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James Ransom's 5 Essential Photography Tips

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You might not realize it, but you know James Ransom -- he's the photographer behind many of the photos that make Food52 such a beautiful place. Today, we asked him to share five essential photography tips that will make all of your food look better.

Beet Tart on Food52

1. Keep things clear.
I try to use daylight as much as possible in my photography. That means I’m often at the mercy of the weather and the seasons; it gets dark really early in December and January. If you're using a window as your main source of light, the first thing you should do is turn off all of the lights in the room, as well as in any nearby rooms. Daylight and ambient (household) lights show up as different colors in your camera, so when they mix together it can get ugly -- think about that time your picture came out really yellow. Turn off all the lights in the room to isolate your light source, and you’ll be surprised how nicely the image comes out.  

Spicy Shrimp on Food52

2. Hold steady.
I recommend mounting your camera on some sort of tripod. When using daylight indoors (i.e. light from a window or a doorway), the exposure is usually long enough that you can’t hand-hold the camera without getting a shaky, blurry image. Even if you’re just using the “auto” setting on your camera, getting it to stay really still will go a long way.  

3. Set up your lighting right -- like this:
Here’s an example of a typical lighting set up that I use: I have the plate of pasta on a linen on a table, and I’m aiming the camera from directly overhead. I have a big window to my left that has a white, translucent sheet of fabric covering it to make the light softer, and I’ve blocked off all other light sources in the room with sheets of black foam core. This enables me to get strong, dark shadows, and bright, saturated colors.

Marcella Sauce on Food52

4. The Biggest Mistake to Avoid:
Every photographer is different, but for me, the number one lighting no-no is using the lights in your house as a main light source. This light usually comes from directly overhead, which gives you strong, funky shadows that you can’t control, and the color of the light is usually really warm, or green, depending on what kind of lights you have. Without making sort-of-complicated changes to your camera’s settings, there’s not a whole lot you can do. So try to use natural light, or if necessary, use a flash -- even if it’s the one built in your camera.

Fennel, Onion, and Orange Salad on Food52

5. The Makings of a Great Picture:
Despite everything I’ve said about lighting so far, I think the most important part of taking a good picture is its composition. A good composition is visually balanced and keeps your eye moving around the image. You don’t look at it and feel like something or someone is going to tip over. You can tell when a photo has great composition when you spend more time looking at it than you realize -- it’s pleasing to the eye. If you’re photographing a person or an object, pay attention to everything else in the photo (like that tree coming out of someone’s head); you’ll be surprised at how much better your photos are just from concentrating on this one tip. 

Folded Stacks by James Ransom on Food52

On a trip to India a few years ago, I got to stop and take pictures at a laundry facility near Kochi. This still life of clothes being folded is my favorite picture that I’ve taken so far; I just love the light and the bright colors of the fabrics, as well as the color and texture of the wall. A lot of the work that I do is styled and set up, but finding natural beauty in my surroundings is what really fuels my passion for photography.

Tell us: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to food photography?

All photos by James Ransom

Tags: Lists, Photography & Styling