When I came up with this assignment on Food Photography, I knew I would need help. Thankfully, The Ivory Hut, whose writing and photography about food, travel and life I have always admired, agreed to write up a beginner’s guide to food photography for me..er, for all of us. Enjoy! — Scott
I first picked up a camera fully intent on learning how to take “serious photographs” when I was about 13. Okay, it was my dad’s camera and his lenses, tripod, and flash system. I saved my school allowance in order to pay for processing and printing and, later on, chemicals and paper. But still. I already figured then I wasn’t interested in taking snapshots; I wanted to take the kind of photographs people put on their walls. So my first foray into photography involved travel, landscape, sports, and even a bit of photojournalism.
If you had presented to me then a plate of beautiful food and told me to take photos of it, I might have laughed and asked if you were joking. Or, more likely, I would have eaten whatever was on the plate and then chuckled while chewing.
I never expected to fall in love with food photography, but I did. It all started when I began spending more time in the kitchen. I guess when you take great pleasure in feeding people, you eventually find ways to take it further, feeding their eyes when you can’t physically present them with a dish. Since I still feel like a newbie, when Scott asked me to share some thoughts about food photography, I almost turned around wondering if maybe he meant to send the email to someone else standing behind me. I really do still feel like I’m learning just like many others out there. I may have picked up a camera at 13, but food photography? I’ve been doing it for less than 2 years. I’m a rookie, is what I am.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten the “I’m no expert” disclaimer out of the way, here’s another one: this won’t be a post about food styling. I wish it could be, but let’s face it: I ain’t got style. I wouldn’t know style if it jumped in front of me wearing a bright white sweatband, even brighter white sneakers and did the running man. (The mere fact that I am using the running man as an illustration should convince you of my dire want of style.)
So, to recap: I know just a bit more than diddly, and I have no style. Got it? Good. Now we can start.
1. Know thyself and thy camera.
As with any kind of photography, nothing takes the place of knowing the basics. Know your camera, understand how to creatively use aperture, shutter speed, and even ISO to create the effect you want. Know yourself, too. Know how steady your hands are, and at what speed you’ll start needing to prop that camera or bring out the tripod. That’s the most important tip I can give you. If you know these things, you can make good pictures no matter what camera you have in your hand.
(I intended to include a collage here and ask you to pick out which ones were taken using a point-and-shoot. But alas, I no longer have those photos. So I guess it’s safe to tell you now that it was going to be a trick question—I intended to include only point-and-shoot photos.)
2. Textures and color go a long way in making a photo interesting.
Think of it like landscape photography: you don’t want flat photos that look boring. Texture makes things interesting. Use texture either on the food itself, or its surface, or in props. If your surface has interesting fibers or weaves, make sure at least part of it is in focus. Sprinkle freshly cracked pepper or kosher/sea salt (it has much better texture, not to mention flavor, than table salt) just before shooting, so you can see the grains on the food. Herbs look pretty, too, and even crumbs or drops of water can do the trick. I find shooting from an angle highlights these textures and can even make plain, boring food items look more interesting. They can make even raw chicken look good. But be careful: too much, and the frame can look distractingly busy.
3. Keep focused.
Pay attention to your aperture setting and the depth of field. Know exactly what you want in focus and what you want to blur, then use the LCD screen to check your depth of field and focus. Don’t just look at the entire shot on the screen; use the magnifier to zoom in on the spots that need to be sharp. Too often, shots may look like they’re sharp enough in the tiny screen, until you see them in full size on your monitor and realize your focus was soft. While we’re talking about focus, make sure you eliminate camera shake. Increase your shutter speed or use a tripod if necessary.
4. Find the light.
Everyone knows natural light is the best light for food photography. But it’s not enough to just find natural light. You need to make sure you have adequate light and that it isn’t too harsh. If you need to, redirect the light using anything from a sheet of white paper to foam board. If the light is harsh, diffuse it with sheer fabric or even translucent paper. Sidelight is best and most flattering; it accentuates the textures and lends lovely shadows to further suggest depth and texture. You can have gorgeous natural light, but if it’s directly above or simply too even, the photo will appear flat. If you have to, move the plate elsewhere if there is better light elsewhere.
5. Work it.
When I started diving into food photography, I had to fight the part of me that was used to photojournalism and sports photography. For those, you have to make the best of what’s in front of you and you rarely have the luxury of posing your subject or even finding a better vantage point. So, I would plate the dish as best I could and then make the best of what was there. I needed to remind myself I could actually move the subject, make changes to it, try different positions and props. Sometimes we don’t notice the reluctance to change anything because it’s so ingrained in us and old habits die hard. Learn to get away from the snapshot mentality or travel photo mentality. Move your ingredients. Move yourself, too. Walk around it. Stand on chairs. Crouch down low. Try to exhaust all possible angles and variations. After all, your food isn’t going anywhere until you decide you’re done.
While you’re shooting, always remember to take three versions of the shots you like: shoot it in landscape orientation, in portrait orientation, and then specifically frame it for square cropping especially if you submit photos to sites such as TasteSpotting and FoodGawker. Then you’ll be ready to provide photos to any site or publication no matter what their size and orientation requirements may be.
6. Make the content compelling.
Again, we’re back to basics. Make the photograph mean something. Think about what makes the dish enticing. The rich chocolate? The crunchy coating? The melting cheese? The refreshing coolness of the fizzy drink? The crispness of the vegetables? The freshness of the fruit? The creaminess of the … cream? Highlight that feature, find a way to call attention to it. If the dish has height, take a photo with the camera at the same level as the food to emphasize its height. If it has lots of great color and beautiful ingredients going on all over its surface, maybe an overhead shot will work best. Hone in on the one thing which will whet the appetite the most and make sure it’s in focus. You want the photo to make the viewer pay attention and feel a physical response to it, to want to taste it. That’s a photograph they’ll remember, a photograph their eyes will linger on.
There is so much more to say about food photography (white balance, controlling light, etc.), but I think these six are a good start. Just like any art or craft, the best way to learn is to keep shooting. Immerse yourself in food photography. Look through cookbooks, look at food blogs you enjoy and cooking magazines. Examine the photos and try to understand what makes them work. If you study it bent on learning, you’ll eventually find yourself progressing from hoping for a lucky shot to being able to make the great shot you want. It takes effort, time, and patience, but it’s worth it. Plus, you always get food at the end of every lesson. Doesn’t get much better than that.