I must have inherited my love and appreciation of great photography from my father. You can always tell who the family photographer is – they’re the one that is always behind the camera and never in any of the photos. Although this is less true in the ‘selfie’ age that we now inhabit. My father learned his photography long before digital became the norm – he worked with manual settings, rolls of film and dark rooms. In fact I think it was only last summer mid way through a holiday in the Black Forest, that he emailed my sister and I his #selfiefirst – he and my mother sitting on a bench, smiling widely, half way up a Bavarian mountainside. This really was quite a moment in our family!
My husband bought me my first digital SLR camera on one of our early trips to Sa Riera, our happy place on the Spanish Catalan coast. I have since spent many a holiday taking lots of photographs, enjoying framing the shot, trying to get the background right and using interesting angles – but never venturing beyond ‘automatic’ settings!
Since starting my cake business, I spent a great deal of time looking at photographs of cakes in magazines, on cake blogs, on Pinterest and Google – photos that not only inspire me to improve my cake craft, but which are taken by expert professional photographers who have an amazing set of skills that can enhance any product and make it pop out of the page. Effective marketing is vital for a small business starting out, and as someone who appreciates great photographs it is an area I want to develop and get much better at.
Last week, I signed myself up for a 4 day ‘Product Photography’ course run by the University of South Wales and facilitated by Glasdir Skills Academy in Llanrwst. This course was ideal for someone like me, who despite taking many photographs over the years, has never really understood how the camera works. I was glad that beginners were made to feel very welcome and the small group of 10 students meant that we were able to learn a great deal and apply it to our particular business scenario.
The time was split into 2 lots of 2 days over consecutive weeks. The first session was studying aperture sizes, depth of field, shutter speeds, ISO, focal length, rules of composition, and types of lighting.
Our tutor, Darren Warner, native of East London, now living in the south Wales Valleys, has 35 years experience of photographing almost everything, across almost every continent of the world. We benefited not only from his immense expertise and experience, but also his ability to communicate effectively, teach complex skills and inspire a bunch of novices to love photography and want to get better at it!
For the second 2 days we were to bring our product with us to be scrutinised under the lens and what an array of interesting things we brought. There were party balloons, shoes, candle holders, vases and picture frames, ceramic animal models, hard disks, horse riding tack, glass eyes for creature models and, of course, my pretty little cakes. In fact, Darren observed that in the years he had been teaching the course this was the most bizarre and eclectic range of products he had seen. We learnt how to create a basic, cost-effective studio for photographing our products and how to apply our newly acquired camera skills to our range of products.
I came away with copious notes, lots of sample photographs and my brain saturated with information. A week later, it seems to me that what I have learned distils quite well into some basic principles which can be applied to any kind of photography
So here’s my 7 tips for making better photographs
1 GET A GOOD CAMERA, AND KNOW HOW IT WORKS
For those of us cautiously approaching the unknown realm of “middle age”, it seems like only a few years since we were convincing ourselves to ditch our beloved film cameras and try this new ‘digital thing’. Can you believe that the first digital camera was invented 40 years ago? By the mid 1990s most of us were using digital cameras, by the mid 2000s digital models had largely replaced film cameras and within the last 5 years almost all of us have acquired a decent quality digital camera integrated into our smartphone, tablet, or other (probably Apple) device.
As for me, I have a Nikon D50, 6.1 megapixel, digital single-lens reflex camera, purchased around 2005 from Jessops, Llandudno, a great little shop which sadly has closed down.
My camera was Nikon’s first DSLR aimed at the consumer market and was a very popular model at the time. Although, for my father, a die hard Canon-Man, it was a disappointing choice – he still can’t comprehend how I could so easily be persuaded by a Jessops salesman to go to the dark-side and buy a Nikon.
You can buy a decent DSLR camera for around £300 so it’s affordable and an essential choice if you want to improve your photography and be able to take those great shots that you can see in your head but can’t achieve on your instant camera, or your smartphone.
Have a good read of the instruction book, use online resources and make yourself familiar with how it works. Get in touch with your local College, or photography group, they can advise on workshops or classes available near your home. Social Media is a great way of finding out about courses. If you’re in North Wales, follow Business Wales, Glasdir Skills Academy and Coleg Llandrillo. Many of these practical courses are fully funded for small businesses so make the most of what’s available. I didn’t pay a penny to complete this course, but I needed to be active on Twitter to find out about it.
2 LOVE THE LIGHT
If you want to take great photographs, natural light is your best friend so make sure you are photographing during the day either outside or in a naturally lit room. Turn the electric lights off and put your subject near a window so you can maximise the sunlight. Direct sunlight is usually too harsh so experiment with diffused light by covering your windows with tracing paper or soft white fabric. Use white foam boards, large or small, to reflect the sunlight from the window back onto your subject. Even diffused light will create shadows on one side and this can be balanced by bouncing the light back towards the subject.
I have just purchased 2 large A1 sized white foam boards which I will be using to photograph my cakes – these will go flat on the table and behind the cakes, with a sheet of white cardboard to lay on top to remove the dark edge which the foam boards meet.
TOP TIP: Try and find the White Balance setting within your camera menu and set it to suit the conditions – this will hugely improve the colour hue of your photograph, particularly in artificial light.
3 IMAGINE THE WHOLE IMAGE
Ansel Adams, the great landscape photographer once said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. Adams also advocated the idea of visualization whereby you try and imagine the final image before the photo is taken, toward the goal of “achieving all together the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and mechanical effects desired”. He taught this and other techniques to thousands of amateur photographers through his publications and his workshops.
I follow a lot of bakers and cake decorators on Facebook and Twitter, and feel constantly disappointed when people ruin their photograph by just snapping it on the kitchen counter with a pile of dirty dishes in the background or by leaving the cake in the box. Backgrounds should be simple, tidy and use colours that compliment the cake. I struggle with this at home because I don’t have much space but I always try to photograph my cakes using plain or subtly decorated backgrounds – wrapping paper can work well as long as the colours are muted and compliment the cake.
4 APPLY INTERESTING ANGLES
There are 5 rules of composition for good photographs which are derived from the psychology of perception. Simplicity, Rule of Thirds, Lines of Force, Balance and Framing.
One of Adam’s most famous photographs, The Tetons and the Snake River, taken in 1942, shows how important these rules are to create an amazing photograph. Even to the untrained eye the line of the river pulls the viewer straight towards the mountains, and the balance and frame of the photo makes it a sheer pleasure to view. All 5 rules of composition are subtly meshed to create a most memorable photograph.
Now I’m no Ansel Adams and the lighting isn’t perfect, but I hope you can see how I’ve tried to use these composition rules with interesting angles to lead the eye towards the central cupcake. Not bad for a first attempt?
5 STYLE YOUR SET
Once you’ve balanced your light, thought about your image and how to compose it – all you need a dusting of creative flair. It’s about creating a lifestyle photo, something to inspire your customers, and give them something to aspire to.
In business and media this is done with varying degrees of artistic flair and resultant success!
One of my favourite photographers is Georgia Glynn Smith whose twitter account describes her as “an award winning food photographer and commercials director for the great and good of the food world. Always found with energy and a sense of humour”. I first came across Georgia when I discovered she does Peggy Porschen’s Photography – and fell in love with her styling immediately and am a great admirer of her work.
Another great photographic stylist is Shelly Jaronsky of ‘Cookies and Cups’, who goes by the strapline “buttercream is my medicine”. Don’t these cookies look delicious and the thoughtful styling just makes you want to lean in and snuffle one off the plate!
6 USE PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE
Darren Warner, who demonstrated a little of what Adobe Photoshop can do, gave us some wise advice that resonates with me. Photo editing is really cool but should only be used to enhance and improve a photograph so that it still looks natural and how it was meant to be. I am excited about putting my Photoshop training into action but would like to maintain some integrity as someone who loves photography first, and editing second.
7 HAVE FUN
Photography is only fun if you’re enjoying it, if it inspires you and if you see great photographs all around you. If it’s a chore, then just pay a professional to come and do some studio shots for you.
As for me, I got excited about photography long before my cake business started so it’s a natural partnership and something that makes me smile.
So if you’ve enjoyed reading this and it’s helped you even a little to take better photographs then I’m very glad. I’d love you to comment below and let me know what you think.
I’m hoping that you’ll notice my photos improving as I try to put my new skills into practice but you can be sure I’ll be having fun as me, my cakes and my camera continue on this journey.
Love Judith xx
Darren Warner https://myspace.com/darrenwarnerphotographer
Cookies and Cups http://www.cookiesandcups.com
Peggy Porschen http://www.peggyporschen.com
Georgia Glynn Smith http://www.glynnsmith.co.uk
Ansel Adams http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams
Glasdir Skills Academy http://www.glasdir.com
Business Wales http://www.business.wales.gov.uk
Coleg Llandrillo http://www.llandrillo.ac.uk
Sa Riera http://www.beguronline.com