Disclaimer: The above title is in no way announcing a post on how to shoot self-portraits. Thank you for your attention.
This morning, I was browsing the Food Photography and Styling group at Food Blog Forum (if you’re a food blogger or contemplating venturing into it, I highly recommend joining the community). One of the discussions started was about submitting photos to Taste Spotting and Food Gawker (if you’re a food eater or contemplating venturing into the vicious cycle of ogle-rumbling tummy-cook-eat-ogle again, I highly recommend browsing those sites).
When you submit a photo to either of those sites, one of the technical requirements is that you crop it to 1:1 aspect ratio. In other words, they use square images. And when I went through my existing photos to pick a few to submit for the first time, the biggest problem I had was that what I felt were my best photos did not lend well to square cropping. And often, I had to settle for my second or third choices because I couldn’t find a way to make my first choice fit nicely in a square. (And I didn’t want to just pad the sides to fake a square.)
Case in point: my favorite The Bar photo. I love this because it shows the wonderful texture of the bar, the richness of the nuts and dates inside it, and the stacked bars look inviting because it gives the impression that you’re getting a generous serving.
See, I like getting in close and taking photos that fill the frame. I like shooting in portrait orientation, and I just couldn’t find a decent way to crop this into a square without making it look like some abstract photo.
So instead, I had to make do with a different photo. But again, as you can see, this is still in portrait orientation, and it works best with the space above and below the bars.
But at least I could crop this to a square without cutting off the actual bars, and this is what I ended up with.
I wasn’t thrilled with it, but it was the best I could do.
When you shoot multiple shots for a single recipe, it can be quite time-consuming to sift through all those photos looking for shots you can crop into a square. Sometimes, you end up using a less-than-ideal shot, figuring the small size required will make the flaws less glaring (and yes, they will).
I’ve always been an advocate for getting it right in-camera the first time, because my goal is always to spend as little time as possible post processing. I tell myself to get the exposure right so I don’t have to tweak it so much using curves. Make sure it’s sharp so I don’t have to play with unsharp mask. Get the white balance right so I don’t have to fiddle with the color hues. And yes, get my framing and composition right so I don’t have to rotate, straighten, or excessively crop my images.
When I first started shooting with a view to crop square, I was just imagining a square area in my viewfinder and composing for that. And that’s adequate. But of course, I’m kinda geeky, and why rely on my imagination when I can have real, straight lines to guide me, right?
Remember our old friend the Rule of Thirds grid? Most cameras now have a setting that displays the lines to help you compose your photo. Here’s the cool thing about the grid: it also gives you a guide to shoot square.
Of course, the aspect ratios for cameras are not identical, but it’s a very good approximation. So now you can use that grayed square area to visualize your final shot, whether it’s in landscape or portrait orientation.
Let’s see this in action. Here’s a shot I took for my latest ice cream post. As you can see, I used the area in the right to frame my square shot.
And here’s the final shot, which is the one I submitted to Taste Spotting and Food Gawker.
Of course, instead of trying to shove your subject in one side of the frame, you can also just put it smack in the center and plan to crop around it. You can also use the grid as a guide, this time keeping in mind that you’ll be cropping off half of the row (or column, depending on the photo orientation) from either the top and bottom, or the left and right sides of the frame. Like so:
So here’s a photo I took of my first attempt at green tea ice cream. I plopped it in the center.
Cropping off half of the row above and half of the row below, you end up with the square photo at the beginning of this post.
And that’s how I crop for a square photo in-camera. Pretty soon, it became second nature, and it’s made my Taste Spotting and Food Gawker submission selection a lot easier. And faster. And really, it’s almost embarrassing to call this a “tip” because now, in retrospect, it’s just common sense. But it wasn’t that common to me when I was starting out, when most of my focus was on getting the photo right and looking at the entire frame to make sure nothing was out of place. Now, when I shoot photos for my food posts, I do a couple of extra shots:
- Shoot the photos I want to shoot for my post. I don’t worry about anything else other than making the kind of picture I want.
- For my favorite shots, I make sure I have essentially the same shot in both portrait and landscape orientation. Just in case I’ll need it for something else later on.
- For the same favorite shots, I also make sure I “shoot square” so I’ll have good candidates for Taste Spotting and Food Gawker. (Or anyone else who’ll want square photos.)
That’s not just useful for food shots, by the way. It’s good practice to shoot in different orientations if you intend to submit photos to other sites that might have specific requirements. And it also works great for simulating those old Polaroid shots, because—you guessed it—those photos were square too. So, if I throw in some vintage, lomo, or retro effects, I can instantly turn a photo of my adorable niece Sofie into a Polaroid look-alike.
It’s the 70s all over again! Now all I need to do is cue the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and I’m good to go.
(Leave it to me to end a photography post with a music theme.)