Food and Wine Photography

Editor’s Note:  Hello everyone….with Food and Wine just around the corner, Ben Hendel is back on the blog with a post about food photography while you’re sampling the fine cuisine around World Showcase……


The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival has started! And with it comes lots of fun food and drinks to enjoy, and share with your friends and family… even if they’re not with you at EPCOT! How is it shared? Why, pictures of course!

It doesn’t matter if you’re sending pictures messages, Snapchatting, posting to Twitter or Instagram, or have a Facebook album for all your noshing; you’re taking lots of pictures of your food and drinks. So it seems timely to talk about taking pictures of food and beverages. While these photos are taken on a DSLR, do not let that scare you away from using your phone. Most of the principals I’ll go over do apply to any camera, and I’ll be sure to point that out where I can. Learning some of the more “manual” controls of your cameraphone before heading out will give you a distinct advantage in making your food look its best! This article will not limit itself to Food and Wine, however; it will also go over documenting fancier meals you may enjoy, from Disney Cruise Line’s Remy to the Grand Floridian’s legendary AAA Four-Diamond rated Victoria & Albert’s.

First, I’d like to talk about setting a scene. Just because you’re taking pictures of food on a plate doesn’t mean you can’t continue to tell a story. And there are a variety of ways to tell that story, not all of which apply to every situation. Firstly, a good background goes a long way to telling your story. While a trash can makes a great substitute for a table on a busy EPCOT weekend, do you want all of your pictures to have a lot of brown as the foreground? Do you mind the rivets or stamping where the pieces of metal meet? This is not to say that that trash can will ruin a picture, but think about what’s in the background of the shot as well. Take, for instance, this shot of the escargot croissant from the France Pavilion. While I would have loved to have a picture with the Eiffel Tower in the background, angles and places to put my food down didn’t allow for that.


Instead, I chose a background that included France’s water feature and the recognizable water fountains. One lucky benefit of this was that droplets of water coming off the fountain reflected the sun nicely, and provided me with some interesting bokehs for my shot! I do regret, however, not cleaning my plate better and removing the errant piece of croissant. I find it super distracting, and you should too now that I pointed it out. Learn from my mistake, and make sure your food looks the way you want it before you take the picture. Whether that’s cleaning the plate, or perhaps accessorizing your food, it all will make your pictures better. How much more interesting is this sushi picture, when the shot includes not only the sushi, but common sushi “accessories” like chopsticks and soy sauce?


Here, I spent time and thought about the layout of the Japan Pavilion, about a suitable background, and realized I could include the booth itself if I went to the landing halfway up the stairs to Tokyo Dining. Not only did the booth now feature into the picture, but so did the crowds, and the beautiful sand-and-bonsai garden. And these pictures were not taken with incredibly shallow depths of field. Both pictures were taken with my general walkabout lens, an old Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8, right in the lens’ sharpness-sweet-spot of f/5.6, though I have another version of the sushi picture that was taken at f/11 that looks fantastic too. How do you get such depth of field on a cell phone? Use selective focusing, usually activated by tapping on your subject on your phone’s screen.

Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your background, or having great natural lighting, to make sure your shots shine. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to enjoy a dinner at the fancier Disney restaurants, on land or at sea, where dishes are carefully constructed, like art. Once-in-a-lifetime meals scream to be documented. However, the ambiance isn’t always conducive to photography. The lighting is often dim very dim, quarters are often close, and you certainly can’t set up a tripod to nail your focus and enjoy long shutter speeds. You’ll be fighting to get a good shot, to get an interesting framing. But it can be done.

First off, you’ll want to equip yourself with fast, short (but not necessarily wide) glass. I don’t own any primes, but if you do, especially in the f/1.4 to f/1.8 range, you’ll want to bring them. This is like shooting any nighttime parade; you’re trying to get a sharp image in tough lighting conditions. A good, budget lens for this type of work is a photography’s trusty 50mm f/1.8 prime. Because of the light conditions, you’re going to be working with a narrow depth of field, whether you like it or not. When fighting low light, your aperture is your first line of defense. You will also want to shoot either in shutter priority or in full manual mode. Being able to set your shutter speed is critical for sharp images. Use the aperture to set your depth of field, keeping in mind that shallow is not necessarily a bad thing, and use ISO to expose the image properly.


Because you’re likely working with shallow depth of field, make sure you pick the right subject for your dish. In the above photo, I made sure the picture focused on the octopus, and not the broth it was in. That dish, beyond behind delicious, was beautifully photogenic as well. The orange broth pops against the white bowl, and the greens (both the green ones and red ones) provided excellent contrast as well. Additionally, the bowl is textured too, and I love the way that it starts out of focus and then falls into it, before going back out of focus at the back. I didn’t have the luxury of time, because you can see there’s a bread plate hanging out in the background. Would I like it gone? Yeah, I would. But at the same time, I didn’t want to hold up dinner. It’s a fine line between documenting a meal, and being a nuisance.

Don’t just focus on food, as well. There are so many details at a meal that people may miss. One of our bread courses at Victoria & Albert’s had butter hand-carved off of an all-butter sculpture of a chef’s toque. Because it was hand carved, it formed the most beautiful ribbon curl, and the inside of that curl had a wavy texture to it. I had to take a picture!

But it might not be butter that catches your eye. Both Victoria & Albert’s and Remy have stunning plates, literal plates, that greet you as you sit down at your table. They’re not used for food, just as a billboard to welcome you to dinner. Artist’s Palate on every Disney Cruise Line ship has bespoke butter knives that can’t be missed!


Editor’s Note:  The food looks delicious Ben!  Great job on the article.  

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Working in Layers – Symphony in the Stars Edition

I have had Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud for Photographers for a little over two years now.  For me, the $9.99 per month ($7.99 from this Amazon link) is a bargain.  A buddy of mine is a 3D artist and has always been my go-to resource for getting help in Photoshop, but back when I was using Photoshop Elements (a program I was getting every year for the latest features) I would always stumble into something where Rob would try explaining something to me only to find that those commands / feature wasn’t available in Elements.

I know I’ve said it here before but I’ll say it again and a thousand times more.  I wish I wrote stuff down while I was in the parks or followed a checklist.  I knew exactly what shot I wanted to get of Symphony of the Stars.  I knew that the lights along the Hollywood Boulevard would be dimmed during the fireworks, so I was going to need a “plate” image when the lights were still on.  I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I was still too dumb the first time I shot the fireworks to shoot a bracket of the image you see above.  What in the world was I thinking?  I was set up in my spot (just before the Sunset Boulevard intersection) thirty minutes before the show started and had plenty of time.  I just completely spaced it out.  Anyway, I was able to get a decent plate image (shown below).


I brought the raw image into Photoshop and made all of the adjustments I wanted.  Then I shot the fireworks as normal.  Remember when you are shooting a plate like this, you need to keep the camera in exactly the same spot without moving.  This is a concept I can completely understand.  But do you see those really tall, really skinny trees lining Hollywood Boulevard?  Those things are going to move on you, and sometimes they are going to move too much for this kind of merge technique to work.  It was pretty windy that night so they moved a lot on me.  Luckily there were several shots that things worked out ok.


So the above image is one of the fireworks shots.  Again, I opened it up in Photoshop and made all of my adjustments.  Then I selected Layer -> Duplicate Layer and told Photoshop to add it to the original image as a new layer.  And when you look at the combined image, initially it looks EXACTLY the image above.  But wait, there’s more Photoshop trickery to be had!   To get the image at the top of the post you have to change the blend mode for the layers.  There are a lot of choices, but what we want is Lighten.

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And Bam!  You get the image like the one at the top of the article or this other one here below.  I wish I had shot a bracket for my plate (and then I could merge it into an HDR image).  But such is life, maybe next time.

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FoCal Lens Calibration Software

[Editor’s Note.  We hope everyone had an enjoyable three day weekend, and making sure to remember the men and women who gave their lives in service of our country.  Here’s another great piece by Ben Hendel, this time talking about an interesting bit of software used for calibrating your lenses.  You need to be following Ben on Instagram.  He got a chance to take two big lenses into Animal Kingdom recently and got some GREAT photos.  So jealous of the opportunity Ben had.  Thanks again Ben for the article! ].


High-end cameras cost a lot of money and you get a great product for them. Same thing goes with lenses. But what if I told you that if you just bolt your new-and-shiny lens to your new-and-shiny camera, that you aren’t getting everything you’ve paid for? Because of production variables and tolerances, not every camera and lens leaves the factory “perfect.” The camera body manufacturers know this, and they build in a way to fine-tune your camera body to your lenses. On my Nikon, this is called AF Fine-Tune, and is usually called AF Microadjustment (AFMA) on a Canon.

Disclaimer: NOT ALL CAMERAS SUPPORT THIS FEATURE. It is usually found in higher end models. My D7000 had it, my D60 did not. [Editor’s note, my Canon 60D does NOT have this feature. Guess that saves me from getting the FoCal software myself. Will keep this in mind for the next camera I get.]

Modern cameras can hold multiple lens profiles. As you can see, my camera can hold 12 different adjustment values in memory, each one tied to a particular lens. If you have more than 12 lenses, well, you’re richer than I am. Spread the wealth, eh? I accept PayPal. If you rent a lot of lenses, you may want to keep half an eye on how many values you’re storing and clear them out occasionally. I know I need to do that with the values from tuning the Sigma 150-600mm.

Photo May 26, 8 38 13 PM

In the past, this has been a manual process. You’d set up a target, take a picture, and decide whether you were back-focusing (your actual focus-point is behind where you wanted it to be) or front-focusing (just the opposite of back-focusing). Then, you’d dial in a setting that reflected this, and compare the images to see if it was better or worse. Repeat until you found a value you liked, or until you gouged out both of your eyes with a used grapefruit spoon.

However, there is now a company in the UK called Reikan who makes a wonderful piece of software called FoCal.

Double disclaimer: Reikan did not contact any member of the Disney Photography Blog and ask us to write this review. We were not provided with a free piece of software, and we are not compensated in any manner by Reikan or any company because of this review. Got it? Good.

FoCal is a piece of software that makes automatically calibrating your camera body to your camera lenses, so long as you shoot Nikon or Canon. And even then, not all cameras are supported by FoCal. To see if your body is supported, please visit this website: http://www.reikan.co.uk/focalweb/index.php/why/camera-compatibility/ . Even then, if you shoot Nikon, automatic calibration mode is not supported. This shouldn’t steer you away from the software, but it may save you a couple bucks not buying the super powerful full-featured edition when some of those fancy features don’t work for your camera.
First, you’ll need to set up a target. FoCal provides you with a PDF to print out, and recommends you print it on good card stock instead of plain white office paper. They say that ink bleeds into office paper too much, and this prevents FoCal from getting sharpness readings right. Once you’ve set up your target an appropriate distance away, you set your camera up on a tripod and go through the most frustrating process for me. When choosing where to place your target (mine is on the back of the front door of my house so I can use the long hallway to calibrate long lenses), you’ll want to choose an area with a lot of light. Alternatively, you can just have a 3 D-cell MagLight hanging around and point it at the target while FoCal is doing its thing. Don’t judge me. It works.
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I hate aiming the camera at the target. It must be aimed just-so, and I always tend to overshoot when adjusting the ballhead on my tripod. It also likely doesn’t help that most of the lenses I’ve calibrated recently are super-telephotos, and so I’m halfway across my house, trying to aim at a 2.5 inch center, with a heavy lens-and-camera combination.

That’s the hardest bit. FoCal will tell you when it is happy about your aim, and from there, does the vast majority of the work for you. Frankly, on a Canon, it likely does all the work for you. It takes pictures, changes the AFMA automatically, compares the shots, and repeats until it dials in the sharpest, most accurate possible autofocus value. If you’re shooting a Nikon, it’s a little bit more user-interactive. FoCal still takes pictures for you, and it still compares them for you, but you’ll have to adjust the AF Fine-Tune value on your own. Be gentle when you do, because if you nudge the camera off the target-point, your comparison data will be useless and you’ll have to start over.

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There is a fantastic amount of data that FoCal gives you while it is working. This particular lens required very little adjustment. It only required a +1 Fine Tune in order to be considered sharp and accurate. I’ve had other lenses that live in the +17 to +19 realm like my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. Before FoCal, I could focus on the nose of a Princess during a parade and “miss” focus because the lens was back-focusing so much. Adjusting that lens made a world of difference.
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After about 5 minutes of actual work, FoCal said it was done. It gave me a new value, and a lovely set of charts to go with them. I set that value in my AF Fine-Tune menu, and was ready to go for a day of shooting. There is also the option to Save Reports of what your lens correction looked like. I’ve attached, via links at the bottom of this review, those reports from the Sigma 150-600mm and the Nikon 200-500mm so you can see a little bit more of the data that FoCal can produce for you.

This is software I highly recommend, for anybody who is serious about getting the absolute most out of their camera and lenses. Whenever I get a new lens, the first thing I do is calibrate it. I’ll never miss another shot because my lens doesn’t understand what my camera body means by “in focus.”

Here are is a link to what the report looks like that FoCal generates.
Sigma 150-600:  150-600mm f_5-6.3_600mm
Nikon 200-500: 200-500mm f_5.6_500mm


Sigma 150-600 Lens Review

[Editor’s Note: Today’s article comes from frequent contributor Ben Hendel – @wdw_ben about renting and using the Sigma 150-600 lens.  Having shot the Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens before at a High School football game, I can only imagine what it must have been like to lug a lens that long into Animal Kingdom.  But if I did have access to that lens, you bet your bottom dollar Animal Kingdom would be the place to shoot it at.  I’ve seen people at my local zoo with monster lenses like this one and I’ve always wanted to try that out.]

A few weekends ago I went to an airshow in Fort Lauderdale featuring some of the best jet teams in the world. Because of this, and some travel I have planned in the future, I wanted to bring along a super-telephoto lens to test before spending thousands on one. I had done a fair amount of research, and I settled on renting the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport, shot on a full-frame Nikon D610. This lens does work on a crop sensor camera, however, your effective range is 225-900mm, with an effective aperture of roughly f/7.7-10. This does mean you can see into Wednesday two weeks from now, but you’ll need a lot of light to do so.

The Sigma is a beast! Weighing in at 6.5 pounds, it is a hefty lens for which you’ll want a tripod or monopod if you plan on using it for more than a few hours. But with that weight comes a lot of glass. The reach of this lens is incredible. Never having owned a lens with a focal range of over 120mm (my Nikon 80-200mm), having 450mm of range was useful. That being said, I mostly rented this lens for it’s ability to be pushed all the way out to 600mm and remain tack sharp. Fair warning, though, I did spend a night calibrating the lens to my camera using FoCal’s wonderful calibration software. [Editor’s note, I’ve talked Ben into contributing a future article about calibrating your lenses.]


On a practice day in Disney’s Animal Kingdom the day before the airshow, I had a ton of success getting pictures I could only dream of beforehand. I spent a ton of time on both walking trails and walked away with a ton of keepers, especially on the animals most people want to see especially: the tigers and gorillas. The sharpness of this lens was incredible after calibration. When I zoom in on the eye of the tiger (I will not sing, I will not sing, I will not sing…) [Editor’s Note – I am now singing this for you.] , I am able to see the blue sky and even some white clouds reflected back at me. The bird houses were incredibly interesting, especially because the weaver birds were busy building little houses. I was able to get clear shots of any bird I wished, when they stopped flying around, that is! Tracking a subject at 600mm is a chore, but that’s not a flaw in the lens, that’s just being really, really tight. I quickly developed a technique at the airshow of being pulled all the way out to 150mm to acquire and begin tracking a jet, then pushing in to 600mm (or as close as I wanted to zoom) to set up for the shot I was looking to take. I did not take this lens on Kilimanjaro Safaris as it would have lead to a fantastic black eye and terrible photos.


One thing to note, when it game to objects in motion, especially at the 600mm end of this lens, fast moving objects are incredibly tough to frame, even once you’ve acquired them. Flittering finches and fast moving (we are talking miles an hour measured in the multiple hundreds) jets don’t stay in your viewfinder long if you’re not panning. And panning this lens is a chore. I recommend, if you’re worried about framing, pull out 15 to 25 millimeters and firing in a “spray and pray” manner. A less tight shot will allow you more freedom after the fact to crop and adjust your framing. This was a tip passed along to me by Don Sullivan (@donsullivan, check out his incredible photography) and I am passing it along to you. For shots like the tiger and gorilla, I was able to work more slowly and properly frame before pulling the shutter.

In the category of “ooooh, that’s a nice feature” is the tripod collar. The downside is that this behemoth of a collar does not detach. It also has three different screw bosses in it, so you can balance it on basically any camera and tripod combination. That means the foot of the collar is huge. However, it does have a fantastic little “click” to it when you’ve hit 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees rotation with the lens. It’s a nice surprise so you know you’re locking in your camera at one of those points, and if you’ve leveled the camera on your tripod properly with one of those markers, the others will also be level if you are spinning it from portrait to landscape, or back again.


This lens has a lot of upside. It’s incredibly sharp, it’s very accurate when focusing, and it’s reasonably priced for a super-telephoto lens. What does reasonably priced mean? The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport will lighten your wallet by 20 pictures of Benjamin Franklin – $2,000. This sum of money gets you a lens, a shoulder carrying case for it (no picture of that, I’m sorry), and a heck of a bayonet that screws on to the front of the lens. It also screws on backward for transportation. There is no lens cap to speak of, but it does come with a nylon-like cover that Velcros around when the bayonet is stored backwards, with a little cutout for the thumb screw. This lens also supports Sigma’s USB Dock for Lens Calibration and firmware updates, however, it is not included. That’ll set you back an extra $59.


My biggest issue with this lens is the weight. I understand that in order to get good, sharp, super-telephoto glass you’re looking at weight. But all in, with a 1.5 pound camera strapped to the back of it, I had a package weighing 8 pounds that I was swinging back and forth on a beach in Fort Lauderdale for four hours. Monday was rough, I’ll say that much. My other big issue is that at 600mm, you get some crazy vignetting in your corners. While not noticeable on the camera’s LCD, they are prominent once loaded into a program like Lightroom. Thankfully, Lightroom contains automatic lens profile corrections for this lens, and that takes care of the corners quickly. When editing, it is the first thing I do to any photo before diving into deeper corrections. Finally, this lens does not accept teleconverters. Why you would want one is up to you (maybe you really do need a 300-1200mm lens for photographic the Church on the Blood from Nome), but this is a point to a lens I’m renting later this month.

Overall, I really liked this lens. It’s reach is fantastic, it’s fast for the price, the price is very reasonable, and it doubles as good help for bicep curls. But that last part is the biggest downfall for me. It is an incredibly heavy lens, especially when you are pointing it at an upward angle all day, like at an airshow. I would say the vignetting was an issue, but that was quickly and easily corrected in Lightroom, so it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. I would rent it again, should I need the reach at an airshow and should my upcoming rental of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 not meet my needs for a super telephoto.


Author’s note: There is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary also on the market for less money and weight. I have not shot it, so for a review, I’d recommend Tom Bricker’s excellent review here: http://www.disneytouristblog.com/

[Editor’s Note: Thanks for contributing the article again Ben!  Always interesting stuff!]