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A Cookout Is A Great Opportunity For Creative Photography
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A Cookout Is A Great Opportunity For Creative Photography

Six tips for better photos at your BBQ

If you think cookout photography starts and stops with pictures of meat roasting on a grill, you're wrong. From food photography to portraits and candids, Cookouts are a great place to try many different kinds of photography.


Ready, aim, fire!

One of the cool things about cookout photography is that if it's being done on a charcoal grill, you have an opportunity to photograph a controlled fire. Right after the charcoal is lit, it will flame up for a few minutes. This is when you can get all sorts of interesting images of  flames.

Important! Make sure you're at a safe distance so neither you nor your camera will get overheated or--worse--get burned. A DSLR such as the Nikon D5300 and the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AFS VR Micro Nikkor with the Nikon DC-14E III 1.4x tele extender will get you close enough while keeping you at a safe working distance.

To establish exposure, the charcoal before it's lit. Since charcoal is dark, it will mislead your camera into overexposing by approximately two stops. To compensate, adjust your EV to -2. Another tip: Shoot RAW, so you can coax more information out of the image and effectively expand its dynamic range in post-processing.

Photo © klikk/iStockphoto


Focus on the food

If you've always wanted to be a food photographer, here's your chance to teach yourself some basics. As with all other forms of photography, composition is essential. In a shot like this, the lined-up shishkabobs offer a variety of colors in a pattern that repeats through the image. The photographer turned the camera to create a dynamic pattern of diagonal lines. The lighting is diffused—this was shot in open shade. Direct sunlight would be too contrasty so when setting up a photo like this, shoot it where the sun don't shine...directly.

You can capture this sort of image with nearly any camera. Choose a middle-range aperture such as f/8 to get greater depth of field (notice everything in this shot is in focus, even though the focal plane is fairly deep.) If you're shooting with a point-and-shoot such as the Canon G16, zoom out and shoot in Macro (or Flower) mode. You may need a tripod such as the 3Pod P4AFH 4-Section FlatFold Tripod to avoid camera shake.

Phoro © perkmeup/iStockphoto


Get the closeup...carefully

With the help of the Master of the Grill, you can get a good closeup of food in the midst of being grilled. Make sure the grill is not getting the full blast of the sun—either backlighting or shade works best. Here you can use a wider aperture for narrower depth of field to separate the food you're focusing on from the rest of the stuff on the grill. Get as close as you can to get those mouth-watering details...but as with the fire photos, make sure you're using a long enough lens and shooting safely away from the heat and flames so your camera doesn't melt or malfunction due to the temperature.

In this case, it's a gas grill but metering is the same as with charcoal—assume that you'll need to decrease the metered exposure by approximately -2. If your camera has a histogram display, use it to make sure your exposure is accurate.

Photo © toddtaulman/iStockphoto



Focus on the people--especially the chef

You have to understand the psychology of the grill chef: He is proud of his work. Make sure to capture that pride as you document the cookout. In this case, the photographer captured both the proud BBQ master, guests at the table, and the panoramic view of the city behind them.

A few other tips:

  • Make sure to get a posed "table shot" with friends and family. This one is going to go into the family album or (more likely) get shared widely on social media.
  • Watch your background. Position yourself so there's nothing distracting, but if your background adds an interesting element to the picture (such as revealing the cookout is on a rooftop with a view of the city), make sure to include it.
  • Fight the sunlight: If you're shooting in bright sun, pop up your camera's flash to fill in the details and avoid raccoon eyes.

Photo © spfoto/iStockphoto


Go candid

Cookouts are a good place to flex your candid photography muscles. Pay attention to expressions, keep the background simple, and enjoy the process.

A DSLR such as the Sony A77 II and mid-range zoom like the Sony 16-50mm f/2.8DT should give you plenty of options.  

Photo © monkeybusinessimages/iStockphoto



Shoot the main dish

This is a carefully set-up food photo. Note how the photographer chose a high angle with the red and white lines of the flag and paper plate at dynamic diagonals and shot from above to empahsize the patriotic tablecloth and plate. Also see how everything was carefully placed, from the four lines of mustard (the tomato is "cheated" towards the back to show more of the burger and condiments) and the perfectly placed onion rings. Even the top of the bun is angled upwards (most likely a small object is hidden behind it, propping it up) to improve the composition.

Take a few minutes to get everything just right and you'll be rewarded with not just a record shot, but a legitimate food photo!


Photo © joebelanger/iStockphoto

Don't forget to enjoy the food, family and friends at your cookout, too!

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