let’s try one last stop: lower the shutter speed to 1/5 of a second and re-shoot. It’s practically impossible to hand-hold this shot and not introduce blur. You’ll probably be happy with how bright the image is, but the amount of blur will likely make the image less than ideal. Below is a brief gallery guide of how changing the shutter speed alone can allow more light in, but also make it easier for handheld shake to introduce blur.

In a nutshell, you’ve just learned how shutter speed alone can adjust your shot. If you need to let more light in, slowing the shutter solves your problem, to an extent. If you slow it too much, you’ll lose the ability to compose a blur-free image. If you speed it up too much, the image will become too dark. Like we said at the start, it’s a fine line you’ll have to walk. If you try a similar experiment outside, in broad daylight, you’ll notice that you need a much, much faster shutter speed to compose a usable image. If you keep that 1/8 of a second while shooting outdoors, you’ll probably get the polar opposite of a completely dark photograph: a completely white photograph. The solution? Speed that shutter up dramatically –1/500 of a second or faster — and see how it changes things for the better.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of shutter speed to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in shutter speed for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, using the shutter speed to help you best capture a flowing waterfall, compose an exploding firework shot, controlling blur, etc. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous article on ISO, you’ll be two steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • Adjusting shutter speed is one of the quickest ways to add more light or restrict light to a photograph
  • Indoors, or in low-light situations, you’ll need to slow the shutter speed dramatically if you don’t have a flash to use, or would rather not use the flash
  • In general, it’s difficult to not introduce blur into a shot while shooting handheld with shutter speeds 1/80 of a second or slower (or 1/160 of a second if your subject is moving)
  • Outdoors, you’ll need very quick shutter speeds (1/500 of a second or faster) in order to avoid having a completely white image, or an image that’s overly bright
  • Having a tripod or a lens with vibration resistance can enable you to have a slower-than-average shutter speed, yet still avoid blur

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, f/stop, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO can be seen here.

Travel Photo Tips: What is ISO, and how does it affect my pictures?

ISO. Three little letters which stand for International Organization for Standardization (not exactly thrilling) and make a monumental difference in the outcome of images, particularly in low-light scenarios. It’s one of the most prominently featured specifications of any modern digital camera, and it’s one single aspect that can make a night-and-day difference in the outcome of your shots. If you’re on the road, on vacation or just galavanting about with your new camera, there are a few key pointers you need to know about how ISO works, and how it can affect the snapshots your take. We’ll spare you the behind-the-scenes, science-y explanation on ISO though and get right to the heart of the matter.

While film and photography purists may balk at the assumption, the average photographer really only needs to know a couple of things about ISO — particularly the novice who simply needs their vacation photos to look at least somewhat like how they remember the scene looking.

FIn general, if a camera has a wide ISO range then it can capture faster moving action in low-light settings. Also, higher ISO ranges enable handheld shots to be taken further into the evening (and without blur). The gallery below highlights every single ISO stop between 200 and 104,200 on a Nikon D3s. Few cameras will offer an ISO range similar to this, but walking through it shot-by-shot gives you a great view of how a boosted ISO alters the outcome of a shot. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as they say. All of the other settings were kept constant for these shots (Shutter Speed: 1/8 of a second; f/5.0; 50mm focal length, no flash fired; auto white balance; tripod-mounted shot). Click the ‘Read More’ link here for a deeper dive into ISO, along with loads of pointers on how and when to tweak the value when shooting.

%Gallery-112103%Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have an ISO range from 200 to 800. A few of the nicer models extend from 200 to 1600, and an elite few at the highest-end extend from 200 to 3200 (Casio’s EX-H20G comes to mind). We’ll focus on the majority here in order to drive home a point. Chances are, the average point-and-shoot that you pick up will top out at ISO 800. If you force this camera to shoot at ISO 800, you will still have trouble shooting handheld images in low-light scenarios. Why? The inverse relationship between ISO and shutter speed.

You see, when shooting in low-light, there are five main things you can rely on to get a decent, visible, usable shot:

  1. A flash. This works almost every single time, but it usually blows out your shot, makes everything in the center a blinding white, and generally makes pictures look “fake.” Consider the use of a flash your last resort, but on a point-and-shoot, it’s likely to be a must.
  2. More light. If you have an indoor family portrait that you’re struggling with, try taking things outdoors. The sunlight vastly improves shots, and you should always seek outdoor light first and foremost before turning to a flash, a heightened ISO setting or a slower shutter. Natural light is king.
  3. Increased ISO setting. In general, the higher the ISO value, the faster your shutter speed can be while still grabbing a usable shot. Conversely, your shutter will need to be slowed as your ISO value is dropped in order to prevent an overly dark photograph. Unfortunately, specks of “noise” and grain are introduced with each heightened ISO value, so it’s never as simple as just “maxing out the ISO,” at least not if you care about image quality.
  4. Slowed shutter speed. If you slow your shutter to 1/8 of a second (as an example), you’ll probably be very impressed with how much light can be captured. Unfortunately, anything slower than 1/60 of a second is nearly impossible for a human to shoot handheld without introducing blur, and that’s for still life. If your subject is moving, you’ll need to shoot at around 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure that nothing is blurred. Of course, if you use a tripod and / or a remote shutter trigger, handling these slowed shutter speeds becomes much more possible, though the setup process is far slower than simply pulling a camera from your pocket, pointing, and shooting. Sadly, most P&S models will not allow you to manually slow the shutter (or adjust the f/stop, for that matter).
  5. Lower (“open”) your aperture. If you have an interchangeable lens camera or DSLR, and you can adjust the f/stop of your lens, tweaking that number lower will allow more light to flood in but will simultaneously give you a shorter depth of field. This means more of the background will blur (introducing an effect known as “bokeh“), but it’s a great way to grab more light. Most P&S cameras will not give you this option.

For example’s sake, let’s say that you’re no fan of your camera’s inbuilt flash. Let’s also say you don’t have a tripod handy. Finally, let’s say that you’re stuck indoors in a low-light situation with no way to increase the amount of ambient light. This scenario is more common than you may expect. This is the exact scenario that most encounter when going out for a family dinner. This also describes most wedding receptions. Sadly, this also describes most hotel rooms that you’ll want to capture on vacation.

Now, with your camera set at ISO 200, you’ll notice one or two things. One, there’s essentially no grain or noise to be found. But unless your shutter speed is extremely slow (approximately 1/60 of a second or slower), your image will be almost completely dark. That’s no good for anyone. For example’s sake, let’s set the shutter to 1/160 — assuming you have a camera that allows you to adjust this setting. In a dark room, with the shutter at 1/160 of a second or so (fast enough to shoot handheld without blur), and ISO at 200, with the flash off, you’ll basically get a black shot. Go ahead and try it. Your results will almost definitely be too dark. Here’s where you realize what kind of magic lies in the ISO value. Keeping all other settings the same, bump that ISO value to 800, or 1600 / 3200 if your camera supports it. Now take the same shot. You’ll notice a much, much brighter imagine, albeit one with some level of grain or noise. In some cases, even “maxing out” the ISO isn’t enough — you’ll simply be forced to slow the shutter and use a tripod or let the flash fire.

But since we’re focusing this article on ISO, let’s talk a bit more about that noise and grain. Basically, you’ll be able to take clearer, more visible shots in low light as you bump the ISO value higher (assuming your shutter speed remains the same!), but the compromise is that you allow more noise and grain into your shots. It’s a tradeoff, so to speak. The inverse is true as well. As you back the ISO value down closer to 100 or 200 (whatever the minimum is for your specific camera), you’ll see darker images, albeit ones that are very sharp. The goal is to strike a balance. Find an ISO setting that introduces a bearable amount of noise, yet still gives your camera the ability to take more visible shots in dim situations.

If you’re able, it’s always preferable to slow the shutter speed in order to take the pressure off of your ISO value. But unless you have a tripod and / or subjects that aren’t moving, that’s not always an option. This very reason is why ISO values on cameras are so important, particularly high ranges. The higher the ISO range on your camera, the better off you are after sunset and indoors. If your DSLR, for example, can reach ISO 6400, you can manage to grab more visible shots than a similar DSLR with an ISO ceiling of just 3200, all other settings being equal. Taking that to an extreme, Nikon’s D3s has a native (non-boosted) ISO range of 200 to 12,800. Needless to say, having an ISO value of 12,800 at your disposal means that you can take very useable images in near-darkness, but of course you’ll have noticeable grain to deal with. But when it really comes down to it, you’d probably rather have a noisy shot of your anniversary dinner than a shot distorted by blur or simply too dark to make out what’s going on.

In case I haven’t convinced you, buying a camera with a wide ISO range is very important. You’ll probably end up taking more low light pictures than you’d expect, and it’s always nice to have a high ISO range to resort to if you simply must get the shot. In general, the higher the price on a camera (be it a point-and-shoot, an interchangeable lens / Micro Four Thirds camera or a DSLR), the higher than ISO range will be.

My overly simple advice here is to buy the camera with the highest ISO range that you can afford; you can never have too high of an ISO value at your disposal. Nikon’s D3s is the current ISO king, but retails for over $5000. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH2 Micro Four Thirds camera just recently started to ship in the U.S., and it has set a new bar for ISO range on a Micro Four Thirds camera. It can reach as high as 12,800 and retails for just $900. Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G has a surprisingly great ISO 3200 setting, and it’s amongst the best out there for low-light shooting in the point-and-shoot arena at $350.

Let’s recap:

  • The higher the ISO, the greater your camera’s ability to shoot in low light (with the shutter speed remaining equal)
  • The higher the ISO, the more noise and grain are introduced into your images
  • The lower the ISO, the more you’ll need to rely on external light sources, a flash or a slowed shutter
  • “Maxing out” your ISO can help you capture a shot you otherwise wouldn’t get, but if it results in too much grain when you preview it, you should consider using a flash, slowing the shutter speed, using a lower f/stop (which decreases the depth of field and blurs more of the background) or seeking more light via lamps or by heading outdoors

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding shutter speed, metering, f/stop, white balance and more!

Dana Murph is a creative photographer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can view more of her work at Dana Jo Photos and contact her via Twitter at @danajophotos.

Through the Gadling Lens: inspiration, courtesy of the Gadlingers

It occurred to me the other day that we’ve officially been together for a year here at Through the Gadling Lens — how great is that? So it seems a little bit of a retrospective on the past year is in order, because seriously, we have talked about a lot here on the column. And so, with the help of my fellow writers here at Gadling (as well as some of the amazing photographers who share their craft with us in the Gadling Flickr pool), I thought we could multitask: I asked some of the Gadlingers what they like to photograph when they’re traveling, and as a bit of inspiration, I thought I would feature some of the best our Gadling Flickr pool has to offer to illustrate their points. And while we’re at it, I’ll provide some links to some of the more popular posts of the past year.

So, ready? Then on with the show.
From Grant: “I like taking pictures of interesting locals when they’re not paying attention.”

Grant has actually hit on one of my favourite subjects in travel photography: people. There’s nothing like watching locals go about their day-to-day lives that really captures what the atmosphere is like of a place. This photograph, shot and shared in Tanzania by by localsurfer, is a great example — the image makes you wonder what this woman is thinking, where she’s going, what her story is, just by this simple image.

Remember, however, if you do decide to take photographs of locals on your next trip, there are some rules of etiquette (not to mention local laws) which can affect capturing an image without your subjects consent. For more on this, be sure to see the post on Photographing Strangers.

From Jeremy: “Graffiti.”

I’ll be honest: I’ve never even considered capturing images of local graffiti, and right now, I’m kicking myself for not having done it before. If you think about it, there’s nothing that can really tell a visual story of the atmosphere or personality of a neighbourhood like graffiti. And I’m totally intrigued by this photograph captured by Luke Robinson — I love the juxtaposition of the gritty feel of the tagged building with the pastoral setting of the autumn trees nearby. Beautifully composed.

From Sean: “…markets…”

In many countries, the market is the focal point of all commerce in a community, and it’s very smart to grab shots of the hustle and bustle of the local market — people are likely too busy conducting their business to pay much attention to you, resulting in some pretty authentic images. This great shot of market in Peru captured by Theodore Scott is a great example — enhanced by the lovely pop of colour of the produce and the texture of the cobblestones. Great job.

From Kraig: “For me, it’s mostly about wildlife and landscapes. Rather boring, but it’s true.”

Kraig, don’t sell yourself short, man — flora and fauna are hardly boring, and can make for amazing shots. In addition, they can really help add context to your travel photos. Finally (and as this image captured by Craig Damlo clearly shows), sometimes wildlife is just cool.

There are some great tricks to taking beautiful shots of flora and fauna, so before you go on your next holiday, be sure to check out this Gadling Lens post on just that subject for some inspiration. In addition, check out this previous post on capturing landscapes, seascapes and and cityscapes, as well as how to add oomph to your landscape shots.

From Annie: “Signs.”

I will admit that while I’ve certainly taking a photograph of an interesting sign or two in the past, I’ve never made a point of capturing signage as a subject matter; that said, this great photo taken by PDPhotography in Toronto is a great lesson in why I should pay closer attention. Of course, what makes this shot great is a combination of some great timing and fantastic composition-work; still, the moral of this story is to always keep your eye open for an intriguing shot. Well done.

From Alison: “any striking colors.”

I’m with Alison on this one: there’s very little that can make for great eye candy in a photo than a striking colour. For example, this photo by zakgollop, captured in Cromer, England, isn’t interesting just because it’s an image of doors — it’s the spectrum of colour that’s captured in this single shot that makes it special.

If you’re interested in finding ways to maximize colour in your shots, be sure to take a gander at our previous Gadling Lens post, all about colour. It’s a great tutorial on how to consider your vacation shots in terms of colour, rather than simply subject matter.

From Mike: “Tourists being tourists.”

Trust our resident comic to come up with this idea for a photograph — and I love it. There’s something very ironic (hypocritical?) and tongue-in-cheek about taking a photograph of tourists doing pretty much exactly what we’re doing when we’re grabbing a picture of them. This photo, taken by Moody75 at Sacrada Familia in Barcelona, is a fantastic example — when we look at it, we suspect that the expressions of wonder (confusion?) on the faces of this group have at one time or another passed across our own faces as we’ve traveled a well. Great idea.

From Katie: “Kids.”

Another favourite subject of mine — there’s just something about kids, their spirits, the way they enjoy the world around them — and capturing images of this, particularly of local kids, is such a privilege. This beautiful photo by Cazimiro, shot in Chicago, is a great example of how sometimes, you don’t even need to capture their faces — just capturing the energy around kids doing their thing is enough.

If you’re interested in capturing images of kids when you travel, remember first to ask their parents for permission; in addition, be sure to check out our previous post on photographing kids. (And incidentally, while we’re looking at this great photo, if you’re inspired to take photographs of water, don’t miss our previous post on this subject matter, as well.)

And with that, I want to thank all of you who have been so faithfully following Through the Gadling Lens over the past year — it’s been great getting your feedback, hearing your own tips, and seeing your own images as I’ve written here. If you have any ideas of what you’d like to see in the coming year, please send me an email or leave a comment below. As always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Through the Gadling Lens: 7 tips for photographs around the meal

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite pastimes while traveling is eating. Oh my heavens, how I love to eat. There’s just nothing like being in a completely foreign land, trying a whole new cuisine. It’s like an adventure in every little bite.

For this reason, it sort of stuns me that while I’ve mentioned that food is one of those great iconic subjects for photography purposes, I haven’t written yet about how to shoot images in a restaurant, or at the table where your hosts are sharing their meal with you. (And besides, here in the west, we’re pretty much heading into prime gather-round-the-table-holiday mode, so the time has come, methinks.) So this week, I thought we’d take a look at ways to capture your culinary travel experience as effectively as possible.

1. Take a shot before the food arrives. There’s something about table settings: if it’s at a fancy restaurant, it’s all about the presentation and the style. If it’s at a casual restaurant or better still, someone’s home, table settings just say something about how your host has taken the time to create a comfortable setting for you to enjoy your meal. So before you sit and the setting gets a bit chaotic and difficult, steal away and take a photograph of the table setting in its pristine state, prior to the food arriving.

As you do this, be sure to look for the light. We discussed looking for the light in previous posts, and it becomes very important at this time, particularly if the light is low. You should look for reflective surfaces — glassware, dinnerware, and adjust your settings and frame your shot accordingly.

2. Capture the ambiance of the table as people gather
. One of my favourite times to capture shots is when family and friends approach the table in anticipation of a delicious meal. In general, people tend to be all smiles, eagerly awaiting the feast. They laugh, they hold chairs for each other, they ooh and ahh over the arriving food. Completely Kodak moment in the making.

During this time, you should be sure to grab your camera, and watch as the atmosphere grows around the table. Remember, at this time, you’re not so much focused on the food or the place settings, you’re focused on the faces and the energy between the people with whom you’ll be dining. As is often the case when you’re in spectator/photojournalist mode, it’s often great to turn the flash off, so as not to disturb the energy in the room, so make sure your settings are adjusted accordingly.

3. Take a few table-level shots. Once I’ve been seated, I love placing my camera on the table, setting the timer and capturing a few table-level shots. This is particularly effective if I’m sitting in a restaurant, because (a) often the people in the restaurant have no reason to believe I’m taking a shot, so they remain relaxed, and (b) in restaurants, often the lighting is very dim — by setting the timer and resting the camera on the table, I reduce the chance of camera shake from taking a photograph in a dark room.

It’s another lovely way to capture the energy and atmosphere of a dining establishment.

4. When photographing food, consider texture and light. Since a still photograph is incapable of truly capturing the smell and taste of the food, when you’re photographing any foodstuffs, it makes sense to maximize the texture and the light of what you’re shooting, so that the viewer can truly imagine what it would feel like to sample the food. I’ve mentioned a few photography tips when shooting food before, but I think it bears repeating here:

a) If you have a macro lens (or a macro setting on your point-and-shoot camera), this is often the best way to go. The beauty of good food is usually the taste and the smell; since your camera won’t be able to accurately capture either of these, maximizing your sense of sight can help compensate.

b) Make sure the food is well-lit. Otherwise, the food will likely simply look like an amorphous blob. Not very appetizing.

c) Check your background, colour and texture. Ideally, you won’t want to have anything in the background competing with the food for the viewer’s attention; similarly, when composing your shot, consider looking for patterns in colour and texture, and maximize accordingly.

5. Consider unusual angles, and play with depth of field to maximize expression. Here’s where you can really get creative with your images: do what you can do move the point of focus around, so that you can use both the foreground and the background to help convey what you’re trying to say with your shot.

One example of how you can do this is by focusing on the food in the foreground, while using depth of field (by keeping your aperture number low) to show the blurred image of someone enjoying the food in the background. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

In this case, notice that the focus is on the hot chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven — my daughter Alex is in the background happily anticipating them. If you’ll notice, even though she’s completely out of focus, you can still make out her smiling eyes.

She loves chocolate.


In this image, the focus is again on my husband’s chocolate birthday cupcakes in the foreground — but you’ll notice in the back, Alex is already diving in.

Did I mention she loves cupcakes?

Anyway, the point is that shooting in this fashion makes for a more interesting shot, as opposed to if I’d just taking a photograph of the cupcakes.

6. Consider all the colours around you, to help frame your shot. When framing your shot, don’t forget to check your background — not just to make sure that you don’t have any extraneous subjects in the shot, but also to help maximize the ambiance of the shot. An example follows:

In this example, shot in a hotel bar, I was about to take a photograph of just the martinis, because I loved the colour. However, once I looked through the viewfinder, I realized that there was a lot of colour and light all around us, and it added additional visual interest to the shot. And so, I moved the martinis toward the left two-thirds of the frame, in order to maximize the light and colours in the entire shot. As a result, the entire shot looks more festive.

7. If there’s movement, don’t be afraid to capture it. Finally, restaurants in particular tend to be pretty dynamic places, and there’s nothing like a little blur to capture this. Again, because restaurants tend to be dimly lit, capturing the blur is suprisingly easy: simply rest your camera on a sturdy surface (or use your travel tripod), frame your shot and set your settings for the dim lighting, use your timer, and take the shot. The shutter will stay open longer because of the dim light (assuming you’re shooting in fully-automatic or aperture priority mode), and any movement will appear as a blur, while the still subjects will remain sharp.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

In this particular case, my husband and I had gone out to dinner, and afterwards, decided to check out a small tea house. Little did we know that as soon as we sat down with our tea, several patrons would get up to tango — a lovely surprise.

Because the lighting in the tea house was rather dim, I just used a counter to steady my camera, and pointed the viewfinder to where the action was. As the camera did its thing, the dancers moved in and around the frame, causing a lovely blur (but notice the patrons who were not dancing remain sharp):

So that’s it! Go forth and shoot great restaurant shots (and practice in places near your home when you’re not traveling). And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.