Of all the types of things I photograph, shooting food probably comes the closest to being a full-blown DIY project. There’s a lot going on– from lighting and composing to styling and shooting, food photography is almost always a production. But regardless of whether you are shooting food for a big publishing client or for a small cookbook of your old family recipes, the process of capturing food at its most flattering remains the same.
You Only Need One Light Source
Food photography is definitely one of those genres where less is more. With portraits, cars, and interior architecture, for example, we can keep adding more and more light until we have it shaped perfectly for our needs. Add a kicker. Throw in a little more fill. Craft the light and direct the shadows. With food photography, however, making the food the star is usually a matter of carefully selecting a single large, diffused light source. Before you click over to B&H or Adorama in search of the biggest soft box you can find, take a few minutes to check out your windows. Nine times out of ten, a simple window will be all you need to create beautifully diffused back or side light. Lighting from the back or side will create dimension and highlight the textures in the food. As a portrait photographer, I found this to be a little counter-intuitive when I first started shooting food. Even though we CAN take stunning portraits with just one light, adding a fill light to soften the shadows or background lights to create separation is very common. Not so with food. The best light for food photography is the light they won’t even notice when they look at the photos. We want it as natural as possible. That’s one of the reasons why window light works so well. It also means, though, that there are going to be naturally occurring shadows. If you feel they need to be softened, or that some fill is necessary, use a bounce card.
Sometimes Mother Nature (and Schedules) Don’t Cooperate
Sometimes you’re just stuck with a crappy day and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you have to shoot at night. While natural light is best for food photography, you can mimic daylight in the studio if you have to. Regardless of whether you use studio lights or speedlights, make sure you’re using a softbox or other diffusion material large enough to give you a nice spread of light. Also start out by dialing your power down by at least half. Using strobes to add a pop of light is fine, but let your camera settings be in charge of how that light is captured.
As you can see below, the setup can be extremely basic. This is just inside the front door of my house. It’s a large, diffused light source, and I have a bounce card mounted at the opposite end of the table with a Double-Headed Nasty Clamp. The camera does the rest. For those days when time or weather aren’t cooperating, I add a speedlight inside a 24-inch softbox set to 1/4 power (give or take). All of the photos for this article were taken on this setup.
Vary the Camera Angle
Just like human subjects can be photographed from more flattering angles, the same goes for food. It’s important to remember that the concept you see in your head might not always make the best photo. That’s one reason why I almost never shoot a dish from only one angle. Get the shot you think you want, but then take a few minutes to recompose and take another. Variety is important, particularly if you are shooting for a client. Clients like choices. Also keep in mind that different angles will be better (or worse) for different types of shots. Photographing rows of cupcakes from an angle just above them, for instance, can create interesting leading lines through the frame. Shooting a collection of ingredients, on the other hand, can often benefit from an angle directly above them. As with any other type of photography, choose your angles carefully. It is your choice of camera angle that creates a sense of depth, perspective, and scale. Choose wisely. Remember that an added benefit of shooting food is that it won’t get bored or frustrated with you while you take your time getting everything just right.
In the two examples below, the ingredients for a spice rub are photographed from two different angles. Is one better than the other? You and I may or may not think so, but the client is sure to have an opinion.
Speaking of Getting it Just Right…
Many food photographers and stylists will tell you that you have a very short window of opportunity to get the shot once the food hits the table. To a certain extent they are correct. Hot dishes in particular are going to look their best when they are still hot and fresh out of the oven. That doesn’t mean, though, that the food’s first appearance in front of the camera has to be once it’s fully camera-ready. Always make sure that the budget includes extra food. You can prepare a “rough draft” for purposes of composing and making sure that your camera and light settings are where you want them. Some professional food photographers refer to these dishes the “dummy food.” Once they are ready for the real thing, they bring out the “hero food”– the dish that has been perfectly selected, prepared, and plated. Running test shots with dummy food helps take the pressure off when it’s time to shoot the hero food. This shot of pancakes was an example of not getting it quite perfect. We shot the hero food,, but I inadvertently blew out of the highlights on the top left edge of the stack. We saved the image by cropping for the final image, but this was a classic example of how careful you need to be to not change anything between shooting the dummy and the hero.
Depth of Field
There is a natural inclination to shoot as wide open as possible when using natural light. Shooting at f/2.8 or f/1.8 can certainly create soft, dreamy backgrounds, but keep in mind that you might actually want more of your background in focus than shooting wide open would generally allow when shooting food. Those rows of cupcakes I mentioned earlier? A narrow DOF will work in that situation because we know they are cupcakes. But if the shot has been styled with background elements which nobody will be able to recognize, that shallow DOF may not be the best choice. Also keep in mind that DOF applies from side to side, not just front to back. A close-up of a dish is essentially a macro shot. If your focus falls off too quickly in any direction you can kill an otherwise beautiful shot. Bracketing your exposures until you get the hang of this will give you choices, and quite possibly keep you from having to do a re-shoot. It’s okay that focus drops off in the second row of these polenta cakes, because they are still identifiable. If we went too shallow, though, the close-up might not otherwise work.
Shooting Ice Cream
Ice cream is perhaps the biggest challenge facing food photographers. At least is was for me when I first started. It would immediately start melting the moment it hit the plate and I was never satisfied with the results. Photographers have traveled to far-away lands, scaled dangerous mountains, crossed raging waters, sought the wisest of gurus, and sold parts of their souls and a kidney for the information I’m about to share with you. Ready? Scoop the ice cream ahead of time and put it on dry ice. Scoop more than you think you’ll need and only take out what you need for the shot. Using a straw to gently blow away the dry ice vapor will get it out of your shot without melting the ice cream. You can also use the straw to start slowly melting targeted areas of the ice cream, ensuring that it photographs with a fresh look.
A Dish is the Sum of its Parts
A delicious dish is not always a beautiful dish. Some food just photographs ugly. When that happens, think about shooting the ingredients. Be sure to fill the frame. In the shot of the coffee beans, zooming in tight shows detail and texture as a tactile element. Obviously we can’t touch it, but knowing how they would feel in your hand brings a new element to the viewer’s experience of the shot. Another option is to create a “work-in-progress” shot. Liquid being poured or a hand stirring a pot may be just what you need to make sure you get the most flattering shot of what might otherwise be a pretty sloppy dish. One of the biggest challenges I face when working with sauces, for instance, is that they never seem to pour exactly how I want them. On the other hand, a photo of the sauce being stirred while still in the pot can prevent multiple re-shoots when the sauce doesn’t cooperate on the plate.
Location: It’s More than Just the Light
Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re trying to show food at its best. If your studio doesn’t have a kitchen, you need to move the shoot to a location that does. Besides being able to photograph food at its freshest, nothing beats a kitchen for the work space. A small bathroom down the hall with a tiny sink isn’t going to cut it.
The Other Clean Plate Club
Have you ever watched a food stylist put food on a plate? They use tweezers! They are careful and meticulous, because even the smallest misplaced crumb can divert the viewer’s attention from the hero on the plate. To paraphrase my friend Zack Arias, if you are thinking, “I can just get rid of that crumb or drop of sauce in Photoshop later,” I want you to to stop what you’re doing and slap yourself. Hard. Photoshop is a tool, not a crutch. Get everything as close to perfect in the camera as you can. White plates photograph extremely well, but you have to make sure they’re nice and clean.
On the Other Hand…
Get creative. Cookies crumble and there’s nothing wrong with showing that. Not every plate of food has to be in its pristine, pre-devoured state. Break some cookies. Cut the steak. It tells the viewer that someone has already enjoyed this, and so can you. Messy can work just as effectively as keeping it clean. Just don’t overdo it.
Vary the Background
One of the best pieces of advice I can offer is that you work with a food stylist whenever possible. Not every project or budget warrants that, however, so you’re going to have hone your skill at creating different looks. The food is going to look how it’s going to look. You’re not going to have a lot of control over that beyond plating, etc. Just like we choose backgrounds carefully for portraits, the same applies for food. Changing up table cloths, plates, and cutting boards are the obvious options, but don’t stop there. I’ve used 16-inch ceramic floor tiles. You know those old, nasty-looking cookie sheets you have buried somewhere in your kitchen? The ones with baked-on grime that you couldn’t remove with explosives? Pull one of those out and use it for food photography. It will create an interesting background. Trust me. Try to use colors and textures that compliment the food. Another good background tip and DIY project is to cover sheets of foam board with different cloth remnants. It’s cheaper than buying table cloths, and they are much easier to work with since they won’t wrinkle once the material is attached. Make sure to not over-think your choices. Sometimes just putting a plate on a table is all you need. Making sure you have backgrounds that provide good contrast with the food is another way of making sure the image pops.
Know how the Photo Will be Used
Are you shooting for a cookbook? A magazine? Product packaging? Knowing your audience and how the photo will be used is going to play a huge part in how you compose or crop your image. For print, consulting with the client regarding layout is crucial. You can take the world’s most beautiful photo, but if the crop or orientation doesn’t work with the layout, you run the risk of re-shooting and possibly not getting hired again. That’s one of the reasons for shooting multiple angles, as mentioned earlier. When shooting for a cookbook, I almost never know ahead of time which dish is being considered for the cover. Taking the intended shot and recomposing with a cover in mind is one way to make sure that the client has as many options as possible. In the examples below, the first image was used inside the book for the actual recipe, while the second was used for the cover.
Use Less Food Than Usual
Remember when I mentioned that less is more when lighting for food? The same goes for the plating. While we might think that a big, heaping plate of food fit for a hungry teenager will play well for the camera, we also want to make sure that we capture the star, as well as distinct members of the supporting cast. Leaving empty space around the outer edge of the plate will also help create contrast between the food and the background. Also beware of too many overlapping elements on the plate.
To Cook All the Way or Not?
There are mixed opinions on this one. Some photographers and stylists will tell you that cooking food all way takes it past its most attractive state. Others will tell you that from a credibility standpoint, if you’re shooting the dish you shoot the dish the way the recipe says it should look. My personal opinion on this one is that if you are taking the time to shoot “dummy food,” you should have no trouble shooting “hero food” when it’s fully cooked and fresh out of the oven.
Never Ever Touch the Stylist’s Food
Don’t learn this one the hard way. You take your job seriously and so do they. Once the food hits the plate it’s off-limits to you. Turn the plate if you want to, but if something needs to be moved, ask them to move it. If something needs to be added, ask them to add it. They’ve been hired for the same reason as you– they’re talented and they know what they’re doing. They’re not reaching for a camera, so you don’t reach for the food.
Shooting food, like shooting anything else, can be rewarding when it goes well and frustrating as hell when it doesn’t. Taking a methodical approach, however, can yield excellent results. When you get right down to it, a lot of what’s been discussed here are the same concepts that apply to photographing people. Paying attention to lighting, background, camera angles, composition, exposure, and “wardrobe” can produce great portraits, but it can also produce mouth-watering results when carefully applied to food.
All photos are Copyright 2013-2014, Guyer Photography. All rights reserved.