Friday, June 1, 2012

Cell Phone Food Photos: HDR and Filters

Highland Kitchen Pork Belly TacosHighland Kitchen JambalayaToulouse Sandwich from Savenor'sSausage and Peppers

The question I'm exploring in this post: is there a way to take cell phone food photos that look good? Specifically in low light situations where you can't use a flash... like saaaay a restaurant. You want to snap a picture of your beautiful plate of food and show it to all your friends, but it's not like this is some kind of professional photo shoot... it just has to look good not amazing. So what are your options? I don't have a definitive answer, and am just an amateur, but I thought I'd share some of my experiments and thoughts.

The first thing I thought to try was HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography. There's a lot to it, but the basic idea is that you are taking multiple exposures of the same scene and then combining them with some algorithm to produce a single image with a "higher dynamic range"... which means you are better able to represent the range of intensity levels you see in a scene. All that really means is that with a single exposure if you were to take a picture of a unlit room with sun light streaming through the window.. all you'd see is that bright light and everything else would be in dark shadow (under exposed)... but with HDR you can see both. Here are some neat before and after photos to give you an idea.

The amazing thing about this type of photography is that any camera... even the camera on your cellphone... can do it. Though it's definitely much easier if your camera will "auto exposure bracket" (AEB) three... which nearly every camera can do... or more (for you people with fancypants cameras) exposures. However, you certainly can do it manually or with some fancy type of remote control ($$$)... but that's a topic for another day since this post is about cell phones.

Android and iOS both have apps to do the exposure bracketing, and I don't really have enough experience to recommend one over the other... but probably you'll want a free version to start with. I guess the question has to be: Do these apps work? Well, better than I thought it would:
Sanders Theater
That's a photo directly into the morning sun, and yet you can clearly see both Sanders Theater and the clouds. The photo is super noisy, but what exactly are you expecting from a cell phone camera pointing directly at the sun?

But noise really is the major problem if the desire is to take photos in low light (i.e. most restaurants) since those are generally more noisy in the first place, and HDR will make that worse. At home with my DSLR I'd just set up my tripod and some additional light to solve those issues, but clearly that's not an option here. At the moment I'm not really sure what to do about noise other than use small sizes of the picture and/or use filters that blur it out or cover it up. Examples of which is what you will see at the top of the page.

The top two photos are at Highland Kitchen (low light), the bottom left is a sandwich from Savenor's snapped in my (aggressively well lit) office, and the bottom right is at home with only a hand held light illuminating it.

I think they look pretty decent at the resolution here, but if you click on them they all basically suck. However, at these smaller sizes they're fine for social media sharing à la Instagram. I basically still need a lot more experimentation before I have any firm opinions... at the moment I'm just reading a lot and messing around with software and camera settings. Beyond food though, I'd like to be ready by the summer to set a tripod up on top of some mountain in Acadia and get some real HDR shots with my DSLR.

And of course if any actual experienced photographer wanders by and has any tips, please feel free to leave them in comments.