Cookie Photography For Dummies

Believe it or not, photography is a very important part of cookie decorating.  A bad photo can make even the prettiest cookies look ugly.  If you sell your cookies good pictures are especially important because your “portfolio” plays a huge role in attracting potential clients.  If it’s full of bad photos you may never get another chance to impress them.

It seemed appropriate to call my talk “Cookie Photography for Dummies”  because am far from a great photographer.  However, I have learned a few tricks and tips over time that make things little easier, especially for those of us who are photographically challenged. So, from now on, no more ugly photos. Pretty is the name of the game.

1. Use pretty platters and a simple background.

First of all, ditch the bags and cookie sheets in favor of a pretty platter.  As you can see, I have a prop problem {to match my cutter and icing tip problem} but all you really need is one or two.  I recommend white because it goes with almost anything and does not detract from the cookies.  Once you’re a little more comfortable with the photography thing you can definitely add different colors, but for a beginner this is a good start.

When it comes to cookie photos, I usually skip the fancy tools in favor of a simple white poster/foam board.  I learned this trick from Glorious Treats on Flickr a few years back and it changed my life.  Most of the photos I take begin like this, and end with me doing contortionist-like moves to get just the right shot.

Combined with good natural light this is about all you need to take a great photo.  However, if you want to take it even a bit further, I have a few more tips that will take your photos from good to even better.

2. Buy a decent camera and learn how to use it.

I bought a Cannon EOS Rebel T3i bundle just like this one, which came with a 18-55mm lens that has worked perfectly for my cookie pics.  I know that this kind of camera isn’t in everyone’s budget so if you can’t afford it, don’t panic.  There are people {like Bridget} who have used an affordable point and shoot camera with amazing results. If you can swing the $800, though, do it.  I paid a little over $1000 for mine a year ago and it’s been worth every penny . You have the choice of other brands {like Nikon}, of course, but I know my Canon, so that’s what used for it for the following examples.

With a camera like this, it really is hard to take a bad photo but it takes time to learn how to use it.  The most important thing you should do {even if you are completely camera illiterate} resist the urge to put it in AUTO mode.  I used to only shoot in AUTO until my friend Cheryl pointed out that if I do this I pretty much paid a fortune for a point and shoot camera.  Since that day it’s stayed in manual.

Once again, I am no expert and I can’t even begin to grasp the things my camera can do, but if I were to name the two most helpful functions I have learned as a beginner, it would be these.

See that little button labeled ISO?  That’s an important one.  I don’t even know what it stands for and I really don’t care.  But what I do know it that is can make a dark photo light and vice versa.  If you push that little button it will give you a list of ISO choices from 100 to 3200. I generally try to keep it between 200 and 400 because according to Plate to Pixel, {which I highly recommend if you’re any kind of interested in pretty food shots} the lower the ISO, the less grainy the photo will be, and she really seems to know what she’s talking about.

My next favorite camera function is exposure compensation.  This is another way of brightening/darkening a photo.  You adjust exposure compensation using the little dial shown below. You can see the range on both the display screen and through the viewfinder.  To keep it simple, as you count up from zero, the photos get lighter.  As you move backwards, darker. I always think of ISO as the primary way to control how light or dark your photos are and exposure compensation as a “tweak”.

What I like about these functions is that even if I have waited a little too late in the day or if it’s cloudy and overcast, I still have the ability to manipulate the light to my liking.

Anyway, that’s about all I know about my camera for now, so until I take a class that’s all I’ve got.  In the meantime, here is my second secret to pretty cookie photos…a light box.

3. Use a light box, day or night.

Until a few months ago I always thought of my light box as a way to take photos when it was too dark to use natural light.  However, in recent months I have noticed it also works well for diffusing natural light.  I used to run all over the house looking for the perfect light, but now I just find a bright spot and let my box do the rest.

Although I have been through several light boxes, this one is my favorite by far. This was another tip I learned from Cheryl, who led me to this tutorial.  There are about a gazillion ways to do this, so before you begin construction, I suggest Googling “PVC lightbox” or something similar to get an idea of the options available.

This is what a typical setup often looks like when I am taking pictures.

Sometimes I even use couplers to prop the platter up a little so I can get a little better angle on the shot.

Here is an example of a photo was taken without a light box, compared to one with. Both are great photos, but in the second photo the light box has eliminated a lot of the harsh shadowing and is true to the actual color of the cookies.

As I mentioned, I most often shoot the cookies over a plain white background, but every once in a while I’ll feel a little frisky and add props like the lace I used here.  Since I am a poor planner who lives thirty miles from town, I don’t use them as often as I should, but fun props can really improve a photo.

{You may also notice that in this photo my box has migrated from the table to the window seat to take advantage of better light.  The more photos you take the more you’ll learn about your home’s best photo spots.}

4. Experiment with angles and create shots that appeal to you.

Now that we’ve covered props, cameras, and light boxes let’s talk quickly about experimenting with different camera angles and shots.  I tend to prefer close-up, cookie filled shots.  I can’t say this kind of creativity will get you on Foodgawker, but I’ve slowly learned to accept the rejection as long as I am happy with the final results…said with the slightest twinge of passive aggressiveness, but they’re pretty right?

Sometimes I get all up in my cookie’s grill, but it’s worth it for shots like these.  They are kind of my favorite.

5. Use photo editing software or programs to tweak your photos.

My newest goal is to take such a good pics that I won’t have to spend time editing, but more often than not, I miss the mark.  In cases like this photo editing tools come in very handy. I have to use programs like Picmonkey {formerly known as Piknic} to help me because I can’t work programs like Photoshop Elements.  I don’t know if it’s all those layers, but something about it just scares me. Picmonkey has several simple straightforward functions that even an editing dummy like me can comprehend, along with humorous tips and directions, which I love.

Simple crops and edits work wonders, as you can see here.

See how this photo completely changed with a little cropping?

My two favorite Picmonkey functions the are auto-exposure and neutral picker.  The extent of most of my editing includes a crop, using the neutral picker to correct and color problems I might have, and then using the auto exposure to find the perfect level of light for my photo.  The better the initial picture, the easier it is.

If you’ve never used these function before they are very easy.  Auto exposure takes a simple click.  As for neutral picker, click the button and a dropper will appear.  Use it to click on something in the photo that you know to be white and Picmonkey will correct any problems it might find.  In my experience, it helps sometimes to click around until the image looks good to you.  If you screw up, don’t panic, because going backward is as simple as clicking the undo arrow.  Most photo editing programs have some version of these tools, it’s just a matter of figuring out what they are called.

In hindsight, this should have been a two part series, but I’ve been gone for about a week so I figured I could get away with hitting you with a lot at once and even though this is the longest post EVER, this is only a smidge of all the things I have learned since I made a goal to take better pictures.

Just in case you got borde with all my rambling, here are my tips again, in a nutshell:

  • Use pretty white platter for props with a white background
  • Buy the best camera you can afford
  • Learn to work the ISO and exposure compensation functions on your camera
  • Use a light box
  • Don’t be afraid to edit your photos a bit if you aren’t happy with them.

If you are looking for a different ways to build a light box, here are my favorites:

These blogs inspire my day to day photography:

And I will never be as great as these photographers, but I LOVE looking at their work:

Remember, I am only a beginner myself, and I still take some UGLY photos, but I am learning and you can too!  If you have any questions or tips, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.  If I can’t answer it, I will find someone who can and we all love a good tip.

Have a great weekend and take lots of beautiful pictures!