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How to self-publish a book – Part 4: Photo Editing

Now we get down to the really technical stuff.

When I started taking photos for The Japanese Pantry, I knew jack-all about photo editing. I had played around with a few of the settings in iPhoto before and could occasionally sort of guess my way into editing a photo well enough, but I really was just eyeballing it, not applying any actual knowledge.

Becoming a better photo editor took nothing more than investing my time to learn how to do it – reading articles, watching YouTube videos, and fiddling with the software until something just “clicked” in my head. I’m not going to go into how to edit photos because that’s a whole book worth of knowledge on it’s own and really just something that takes practice. What I do want to talk about is the strengths and limitations of the few pieces of photo editing software I used, and what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now.

I work on an iMac, so the default piece of photo editing software I have is iPhoto. iPhoto is great for storing and sorting casual family photos, and it does offer some basic editing functions that can clean up an imperfect photo in a pinch. I was really happy with it before I started writing the book, it had plenty of functionality for touching up my random photos of salads and cats for the blog. Once I started trying to use it to edit photos to a more professional standard though, I immediately ran into some issues that I knew could not be overlooked.

Here are the two main problems I found with iPhoto that would eventually drive me to upgrade my software: 1) You cannot “spot edit”, meaning that any adjustments you make will apply to the whole photo rather than just the part that needs adjusting, and 2) The batch editing function is severely impaired. Editing a batch of similar photos would require you to make the same adjustments to each photo individually rather than applying them across a spectrum of nearly identical photos to save time. iPhoto has a batch editing function, but it never worked properly for me for batch editing more than 2 files at a time, so it might as well have not existed.

In these first 3 photo examples, all of the same shot of matcha green tea, you can see the results of the first problem I mentioned in action. The first photo is the original photo completely unedited in any way. The second photo has been cropped as well as sharpened, and the third has been adjusted for exposure and white balance. The third photo represents the very best I was able to do with iPhoto.

original uncropped matcha

Unedited matcha photo

As you can see in the second and third photos, my edits applied to the whole photo rather than just the parts that needed adjusting. Sharpening brought the front of the spoon into greater focus, but at the expense of highlighting some imperfections, such as the texture and bits of fuzz on the white backdrop and some scratches on the front of the spoon. Cranking up the exposure helped to bring the background closer to true white, but it washed out the color of the matcha. Adjusting white balance could only do so much – there is still a faint blue cast to the background, but removing it skews the entire picture too warm. This was the best it could get.

I spent some time researching professional editing software trying to figure out what was going to give me the most bang for my buck. After much deliberation, I decided on Aperture.

Aperture info

Aperture is another Apple product that I knew I could move seamlessly into from iPhoto. I also looked into Lightroom and Photoshop, but in the end I decided that they were both a bit too expensive for a novice who didn’t even know what she needed yet. At $80, Aperture was just right for trying out some real professional software without the risk of over-investing.

Right off the bat there was lots of new functionality to get familiar with. Like all Apple products, Aperture was intuitive to use, I could just dive right in with trying new things and not worry that I was doing something wrong that couldn’t be undone. Aperture seemed to solve all the problems I had with iPhoto – I could spot adjust, batch edit, more accurately correct white balance, retouch more seamlessly, “turn off” an edit I’d made to compare it with the original quickly, and so much more that I didn’t even realize I needed until I had it. Just look at how much brighter and more vibrant this cleaned up photo looks after editing with Aperture…

That’s the photo that made it into The Japanese Pantry, and on the whole I’m pretty pleased with it.

There was just one thing that Aperture couldn’t do that I realized was going to be a deal breaker if I couldn’t figure out some way around it… Aperture does not support layering. I did not realize this until I’d already purchased it and nearly cried my eyes out thinking I’d just wasted my money on a piece of software that would always be lacking.

If you’ve never used layering before, here’s the jist. Layering allows you to take a part of an image and make it into its own editable layer. Imagine a stack of 3 pieces of transparent paper: The top layer is a picture of a bird, the middle is a mountain, and the bottom is the clear blue sky. You could easily drag the image of the bird to another part of the sky, take out the mountains layer entirely, or replace the blue sky with a picture of clouds, simply by interacting with a single layer at a time. Layering allows you to move, edit, omit, or replace parts of an image like a digital scrapbook.

For my matcha image, I needed to either remove or replace the background which was still not white enough even after editing with Aperture. I searched around and found a plug-in that would work with Aperture to allow me to do just that. Perfect Layers by OnOne Software was just the ticket.

Perfect Layers info


With Perfect Layers, I can combine the best parts of 2 or more images to make one perfect picture. To use, you just highlight the photos you want to work with in Aperture and right click on “Edit with Plug-in”, then select Perfect Layers. Perfect Layers automatically opens and loads the images for you to work with.

For my matcha photo, I first tried “painting out” all of the background with Perfect Layers, but I found that it left really hard edges around the shadow underneath the spoon, making it look fake. I wanted to keep the shadow, but make the background really white, so I decided it might work better to make a version of the matcha image with the exposure completely blown out to get a bright white background that I could more easily blend around the shadows in the original image. This is the image with the exposure cranked up to the max…

matchaThis technique worked perfectly. I was able to either paint in the white background or paint out the matcha subject where needed to get one unified image. The only complaint I have about Perfect Layers is that it does not have “smart edges,” meaning that the software has no ability to detect and trace around the edges of an object for you. For every image, I was tediously painting out the dark background being extra careful to get as close to the subject as possible without touching it. This was really hard to do with just a mouse and I ended up having to make tons of corrections to little areas where I’d “colored outside the lines.” This could easily be remedied by using a Wacom tablet or other digital stylus for more fine control, and honestly, the version of Perfect Layers I was using was free, so I really can’t complain too much.

Now that the book is finished and I’m back to photographing recipes for the blog, I’m more aware of exactly what it is I need in photo editing software. Using Aperture with Perfect Layers was a good first start into understanding and using professional photo editing software, and if I did not have more books planned in the future it would be fine for editing my random recipe creations. Since I do though, I think I’ll be looking into Lightroom and Photoshop again, possibly on a subscription basis to reduce the cost and get software updates for free.

If you’re on a Mac and considering upgrading to Aperture from iPhoto, I would say that it’s absolutely worth it if you don’t foresee yourself ever needing the layering function. Aperture really does have a great workflow, uncluttered look, intuitive controls, and much higher level of editing power than iPhoto. There were only a few functions in Aperture that I couldn’t figure out how to use myself, but a look around YouTube produced enough tutorials to familiarize myself quickly. If, however, you’re fascinated by the idea of moving around parts of an image like a scrapbook and making artistic changes to photos that are outside the realm of typical editing, you’re going to need a platform that supports layering, and Aperture with Perfect Layers isn’t quite enough. There is a paid version of Perfect Layers from OnOne Software that would completely supplement the layering function, but if you’re trying to get into professional photography you’re going to find using a plug-in product clunky and annoying pretty quickly.

That was a long, long post. I know this is completely boring to those of you who read this blog for the recipes, but I’m hoping that someone will find this helpful since I wish I had known all this stuff before I starting writing my book. Would have saved me so much time.

In the last installment of this series, I’ll talk about the book layout software I used. Yes guys, I designed and laid out my book by myself. When you self-publish, there’s no one to do that for you! (Recalling an entire day I spent trying to find the perfect calligraphic Japanese kanji font.)

Part 1: Getting Serious

Part 2: Anthologize and CreateSpace

Part 3: Photography Skills



Photo shoot with Jimi Filo Photography

I mentioned the other day that I was approached recently by a local photographer to collaborate on a photo shoot. Pretty cool, right?

Jimi Filo has been into photography for most of his life and definitely knows his way around a camera, but has only ventured to make a career out of it in the last few years. He’s finding himself increasingly drawn to food as a subject and has been working to expand his portfolio to include more food photography. He asked if I’d be interested in allowing him to photograph me as I go through my typical process for recipe testing and creation. Of course I was thrilled to have someone take an interest in my creative process, I couldn’t accept the offer fast enough!

A few weekends ago he showed up at my doorstep with all his gear in tow, his wife/assistant Jen at his side to help with lighting. They got set up in the dining room as I got to work on the first of two recipes I’d be testing that day: Matcha bars with strawberry jam filling.

JF mixing matcha bars

The bars were based on a similar recipe that I’ve made countless times, so I knew they’d turn out. The only thing I was really trying to figure out with this test was how much matcha to use and how long to bake them.

I love a strong grassy green tea flavor, but matcha is often expensive so I’m always mindful to not use too much of it in a recipe for fear that people just won’t make it! There’s a recipe in my book that I probably used around $6 worth of matcha in, but I made sure to proclaim that this was a luxury dessert and not something you would just whip up for the fun of it.

JF turning on mixer

As I worked, we chatted about how I got into Japanese food. Here’s the basic story…

Growing up, my mom was always a great home cook. While we certainly weren’t eating anything super exotic for dinner, we were definitely eating more adventurous foods than the standard Southern classics that most of my friends grew up on. I totally took having delicious meals every night for granted, because I never sought to learn how to cook anything before moving out of the house just after high school graduation.

JF scooping out crumbs

Learning how to feed myself for the first time as a young adult was an immediate challenge. I could barely even make a decent sandwich or work a toaster properly. I relied heavily on ramen noodles, and honestly I screwed those up pretty often too. (I’m recalling an incident where I tried to boil them in a Pyrex measuring cup and the thing exploded glass and noodles all over my kitchen. o_O)

As you can imagine, I got tired of eating ramen noodles 4 nights a week pretty fast. I started trying to jazz them up a bit by adding frozen vegetables. When I got tired of that I tried adding sauteed mushrooms (I learned to saute!) and eventually even sauteed frozen shrimp. After months and months of these experiments I got confident enough to try making my own broth too and finally threw out that gross seasoning packet.

JF spreading jam on matcha bars

It just sort of took off from there. I had a refrigerator full of asian condiments from my ramen experiments, so I figured I might as well learn how to use them for other recipes too. After years and years of experimenting in the kitchen, with my many fails and explosions along the way, I became a more knowledgable and confident cook armed with my arsenal of familiar Japanese and asian flavors. I cook plenty of other types of food now, but I always tend to gravitate back toward those flavors that I know and love the most.

As the matcha bars baked, I got to work cleaning up for the next recipe: Duck soba. Jimi used this time to snap a few photos of ingredients and some knick knacks I had hanging around.

JF shiitakes and scallions

JF tetsubin

He then turned his focus to the prep work I was doing for the soba. I trimmed up some duck thighs and sliced a basket-load of shiitakes.

JF trimming duck

JF slicing shiitakes

The duck thighs were seared in my donabe, or clay pot, one of my very favorite kitchen toys. After they came out, I made the broth in the same vessel making sure to scrape all the tasty brown duck bits off the bottom. The shiitakes went in too, along with the scallions, and the broth simmered away as I shredded up the duck to add back later. (BTW, this method for cooking the duck totally did not work and I ended up retesting this recipe later. I’ll tell you what method I settled on next week when I share the recipes from this shoot.)

JF searing duck

JF adding shiitakes to broth

JF simmering shiitakes

So how did it all turn out? The matcha bars were a hit even though I feel that I overbaked them by a few minutes. I retested the recipe a few days later omitting an ingredient but didn’t like them as much. I think the original recipe minus 5 minutes cooking time will be the final version of these yummy treats.

JF matcha bars

The soba was delicious as well. One more retest and I think I’ll be ready to post it on the blog. We all got to sit down and enjoy it for lunch while gabbing about our past careers and how both Jimi and I have sort of stumbled back into careers that revolve around a creative process, he with photography and me with cooking and writing.

JF duck soba lunch

JF soba in chopsticks

All in all this was a really fun and interesting opportunity. I’m glad that Jimi got some new content for his portfolio, which he intends to write up as a photo essay in the future (I’ll share the link when it’s up.) And I appreciate that I got to use his shots for my blog. It’s kinda neat to see everything from the angle of an outside observer.

Check out his site for more of his photography (I’m particularly fond of the pet photos, so expressive!) and if you’re in the Atlanta area and need a photographer, hit him up! Recipes for the duck soba and the matcha bars with strawberry jam should appear on the blog next week!

All photos featured in this post are property of Jimi Filo Photography and were used with his express permission. 


How to self-publish a book – Part 3: Photography Skills

Before I even started writing The Japanese Pantry, I knew that I wanted to create a book full of color and life. I have a hefty collection of cookbooks on my shelf, and the ones I love the most are the ones that have a photo for every single recipe. I was a complete novice to photography though, so I knew that if I was going to create a cookbook full of stunning photos like the ones in the books by celebrity chefs, I was going to have to teach myself how to work a camera properly, and fast.

Understanding Exposure

I purchased Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson, to learn more about how a camera works and how to interpret light. I found this book extremely helpful, and set to work testing my new knowledge with my little point-and-shoot camera. I would set up little photo experiments where I would photograph the same object from the same angle multiple times, changing one of the cameras settings slightly each time to see the effect it created from the previous shot. My skills somewhat improved, but it still seemed that I just could not recreate the professional shots I was going for even when I did everything “right.”

The game really changed for me when Jeff got me a DSLR camera for Christmas, a Canon Rebel T3i. It became so much easier to manipulate the camera to do what I wanted it to do. I was so impressed with the change in quality from our Canon Powershot S90 (which really is an excellent point-and-shoot if you can’t go full DSLR) that I ended up going back and retaking some shots for the book with the new camera. The Rebel is definitely a beginner’s DSLR, but I’ve found it to have plenty of functionality for my current needs.

Love my gift!

I also have to give some credit to IKEA for my rapid improvement in photography skills. Wait, what??? I mentioned this last year when I first announced that I was writing a book but it bears repeating because it’s kind of incredible when you really think about it. Every single picture that appears in The Japanese Pantry that was not taken in a light box, was taken on a little square IKEA end table. Every one. I had nothing else at the time.

My photography table

This tiny setting forced me to get really creative with my photography to keep every shot from looking the same. I spent a tremendous amount of time on each shot getting my angles just right, the focus right where I wanted it, being careful not to let any of the area around the table show up in the frame. And I didn’t have a tripod that would let me get low enough to the table either, so nearly every shot had to be hand held. I would take a deep breath and release the shutter as I breathed out, just like a sniper. Sometimes I would be able to get the shot in about ten tries, but oftentimes it would take 30 or even 40 or more shots to get everything just right.

Also, because I didn’t have the stability of a tripod to take longer exposures, I could only photograph recipes on bright sunny days with plenty of light. This was severely limiting for me and one of the major reasons why I missed every deadline I made for getting things done with the book. Sometimes we’d have entire weeks of rain and gloom during which I was unable to take any photos. I’d work on whatever else I could, but it was not uncommon for me to just not get any book work done for days due to insufficient lighting. I wish now that I’d invested in artificial lighting sources way sooner. I’ve only just recently starting using light kits to fill in for the sun, and I’m kicking myself for wasting so much time without them.

I did my very best to edit the shots I got with my computer’s stock photo editor, iPhoto, but quickly realized that I had the need for more professional editing software. In the next installment of this series I’ll show you what software I went with and discuss its strengths and limitations.

If you missed them…

Part 1: Getting serious

Part 2: Anthologize and CreateSpace