ON SUBMITTING FOOD IMAGES TO FOOD SITES
Being a relative newcomer to the world of food blogging, I’m not sure my experience in submitting food images to the premier food sites (such as Foodgawker and Tastespotting) counts for much. But I always enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with people and in the interest of helping other newbie food bloggers who, like myself at the beginning, craved any and all information on the subject, here it is.
From my experience, there is a distinct learning period when you first start out – you’re trying to figure out what the food sites want and whether or not you can give it to them (or want to give it to them!). The first images I submitted were the ‘snaps’ I had already taken of some previously made dishes (see images below). I felt pretty proud of them and couldn’t wait to share them with the cooking community, so you can imagine the sense of disappointment when they were rejected. Despite telling myself to be philosophical about it, it felt personal. And it kept feeling personal as the rejections rolled in. At one point I seriously contemplated chucking it in.
So I had two options – either I had to concede that it simply wasn’t worth the effort, or I had to put aside my bruised ego and make a real go of it. I decided on the latter and went head-on in into research mode – really studying the images the food sites were accepting and recognizing the enormous difference between their photos and mine. That is the first important step it seems to me – acknowledging the gap.
Then I began to read anything I could get my hands on about how to get the food sites to accept your images – I was voracious! I also bought a few food blogging books, which were seriously helpful – the most user friendly one to start off with, was Matt Armendariz’s ‘Food Photography for Bloggers’. Another helpful, easy to read book for beginners was the e-book ‘Tasty Food Photography’ by Pinch of Yum, which provided helpful video tutorials on post-editing. The next two books were more advanced: ‘Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots’ by Nicole S. Young, which focused on professional food styling with a heavy emphasis on post-editing, and my personal favourite, ‘Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling’ by Helene Dujardin. I felt this book had a more balanced coverage of all aspects of food photography without over-emphasising any one part. I particularly loved her food images and made good use of a lot of her suggestions for styling and presentation.
After all this research, I began to get a much more realistic view of my own photography and could start picking more easily those shots which had potential and which were bad eggs. I started experimenting with my set-ups, the props (I began collecting odds and ends from antique stores and kitchen shops), and the composition and lighting of my shots. This research and experimentation started paying dividends and I got my first ‘accept’ (see image below) very quickly afterwards. Yee ha! What a moment that was! I literally screamed! You’d have thought I’d won Lotto!
Now, the competitor in me started kicking in. Rejected images only made me more determined to do better next time. While frustrated at the limited reasoning given by the food sites as to why they’d rejected an image, I resolved to use it to better my photography. And one thing I learned along the way – more often than not, their decision was absolutely right. As I’ve become more practiced, I can look back at those early rejected images and completely understand their reasoning. But then.. just occasionally.. it has to be said.. there’s no rhyme or reason for their rejection. You compare your rejected image to some of the ones on their sites and you can’t help but question their decision. The simple fact is, it’s individuals who are judging your images and that of course means that subjectivity enters the equation. Nothing you can do about that. You learn to let the sense of injustice go and move on.
However, for those shots which genuinely just don’t cut the mustard, or which make you cringe a little when you look at them, here’s a suggestion. Reshoot them. For example, my photo of chocolate brownies (see image below left) was justifiably rejected because, as you can see, the composition and lighting were pretty bad. So, some three months later, I decided to make the brownies again and redeem my photography efforts. The result was the image to the right which, frankly, was a much better shot and this time it was accepted.
Likewise, my mini pavlova photo. The image (see below left) was rejected both for composition and for lighting. Truth be told, I took the photo at night with the room light on, so the white balance was completely off (and one thing the food sites dislike more than anything, is bad lighting!). So, many months later, I remade the pavlova and reshot it (see below right) to much better effect. And, as you can see, my pavlova making had improved as well!
Now, an invaluable tool I must mention. Right from the start, and for a number of months while I was learning, I kept a digital record tabling all the submissions I made, showing when I made them, who I made them to, what the photo was of, whether it was accepted or rejected and, if the latter, why. You might wonder why on earth I’d do it to myself, but truly it is such a valuable resource if you are genuinely looking to improve your skills. Over time, you begin to see trends in the reasons your photos are rejected – mine were almost always either composition (awkward angle) or lighting (dull/unsharp). These trends show you where the gaps are and what you need to work on. They also, on the other hand, show you what IS working. If you have any accepted images, study them just as much as your rejected ones – figure out the commonalities amongst them and do more of it! You’ll find the list of rejections will start to be interspersed with more acceptances (I always highlighted these in vivid red!) and, eventually, they’ll start evening out and even reversing, and that’s real cause for celebration!
On the subject of cameras, I would have to say that the camera you use can make quite a bit of difference, though I’m a great believer that it’s the photographer that makes great photos, not the camera. I’ve seen bad photos come from a DSLR and fabulous ones come from a ‘point and shoot’. That said, I had been using a high-end ‘point and shoot’ – a lovely camera – but I had already begun to suspect that a lot of my rejects were happening due to its limitations. The main issue was when I took close-up photos of objects from a three-quarter angle – the objects closest to the lens often looked disproportionately larger, hence the many ‘awkward angle’ comments I received. In the Pinch of Yum e-book ‘Tasty Food Photography‘, it’s stated that this phenomenon is common to ‘point and shoots’ due to their fixed lenses and the suggestion was to move to shooting food from a bird’s eye view, which I did from that point on (see images below).
I have to be honest though, working around camera issues in that way soon frustrated my need to be creative and I resolved to buy a DSLR. Budget dictated that I could only afford an entry-mid level camera, so I asked around and did some online research and decided on the well-established and well-reviewed Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550D. While it came with two kit lenses (18-55mm and 55-250mm), I very quickly added a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens (otherwise known as the ‘Nifty Fifty’). Thanks to the new camera and lens, I could now take great three-quarter angle shots without the props looking distorted and, even better, explore the magic that is ‘depth of field’ – you know, where the food is in perfect focus, but everything else disappears into soft, dreamy fuzziness…
One thing I had no idea about when buying my camera though was that it, like most entry and mid-level DSLRs, had a cropped sensor – in my case, a crop factor of 1.6 (if you want to know more, I encourage you to research online). This meant that my lovely new 50mm lens, a common food photography lens, essentially operated like an 80mm lens. In other words, I was perpetually zoomed into the food I was photographing and it was virtually impossible to capture a table full of food and dishes unless I stepped back a fair distance or placed the set-up down on the ground. Frustrating for sure.
So, after a year and a half of working around these limits, it came time to decide whether to upgrade to a full-frame camera or purchase a wider angle lens to compensate for the crop factor. For budgeting reasons and because I felt my camera still had a lot to offer I chose the latter, purchasing the highly regarded Sigma 30mm 1.4 ART lens which, on my camera, equates to a 48mm focal length. Finally, I could enjoy the same angle of view that full-frame camera users get with their 50mm lenses. Bliss…
Now, one last thing worth mentioning. The food blogging books I bought gave me a real insight into the value of learning how to edit my photos. I had already owned Photoshop, but had barely used any of its functions beyond the cropping and brightening tools! Now I started reading everything the authors had to say on the subject of editing and I tried them all out along the way (just beware though, the food sites don’t like obvious manipulation so keep it subtle).
Furthermore, with the purchase of my DSLR came the ability to shoot images in RAW mode and it opened up a whole new world. Now I could edit images freely without reducing their quality and make subtle, yet powerful changes to my photos (see ‘before and after’ shots below, showing the original RAW photo to the left and the post-edited shot to the right). This all, of course, improved my chances of having my images accepted by the food sites. So the ability to post-edit your images is a serious advantage and I would highly recommend that you access any one of the editing software packages (some of them are free) and learn at least the basics.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling from me. I hope this has been of use to someone out there who, like me, wants to improve their food photography. It’s well worth the effort – there’s nothing quite like the pride you feel when you have not only cooked something fabulous, but presented and photographed it beautifully too and, yes… had it accepted by the food site of your choice. At the end of the day though, it’s important not to let one individual’s judgement of your photograph impact on how you feel about yourself or your abilities. It’s just not that important. Think of the process as more of a fun challenge and, with persistence and a dose of light-heartedness, your efforts should ultimately pay off.