In order to capture accurate and appealing photographs of food, use only natural light. Natural light does not distort the true colors of the food, and when harnessed properly, will highlight all the subtleties in texture and color tone.
To find the best natural light, move freely through your studio or space, taking a sample plate and camera with you to set up a test shot for lighting. Skylights and windows are great sources of natural light, just be sure to adjust the position of your scene so that the light falls on it. Shooting directly into the light creates an undesirable effect by casting dark shadows upon your entire scene. If the light is too bright or harsh on shoot day, try draping a gauzy or sheer fabric over the windows to diffuse the natural light.
If the light is being tricky or falling in an uneven way, a suitable alternative is to place your scene within a light box. A light box is a portable photo studio with a flat bottom and walled sides, usually made of a white fabric. Since the walls act like ad hoc reflectors, light boxes provide a controlled environment with evenly-distributed light.
As a food photographer, your goal is to create tantalizing pictures of food that will inspire the viewer to seek out the recipe and recreate the dish. Thus, the most important element of food photography is styling. A good food photographer either collaborates with a team of other creatives or takes on the role of art director and stylist (and sometimes recipe creator, too!). Either way, there are a few food photography tips to follow to make the images of your food look good.
When concepting and preparing for food styling, factor in the colors of the food and the complexity of the dish. There are infinite background options, ranging from a single, bold color to an entire table setting or kitchen scene. Experiment with tabletops, floors, window sills, and poster boards. Which background you choose depends on your personal style, point of view as a photographer, and creative expression of the food.
The same dish will reflect an entirely different feel and message when placed against various backgrounds. For example, a simple green salad in a nondescript bowl will exude a rustic feel when placed on a wooden table. That very same salad will demonstrate an elegance when placed over a fancy white tablecloth. It is also possible to deconstruct the salad and photograph it while strewn about a brightly-colored backdrop for an abstract, artistic effect.
The background works hand-in-hand with props. In order to create a cohesive scene, consider the story you are telling with each dish or food item. Curate the styling elements around this story. Just as there are many different background options, there are virtually endless prop possibilities. Anything can serve as a prop, from dishware, cookware, and utensils that you already have at home to vintage finds, decorative items, and even scraps of fabric. Milk cartons, cake stands, candelabras--the prop options are virtually endless, and only depend on your creative eye to bring the scene to life.
The final styling element is plating. The presentation of the food items, as stated above, can drastically change the feel of the final image. A fully decorated cake with a slice placed on a nearby plate feels different from a half-finished cake left in a pan, with all the various components, like flour and eggs, surrounding it. It is better to concept and plan ahead for this part, since some foods create a unique challenge in plating. For example, ice cream melts and caramel hardens, sandwiches can become soggy and sliced fruit can brown. Glasses filled with liquid can leave rings of condensation, and that perfectly runny yolk might run right through the rest of your scene. Planning ahead means knowing you only have a short amount of time to get your shot, so make sure to use an empty plate double while you adjust the final details before bringing out the real food for the real photos.
Equipment and Software
The ease of smartphone cameras paired with a suite of photo editing apps like VSCO and Snapseed means professional-ish food photography is at just about anyone’s fingertips. Contemporary smartphone cameras are so advanced that the images they produce are more than satisfactory in quality for digital use, like social media, Instagram, or recipe blogs. Professional food photographers still tend to prefer DSLR cameras, however, due to the increased control in camera settings, freedom with swapping lenses, and overall clarity of the final image, which results in a high resolution image better suited for print publications like magazines or cookbooks.
Food photography relies heavily on capturing the details. There are a handful of macro lenses ranging between 35mm and 60mm that allow a photographer great control in narrowing the depth of field, which is a desired effect for making the subject pop in the foreground. Some food photographers also prefer fixed lenses, which means the photographer has to move closer to or further from the subject instead of using a manual zoom on the camera; this provides the benefit of tightly controlling the frame while also focusing specifically on certain areas of the scene in real time.
A tripod is the next most useful tool in a food photographer’s arsenal. Some dishes, like a colorful grain bowl, are best shot from above, while other dishes, like an extra juicy burger, are best shot head on. Sometimes a 45 degree angle will bring out the most appealing qualities in a dish. A tripod is particularly helpful for nabbing those perfect overhead shots, known as flatlays. That type of extreme angle could lead to shaky hands, which would mean an out-of-focus picture. Tripods minimize this shake, and also eliminate the presence of unwanted shadows made by a person hovering over a scene.
The final step in food photography involves editing the photos you took. Most food photographers prefer Adobe Lightroom to Photoshop due to the highly organized filing system, and the white balance, exposure, and contrast tools which pump up the true colors of an image. Lightroom is also available as a smartphone app, which makes it the blogger-preferred tool for creating beautiful images of food photography. The in-app camera feature has a RAW file mode that allows greater control over white balance without sacrificing any details or data due to image file compression (which is what JPEG files do when you shoot in the native phone camera).
There is so much more to food photography than taking pictures of a pretty plate of food (though the rise of Yelpers and social media users who photograph their restaurant meals would beg to differ!). From styling to setting a scene to getting the perfect shot, food photography is an end-to-end creative outlet for everyone from seasoned recipe writers to budding food stylists and professional photographers alike.
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