Tips from Professional Food Photographer Gary Tardiff

I think I speak for the majority of food bloggers when I say that I started a blog because I love cooking and wanted a way to share my recipes with other foodies. But, I quickly realized that no matter how creative and delicious your recipes are, no one will actually be inspired to make them unless they look appetizing! Photography has never been a strong point of mine, and although I think my photos have come a long way since I started my blog, my TasteSpotting and FoodGawker acceptance rates only hover around 30%. I want to do better – I want people to drool when they see my photos!

One night, a few months ago, while I was attempting to edit a particularly blah set of photos, I thought to myself – I really wish I had professional help. Oh a whim, I googled “Boston food photography” and was immediately blown away by the mouth-watering photos on professional food photographer Gary Tardiff’s website. Before I lost my nerve, I quickly sent him an email asking if he would be willing to give a group of local food bloggers some tips. Now I really wasn’t expecting to hear anything back, so you can imagine how excited I was when Gary said he would love to have us all visit his studio!

So instead of posting a recipe today, I’m going to give you a behind the scenes look at a professional food photographer in action and share some of the wonderful tips he gave us! Spending the afternoon with Gary was absolutely amazing! He spent over 3 hours demonstrating how he takes such gorgeous pictures and answering all our questions!

Gary has been a professional food photographer for 32 years and mainly does advertising work for companies and restaurants, like Chili’s, Dunkin Donuts, Kraft, and Pillsbury, to name a few. 95% of his photos are taken in his studio in Southie, which has a kitchen stocked with every type of food prop you can imagine (we were all insanely jealous of his wall of colorful plates). He stressed that 99% of the food he photographs is real and prepared just the way it would be at home.

Here are some of my favorite tips:

Understand and use the exposure triangle – ISO, shutter speed, and aperture – to your advantage. Exposure is the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor. I already had a basic understanding of this concept but really loved his analogy of thinking about it because it can get confusing! He said to imagine a perfect exposure as a half full glass of water (with underexposure being less than half full and overexposure being entirely full). Shutter speed is how quickly the water from the faucet above the glass is turned on and off. Aperture is the size of the stream of water (how far the faucet is opened, with a large aperture being a larger stream of water). The size of the glass is ISO (how much water is needed to half fill the cup, which is how sensitive the camera sensor is to light).

There are many ways to get the glass half full and all three parameters relate to one another. With food photography, you should have a nice light source and can usually use a low sensitivity ISO of 100 or 200 (the lower the ISO the less noise you have, but the higher the number the more sensitive the sensor is to light, so in a low light situation (e.g it’s cloudy out) you may need a high ISO and have to deal with slightly more grainy photos), so you mostly have to worry about the aperture and shutter speed relationship. Aperture changes the depth of field, so you may want to pick the aperture first and then adjust the shutter speed as needed to get the correct exposure. For example, if you decide to use a small aperture to get a large depth of field (so an entire plate of cupcakes is sharp) then the shutter speed will need to be longer – the faucet is a small stream of water so it must be left on for a longer period of time. If you decide to use a large aperture to get a shallow depth of field (one cupcake is sharp and the rest are blurred in the background), then the shutter speed will need to be shorter – the faucet is a large stream so you need to shut it off quickly. In general, in food photography, we’re not worried about capturing motion and mostly concerned about depth of field, but if, for example, you want a quick shutter speed to freeze the motion of a drizzle of caramel about to hit a cupcake, you can select your shutter speed first and then adjust the aperture as needed to retain the correct exposure.

Along these lines, play with the depth of field. Your DSLR standard kit lens may not be the best for food photography because the aperture range is limited. With a large aperture, only the part of the picture you are focusing on is sharp and the rest is blurred (e.g. f/1.4 – as a side note, f stops are like fractions so just like 1/2 is bigger than 1/4, f/1.4 is larger than f/10) so you have a shallow depth of field. With a smaller aperture (e.g. f/10), more of the image becomes sharp and you get a larger depth of field. For example, on my standard 18-55mm Canon zoom lens, the maximum aperture is only f/5.6 at 55mm. If you invest in a prime 55mm lens (a stable lens that does not zoom), you can get a f/1.4 or f/1.8. I just added one of these to my wishlist! While it’s nice to eventually learn how to manually focus your camera (selecting ISO, aperture, and shutter speed on your own), many cameras have semi-automatic settings you can use where you pick your aperture, for example, and then the camera selects the correct ISO and shutter speed for you. This is a great starting point. Also, Gary actually never uses a macro lens, so you can certainly get great shots with just the prime!

Use a tripod. First, it slows you down, so instead of quickly snapping a shot it makes you think more about what you want to feature in the photo. Second, it prevents blurry photos when you’re using a long shutter speed.

Always adjust the white balance directly on your camera before taking your shots. Basically, you take a picture of something white and then tell the camera that’s what white is (your camera manual should have specifics on how to do this!). This is important because different types of light have different hues (e.g. tungsten incandescent bulbs cast a yellow hue). Gary does use Photoshop, where you can adjust white balance with a raw image, but prefers to get the image as close to perfect as possible when he’s taking it. Also, always shoot in raw format and then make adjustments. Shooting in JPEG already compresses your image and colors are lost!

Set up a lighting studio that mimics natural light and play with the lighting until you’re satisfied with the image. This is fun and doesn’t have to be expensive! Here’s what Gary set up:

He always backlights the food. In this case, the light on the left side of the photo is being softened (this reduces the number of harsh shadows) by the screen in front of it. He uses vellum paper (which can be bought at art supply stores) mounted on a wooden frame for the screens. He also uses different sized mirrors and white particle board to reflect light where needed.  I really enjoyed watching him in action playing with the light and I’m now dreaming of turning our extra bedroom into a lighting studio!

Take the time to learn how to set the focus points on your camera instead of using autofocus. Your camera doesn’t know what you want to focus on!

And finally, have fun with different props and colored plates.  When shooting Adrienne’s loaf of bread, Gary placed the loaf on a small wooden cutting board and then placed a bread knife and napkin in front of it.  In less than 30 seconds his picture immediately looked better than any of mine!  I definitely want to improve in this area.

I hope these tips have been helpful to everyone!  A HUGE, HUGE, HUGE thank you to Gary for taking time out of his busy schedule to help us!  Also, I’m still processing everything we went over, so check out everyone’s blogs for more tips I may have missed and examples of the food we brought and took pictures of in Gary’s studio!


From left to right,
Back row: Shannon, Jen, Sophie, me, Chels
Middle row: Lauren, Adrienne, Elina, Mary Kate
Front row:  NicoleCaraKellyJen, Sues

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44 Responses to Tips from Professional Food Photographer Gary Tardiff

  1. Emily says:

    Awesome post, Kerstin! I wish I could have been there.

  2. elra says:

    Oh Kerstin, thank you so much for posting your experience with a professional photographer. Such a wonderful and informative post. I think I want to learn more about photography. Thank you!

  3. dani says:

    i would give anything for some in-person tip like that! thanks for sharing :)

  4. Thanks so much for organizing! I got some great tips and it was nice to see meet everyone!

  5. candice says:

    Haha, the idea of playing around with boards to get the “perfect” lighting always scares me a bit. I mean, what if I end up darkening it or something?! Haha. It’s so cool how you were able to experience this firsthand! Really jealous. :P

  6. Joanne says:

    Awesome post! Thanks so much for all of the info! I really want to put some of those boards together to make my own well-lit studio area. One of these days I will get around to it…

    I want that wall of plates!!

  7. [...] speed, all that good stuff!) Kerstin gives a great technical wrap up of everything he went though here, but these are the most important tips I got out of the 3 hour [...]

  8. Jenious says:

    Thanks for sharing this helpful post! (Please keep me in the loop if another opportunity like this is arranged.)
    :-) Thanks!

  9. Elina says:

    30% acceptance rate at that those sites is pretty awesome, actually.
    Your recap is fabulous. You added so much more of a background on basics – I love that! I’m going to save this post because all of the photo lingo is still confusing to me. I get it when I really concentrate but it’s not natural to me yet. Thank you, thank you, thank you for organizing this. I LOVED seeing Gary in action. Can’t wait to experiment more on my own!

  10. This has got my heart…..the cupboard with the racks and racks of plates……that’s my dream :-) and now I know how to store them. You guys must have had a fab day…..Wow

  11. Lucy says:

    What a wonderful experience – you must have learnt so much, because I learnt lots just from this post! Thank you so much for sharing.

  12. grace says:

    my photography skills need quite a bit of work, and i pounce on any tips that are ever offered. this must’ve been such a useful and interesting experience!

  13. Pam says:

    Great post! I am always trying to get better at taking photos too. Thanks for all of the information.

  14. Excellent tips, thank you for sharing this with us!

  15. Natashya says:

    What fun! Such a great experience. It is quite possible he has more plates than me.. :)

  16. Thank you so much for setting everything up on Saturday! It was such a blast — I bet all Boston art stores will be sold out of vellum by the end of the week =) We should catch lunch again sometime over the next few weeks, with Shannon too! Great meet up, and your recap is awesome.

  17. Bob says:

    Great tips, wish I could have gone! Heh, it’s weird that I live in Boston (well, near it) but haven’t heard of most of the bloggers that went with you.

  18. THANK YOU for these tips…I need to go back and read them more carefully…and then figure out what they actually mean ;) but I appreciate the time you took to write them all out. I am so new with my camera and taking pictures of food…my foodgawker/tastespotting acceptance rate is still a big fat 0 and I’m determined to change that!

  19. Juliana says:

    Kerstin, thanks for the tips…very informative…again, thank you!

  20. Blond Duck says:

    I feel so educated now.

  21. Sues says:

    Thank you SO much for setting this up!!! It was so informative and Gary was awesome. Also, it was great to finally meet you!! :)

  22. Reeni says:

    What a nice man to have you all come to his studio and share these great tips! Thanks so much for passing them on to us. I can’t wait to try them.

  23. Hélène says:

    What a great day you must have had. This is so nice of him. I wish I could be with all of you.

  24. sophia says:

    Kerstin, thank you so much for this detailed and well-written post on your experience! I wish I could have been there too…I need to work on my photography skills, because I keep getting rejected from Tastespotting!

  25. This is my favorite post today, on so many levels. How great the community can get together like this

    great post

  26. Meghan says:

    Wow, this is so awesome Kerstin! Good for you for sending him an email!!! It’s amazing what can happen if you just ask – the worst they can say is no (living by that motto is a lot harder than saying it though haha). This is such great information and I’m saving it for when I finally take the plunge into a DSLR. I’ve been surprised by how good my point-and-shoot is actually, but the focusing thing is a big issue; I’m having to take 10-15 pictures just to get a decent one. I love his collection of dishes as well! It makes me think that I should start collecting 1-2 plates/bowls of neat patterns when I see them on sale…hmmm :) And I totally want a light studio in a spare bedroom, someday when we have one to spare that is! Great post!!!

  27. Nicole, RD says:

    Wow! What an awesome experience and wonderful advice…from what I could make of it. I’m not a photography-inclined person at all, but I want to take a photography class!

    Did Gary mention what a great camera might be for “starters” or for purposes such as food photography? I want a new camera but without knowing WHAT I want, I’m skeptical to shell out the $$!

    Thanks for sharing!

  28. Bo says:

    Thanks so much for posting this…I think we all want to be able to take better photos of our food.

  29. what an incredible experience! thansk for sharing the great tips, too ;)

  30. Wow, thanks sooo much for posting this! Great tips!

    *Check out the week of giveaways on monicaonthego.com*

  31. Jen says:

    Kerstin – what a great recap from Saturday! Thanks SO MUCH for organizing this day with Gary.

  32. sharon says:

    Wow! That’s so nice of him to have you guys over, and so great of you to organize! Photography is one thing that I love, but also hate. I just need to invest some time in getting better. Great post!

  33. Wendy says:

    How cool. Thanks for sharing. I wish I had more time to really focus on photography. These days, I’m just lucky to have enough time to bake let alone take pictures. Thank god for the camera on my iphone. :P

  34. my spatula says:

    such a great post, kerstin – sounds like a super fun way to spend the day!

  35. yasmeen says:

    Great tips ,thanks so much for posting this Kerstin :D

  36. megan says:

    Wow, that is so cool you all got to go hang with a professional. Thanks for the tips. I need all the help I can get! :)

  37. kitchenbelle says:

    Thank you so much for organizing this event! Gary was so nice and the session was so informative. And it was great to see you again!

  38. Kerstin says:

    I’m glad everyone enjoyed the tips! Gary was so awesome! Thanks to everyone for coming and making it such a fun event :)

    Jenious – I definitely will and just added you to my email list so I won’t forget!

    Elina – I’m still digesting everything too, but writing out this post definitely helped.

    Sophie – Yes, they’ll be all out LOL :) We should definitely get together again soon!

    Meghan – Yes, I feel like I need to start stocking up single plates! I did that with a few placemats awhile ago, but haven’t actually used them yet!

    Nicole – I didn’t hear him give any specific recommendations, but I believe his personal camera was a Canon. I think it’s all about knowing how to use all the functions your current camera offers and getting the right lens!

  39. How great! This is an excellent tutorial and I am sure you learned so much more actually getting to watch him work!
    Awesome!

  40. Alex says:

    That is so freakin cool your local food photog gave all of you that tour/tutorial!! You’d be amazed how much OCF can improve a photo (doesn’t auto-fil flash make you gag??) BTW, I bought adobe LR last summer, and it’s worth the price, if not solely for the white bal adjustments. Keep up the good work!

  41. What a great day. Sounds like he shared a lot of very useful info!

  42. Debby says:

    I am so far behind in blogging and reading blogs, so I’m just now catching this post. What a wealth of information! Lucky girl that you got this photographer to teach tips. I so want to take class in food photography– but first, I hope to upgrade to a better camera. I can hardly wait for longer days of natural lighting, which is how I shoot, for now. Great post!

  43. ingrid says:

    Thanks for the info Kerstin. I’m actually going to print out the post and highlight some points and make myself some notes. I need a lot of help myself!
    ~ingrid

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