What lens did you get with it Holly?
Another thing to keep in mind is that depth of field is affected not only by aperture but also by focal length. A wide-angle lens is going to have a deeper depth of field than a telephoto at the same aperture setting. And there's even more to it than that, but aperture and focal length are the biggies.
I used to shoot with an inexpensive, but very useful, 50mm 1.8, almost always set to wide-open, which allowed me some decent shots even in very low light. But as you yourself had commented, that wide aperture created some pretty extreme focus effects!
At some point, I found a good deal on an 18-55mm lens, and found that I much preferred shooting at the wide-angle end of that lens, even though it wasn't as fast (didn't have as wide of an aperture.) First, there was less contorting myself around at a table trying to frame the shot with a fixed 50; second, between the wide angle and the smaller aperture, I get a wider depth of field, which keeps more of the food in focus; third, even with the longer shutter-speeds required due to the smaller maximum aperture, it's easier to get a steady shot with a wide-angle lens. It's even easier with a VR (vibration-reduction) lens, which I suspect you got, if you bought a kit.
I theoretically agree with David that a tripod is ideal, and any time I do serious shooting in a professional context, of course I use a tripod (and usually artificial lighting), but I find in the kind of restaurant hit-and-run shooting that you and I both do, a tripod is rarely practical. Small table-top tripods are very hard to position correctly on a table with food on it, and framing the shot and determining focus becomes an acrobatic affair. Full-size tripods are always in the way. Either tripod ends up drawing a lot of attention, even more than the SLR itself.
If you happen to be in a restaurant when its not crowded and you're hoping to sell a photo to a magazine (there must still be one or two magazines that still pay for photos, right?) I'd certainly recommend a tripod. But if you're just taking a quick shot of your sandwich at your table to post on Hollyeats.com, it's going to be way easier to just hand-hold it. Practice bracing your arms against your body, or on the table, or whatever, to hold the camera steady (holding it up to your eye helps) and gently squeezing the shutter.
Beyond that basic technique stuff, I'd recommend setting the camera to A, for aperture priority, and opening the lens up as far as it will go, which might only be 3.5 or so, if you have a typical kit zoom lens. If it's a VR lens, make sure the VR is switched on. If it's a zoom, use the wider-end of it, and get as close as your focus-range allows. If it's even a little dim, crank the ISO up to its highest setting, which will allow faster shutter-speeds, therefore less blurring. If it's nice and bright, use lower ISO settings. Keep in mind that higher ISOs will result in grainier photos, which may or may not matter much, depending on the use of the photo - on the web, not such a big deal, in print, extreme grain would be a problem. If you have plenty of light, you can shut the aperture down in order to get deeper focus, if desired. Set the white balance appropriately for the type of light you're encountering. I don't have that much luck with auto settings, so I tend to set that manually, and then do further adjustments when importing the RAW file.
If you haven't bought a lens yet, go for something wide, maybe even a non-zoom "prime" lens, if you don't mind carrying more than one lens around. If you want to be more practical, the 18-55mm zoom, or the 18-200mm zoom, are incredibly versatile lenses, if not the ultimate in optical quality.
And I do suggest shooting in RAW, I think it's worth the extra data storage space. Large SD cards are cheap, as are hard drives for your computer, and you can always delete everything except the best shots. Being able to tweak white balance and exposure and several other parameters during the RAW import process has made a HUGE improvement in my finished shots, and I suspect it would do the same for yours, even if you were only making minor adjustments, or hitting the "auto" buttons. I happen to use a full-on version of Photoshop for this, but Photoshop Elements does a pretty good job for less than $100, and gives you almost everything in the pro version other than working in CMYK colorspace, which you don't really need unless you're laying-out print materials yourself.
But the biggest things, way beyond the gear, are optimizing the light you have, and composing the shot. Get the subject into the spot where the light is best, and at the best angle. That might occasionally be counter-intuitive, but be open to trying a few angles. And then set-up the shot, as best you can. You don't always have that much flexibility if you're shooting stuff on a table, but when you can, move distracting things out of the frame, or make sure interesting things are in the background. Play with your depth of field to make those other elements more or less prominent.
Have fun! I look forward to seeing new pix...
Edited by philadining, 22 June 2009 - 10:41 AM.