Food photography traditionally has been the realm of a handful of weathered professionals well versed in their niche profession, armed with high-end, medium-format cameras and a ton of expensive studio gear, and flanked by a small army of dedicated chefs and food stylists. You can see their work in ads, cook books, and high-end glossy magazines such as Sunset, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.
So for the casual shooter or even the ambitious amateur, getting great food shots can seem like an intimidating and daunting task at best. But it doesn't have to be that way.
The digital frontier has changed the way we shoot and the things we can shoot successfully. The benefit of being able to review the shot instantly, and know for certain that what you have just captured is usable, is absolutely invaluable. This applies especially to food photography where most of your time will go into setup and preparation.
This article will show you how you can achieve professional results with a minimum of equipment, some budget-conscious props, a little technical know-how, and a big dash of creative fun.
I love food. And I'm talking about more than just the mere taste sensation. I love everything about it: the colors, textures, smell, and of course flavors. The delightful way a healthy dose of wasabi momentarily stings my nose and makes my eyes water. The smooth and creamy manner in which an exquisite piece of Swiss milk chocolate melts on my tongue. And, after a nice meal, the way my brain rewards me with the release of a particularly fun chemical, namely endorphin, which makes me feel warm and happy all over.
So what does all of this have to do with food photography, you ask? Absolutely everything. You will be hard-pressed to find a professional food photographer who is unappreciative of fine cuisine. So the very first step to creating universally appealing images of food is to have a passion for the subject.
Although I'm an architectural photographer by trade, when a new client asked me to create a portfolio for his up-and-coming in-home chef service, I jumped at the opportunity. But did I give in to my inner gear junkie who urged me to instantly rush out and purchase a bunch of nifty, high-end equipment to ensure success with this new task? No.
I suspect some pro out there (who gets paid an obscene sum of money to shoot a blueberry tartlet for Martha Stewart Living, assisted by that enviable mountain of gear and throng of trained helpers) will scoff at me for this, but instead, I sat down with an Oreo (okay, a few Oreos) and a glass of milk, put on my thinking cap, and reviewed what I knew about food photography.
For one, I knew that shooting food is very unlike architectural and product photography, where you want your entire subject in crystalline, razor-sharp focus so the viewer can pore over the details for hours. Photographing three pan-fried scallops on a risotto cake is more about appealing to--yep, you guessed it--those mighty little endorphins in the viewer's brain.
But because not even the twenty-first century has brought us a technological device capable of translating taste or smell from an image into an actual sensory experience, photographers are left with two other attributes of food: color and texture.
Translated this means: get close with your camera, focus on that texture, be bold with your choices of props and styling, and carefully plan ahead with your dishes, backdrops, lighting, and other environmental factors.
The setup for my food shoot was very simple:
Yes, that's right. I didn't use any flashes, studio lights, or reflectors. Why not? Easy. The plates, glasses, and silverware used in the shoot were guaranteed to throw back the light from a flash, causing ugly glares and hot spots that would have been distracting and possibly would have overpowered the images. Consequently, I made sure far in advance that the light on location was going to be plentiful (more about that in the Setup & Props section below). A healthy dose of good, natural light always works too. And if you already own a bunch of studio equipment, by all means, experiment. I'm not pretending that my technique is absolute. But it worked for me.
Proximity to a kitchen: Outside of the pan or fridge, food can quickly start to look waxy and lose its appeal when it gets too cold, too wilted, or too warm. Fish and meat seem to lose their juicy plumpness only too soon. Warm cream sauces tend to separate into unsightly drops instead of staying smooth. So being close to a kitchen or having ultra-fresh food available for your shoot is imperative. For this reason, my client had rented a commercial kitchen, where we would prepare, style, and photograph the dishes.
Lighting: I inquired about the lighting conditions in the kitchen way ahead of time. My Canon 10D has a nifty White Balance option that will let me adjust for various lighting conditions on the fly, but film users must be aware of the perilous lighting conditions they can encounter on a shoot. In my case, two large rows of fluorescent lights with plastic diffusers were mounted directly overhead, providing plentiful, even illumination. Fluorescent lighting, however, will tint an image an unsightly shade of green. To retain the all-important natural colors in my images, I switched my camera's White Balance setting to "fluorescent," activating the 10D's built-in color compensation mode. Film users should use a magenta filter to compensate for fluorescent light, or if shooting with stationary indoor lights, switch to tungsten-balanced film. More information about this topic can be found in ephotozine's Guide to colour temperature article.
Props & Backgrounds: In food photography good props can make or break an image. Carefully plan your food items ahead of time. Know what colors you'll have to work with, and buy plates, tablecloths, napkins, and silverware to complement and contrast those colors. Stores like Pier 1 Imports and IKEA harbor tons of fun, stylish, and colorful accessories at reasonable prices. At the very least though, get yourself a black plate. Pretty much all food will look good on it; you cannot go wrong. Although your background will be out of focus, it's still important. Experiment with more than just the traditional tablecloth; try sand, paper, bricks, leaves, or cool fabrics.
Garnishes: It's a good idea to have plenty of garnishes at hand. Professional food stylists employ all kinds of less-than-delicious techniques to fool viewers into thinking that what they are looking at is mouth watering--when actually it's motor oil, paint, glycerin, or glue. Since you will most likely stick to real food, and this is an area you can be wildly creative in, here are a few suggestions to get you started: fresh herbs, colorful spices like curry and paprika, a variety of seeds like sesame or poppy, sauces (pre-prepared and stored in squeeze bottles in the fridge), and small, graceful vegetables like green onions and radishes.
And now for the easiest part: shooting the food. You have chosen your location, considered the lighting, set up your camera on your tripod (don't try this in hand-held mode), arranged your fresh food on a pretty plate, and garnished it. Everything is ready except you don't know how to translate all that prettiness into a professional-looking photograph. There are really only two things you have to consider: get close and work fast.
Get close: If possible, fill the entire frame of the image with your subject. I took most of the shots in this article with a 75-300mm lens at f-stops of 4 or 5.6. The resulting shallow depth-of-field will throw everything but a few inches of your plate out of focus, blurring the background and highlighting the texture of your food item. So position your camera and tripod on a low angle to your plate, zoom in (using the depth-of-field preview button on the 10D helps too), set your exposure in manual mode at something like f 5.6 and 1/8 second (ISO 200), and fire away.
Work fast: As previously mentioned, food only looks really appealing for a short period of time. Ice cream melts--especially in a sweltering kitchen setting. Champagne goes flat. Veggies droop. And lettuce wilts. So you need to work fast. Even with the best-case scenario, you won't have more than 15 to 20 minutes from the moment the food exits the pan or fridge to get your shot. Being well prepared really helps, and having a helper or the chef there to plate and dress is invaluable. But don't be afraid to experiment with different angles, settings, and garnishes nonetheless. Remember: practice makes perfect.
While images of mouth-watering food really helped to sell my client's catering services, there is nothing quite like including a human face to get a message across. So I had the idea to show the chef in his element, engaged in the most intimidating of tasks in the kitchen: fire in the pan.
Again, the setup was really simple: I hand-shot with my 35-80mm lens, set the manual mode at f-4 and 1/250 (ISO 400), and just kept the shutter button depressed while the chef created momentary flames with white wine. (Don't try this at home if you're not a trained chef.)
So dive in. Have fun. And don't forget to reap the ultimate benefit: eating the food you shoot. Just make sure you do it after you've captured the perfect shot.