What I've learned about food photography

Published on May 10, 2015 under Photography

I think one of the most challenging subjects to try and get photos of has to be food. One could think it’s just a simple task of pointing a camera at a plate of edibles and pressing the shutter button. Some could argue that shooting photos of people, especially children, could be harder, but I’d have to disagree.

Since I started Culinaria five years ago, it’s been a learning experience in photographing the dishes I craft. I took on the task partially out of personal challenge, but also because I wanted to show the actual food I created, rather than steal photos from around the internet. Plus I live for the DIY spirit in what I do.

While I would not put myself on the same level as professional food stylists, there are lessons I’ve learned on food photography that are worth sharing. If you’re an aspiring food blogger or simply enjoy Instagramming your meals, then you might gain some value from this.

Plating is half the battle

It takes a lot more than just slopping food on a plate to make the photo. In the past, food stylists would go to some very unscrupulous means to make a beautiful plating. I’m talking about painting a raw chicken with shellac, dunking grapes into oil for a shine, or picking through 10 boxes of cereal to create one perfect bowl, with Elmer’s Glue used as the “milk”.

Fortunately, US law now states that the food used in photography must be the actual food and be in an edible no more using mashed potatoes to create ice cream.

If you’re shooting food in a restaurant, then you probably won’t have to think about plating, as the chef took care of that part. However, at home you’re on your own. A good place to start when approaching a plating is to research. I’ll usually just hit up Google and do a search in their images section.

Look at how the dish has been plated and shot. Pay attention not only to the composition of the plate, but the plate itself, the setting they’ve put it in, and any “accessories” put with the dish. Also pay attention to the angles, lighting, and cropping. You might decide to mimic or “be inspired” by these photos, or branch off and do your own thing. It’s entirely up to you.

I also think if you’re going to shoot food regularly, then you should invest in props to help you. Stroll through some home furnishing sections or stores, even “clearance” stores such as HomeGoods. Pick up some plates, bowls, and even placemats to use. Go for variety, as you don’t need full sets, but more single items specifically for photography. The color, shape, and decor of your plates and place settings can either compliment or ruin the look and personality you want for your plating.

When it’s time to actually plate the food, you might need to think a little differently than you would when cooking a dish. Consider cooking ingredients separately and assembling them on the plate. Cooking times can vary based on ingredient, or some sauces and liquids could discolor ingredients in a way you didn’t desire.

Depending on your vision for the image, you should monitor the amount of food used. A big plate with a few items in the middle will give a sense of elegance, while a full plate might look more down-to-Earth, or even rustic. Be mindful to highlight the main item you want to focus on. That means not overloading the plate with side dishes, or even considering not using any sides.

Lastly, don’t overlook garnish. Whether it’s a sprinkle of some dried herbs, or draping fresh ones on top of the dish, those little touches do stand out, and will make your photos pop more. Just make sure not to turn the garnish into the main highlight.

Lighting is the other half

Now that you have your plating set, it’s time to actually photograph it. This is when lighting becomes the biggest challenge when you want that perfect shot. If you plan on regularly shooting food, then invest in the right gear. Beyond your camera, pick up a lens that will allow you a low depth of field. A simple 50mm lens can do you better than an expensive zoom lens.

I’d also consider a light tent, tripod, and some inexpensive lights. I know it sounds like a lot, but you can get an inexpensive light tent online for $20-$50. You just need one that goes on a tabletop. You might not use it all the time, but it can do wonders when you need to set up a shot. The lighting portion can be fulfilled with some clamp lights from a hardware store. For a hobbyist or amateur, you don’t need much more.

While it’s nice to have a lighting setup for such photos, but nothing beats natural light. Many food photographers will set up their place settings next to a window and allow natural light to illuminate their plates. An overcast day is golden or at least when the sun isn’t directly blasting through your windows. It makes shadows soft, and allows the colors to shine. If you can’t get that kind of light in your home, then go to the light tent and lighting.

I won’t presume to tell you where to set up your lighting. I’ve read many pieces of advice, but I’d more lean to experiment and take test shots. However, I would forewarn you to watch for unwanted reflections. I’ve noticed many times after shooting some freshly-cooked foods that I’ll see loads of small white spots on said dish, reflections of the lighting. The answer is either to find ways to soften the light more, or move your lighting to remove them. If all else fails, then don’t be afraid to retouch in post-production.

Lastly, be creative

You could say this should be covered in the plating, but it really covers all aspects of taking food photos. There are no real “rules” to taking pictures of food, beyond doing whatever gets you the shot you wanted.

Not all your food needs to be finished on a plate. Sometimes the best shot is the work-in-progress in the pan, or just sliced items on a cutting board. Your photo should reflect the idea you want to portray. You also don’t always need to “place” your plating as if one is about to eat it. Consider putting the plated food among its raw ingredients for a change of pace.

I’d also like to toss out there to try multiple angles when shooting. I tend to notice some food bloggers and even larger publications tend to stay with one angle in their photos. It can get boring to stick with one kind of shot all the time. Change it up. Some dishes look good in their full glory, while others work nicely as a cropped close-up. You should just take multiple shots and then pick the best one.

The last piece of advice I could share would be to always think in terms of “yum”. More than anything, you want to strive for photos that would make you hungry just by looking at them. Practice as much as you can when shooting, and don’t be afraid to seek help or guidance in your own food photography.

Do you photograph food? What advice would you give in food photography?

Tags: food, photography, lessons

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