Where should I focus? Q&A


Food Photography Focus Strategy

When I first read this question, I thought that it might be a little too simple to address on my “Advanced Food Photography Blog”, but then I remembered that just in the last year, I must of asked myself this very question a hundred times. The question is a simple one but the answer is often times a tough one.  With most shots, the answer is obvious, but with some shots, I really have to give the question a lot of thought.  When asking myself where I need to focus, there are several things I consider.  Each situation is different, but here is my basic thought process on selecting a focus strategy for my food photography.

Maximum focus

1. When I need as much focus as possible, I select what I think are the two most important items that I just HAVE to have in focus and then I focus 1/3 of the way in between those two points. Most people think that if you want point “A” and point “B” to both be in focus, you would focus half way in between the two.  That is not the way focus works.

It’s said that the 1/2 -2/3 rule of focus works with a normal lens and with longer the lens, the more  rule leans toward 1/2-1/2.  That means that I should select a point closer to half way between the two important points.  I often take a wooden skewer, used my food stylists to poke stuff around, and lay it 1/3 of the way between the two “must have” focus points.  I focus on the skewer and then take a test shot. That will usually confirm to me if my focus strategy is working or not.  If it’s not, I simply adjust.

If I do a test shot and decide that I don’t have enough in focus, you’ll need to take one of more of the following actions.

Available light

a. You can use a smaller aperture on you lens.  The larger the f-stop number, the more depth of field.  If you’re using window light, or a continuous artificial light, or even the ambient room light, you’ll also need to adjust your shutter speed to compensate for the change.  If you usually don’t use a tripod for your food photography, you might find that this adjustment puts you into a slow enough shutter speed that it causes camera shake and blurry images.  Be on the lookout for that.  You might need to bump up the ISO to put your shutter speed back where you usually have it.  Or… you could use a tripod, then you don’t have to worry about it and you’re assured shake-free photos each and every time.


b. If you use strobe for your food photography, like I do,  you can either pump up the light output of our strobe to give you a higher f-stop, or you can crank up the ISO. Either one of these techniques will help and to get the desired aperture, or you may have to use both methods.

After you make the adjustments, just do another test shot and see where you are. This process of “shoot and adjust”, “shoot and adjust” is one reason that professional food photographers like to work with “stand in” food.  All this tweaking takes time and if it takes too long, the food you’re  shooting ends up looking less than perfect.   You’ll want to time it so that the hero food is ready at the same time that all your adjustments have been finalized.  That way, you’ll be able to shoot the moment the “hero” food hits the table.  In reality, you may need to compensate for the differences between the “stand in” and the “hero” foods, but those changes should be minimal.

Minimum Focus

The really tough decision is when I want to use the “minimal focus” look and I can’t figure out where to focus.  In this situation, I usually do one of two things…

a. Find something interesting to focus on.  If the shot is of a steak and the front edge of the steak is really heavily textured and visually interesting, I focus there.  If I’m shooting a salad and there is a really cool looking pea or bean or something that just seems to jump out at me, I choose that to focus on.

b. Make something interesting to focus on.  There may be times when I need to move elements of the photo to give me something to interesting to focus on.  I end up placing the very best french fry or the best looking strawberry, just where I think it would do the most good.  If the nicest raspberry is in the back of the shot and not in the front somewhere more prominent, then I move it.  I do this all the time and it solves the focus decision problem.

c. Use the rule of thirds.  If you have ever studied composition, you’ve heard of the “rule of thirds”.  The idea has to do with balance, tension, eye flow, and all kind of artsy stuff.  The fact is, the rule of thirds seems to apply to focus too.  When all else fails and there seems to be nothing prominent or interesting to focus on, then I’m usually safe to focus 1/3 the way into the shot.  This applies to when when have a field of the same elements. A good example of this would be a closeup of a bowl of cereal.  One piece of shredded wheat looks pretty much like another, so in cases like this, it usually works out best when I focus 1/3 the way up the field.  What happens is, by focusing on one particular piece of shredded wheat, I’m now making “it” the most interesting piece in the bowl.  You’re eye is drawn to that piece, just because it’s in focus.

One thing to remember, the “RULE” of 1/3s is just a rule, and rules are meant to be broken.  You should experiment and try new things whenever you get a chance. Remember, food photography is  art.

Do you need more or less focus?  There are times , usually way after the set is struck, when I question whether I should of used more or less depth of field.  It’s usually a good idea to “bracket” your focus and then pick out the best one later.  Hindsight is always better, so why not give yourself some choices later?

That’s it for today!  Please, I’m ALWAYS looking for more questions to answer, so if you have a food photography question, please leave it in the comments field below.  If you have any ideas of topics you;d like me to cover in my blog here, just let me know.  I’d appreciate the ideas and any feedback you could give me.


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