For better or worse, almost everyone fancies him or herself a food photographer these days. On one end of the spectrum we have celebrated editorial photographers and their stunning, mouthwatering shots on the pages of your favorite food magazines. We have the passionate foodies who, through trial and error, have come to produce artfully styled images for their blogs. Right in the middle, we have the well crafted but largely forgettable advertising images you see in stores and in ads on tv; the flatly lit fan of fish sticks on the box in the freezer aisle of the supermarket, the giant hot dog towering above you in the self serve area of your favorite Swedish furniture store. Far down on the other end of the spectrum, you have the unappetizing photos of what you think is food, shot with direct flash, littering your social media feeds. These terrible food photos aren’t exclusive to the layperson either. Even the most successful and well-respected celebrity food personalities can take some fugly food photos, landing them squarely in this group.
So what can you do to ensure your shots land you in the company of the former and not the latter? The recipe is simple: Choose a great subject, artfully style your shot, and use all the principles of portrait photography to craft a portrait of the food you are shooting.
When shooting food in a home studio setting, you likely have unlimited choices of subject. A dish with interesting and varied colors and textures will always result in a more delectable photo than a monotone plate of food. Pay close attention to styling, both on and off the plate. Food photography is one of the genres where styling is most important, falling second only to fashion photography.
Adding color to a dish makes an incredible difference.
The primary light source coming from camera left accentuates the folds in the sour cream.
Food stylists are responsible for everything within the bounds of the plate. If you aren’t a particularly confident cook, partner with someone who can cook and style the food for you. Don’t know a food stylist? If you know a strong cook, you have your food stylist. Their primary job is to ensure that the dish is cooked correctly and looks great. Depending on how commercial (perfect) or editorial (natural/organic) you want your food photography to be, their role can be as intensive as frequently spritzing water on fruit and using tweezers to delicately place garnishes atop the finished plate or as simple as preparing a backup duplicate plate, as you fire off test shots with the primary plate. Even if you yourself are a strong cook, it’s often better to partner with a food stylist or cook, so you can focus 100% on your lighting, camera settings, and the photo styling. If the food styling isn’t to your liking, you can direct your stylist to make adjustments that suit your vision, all the while keeping your hands clean and firmly on your camera gear.
Photo/prop styling involves anything outside the bounds of the dish. Less is more, and it’s important not to go overboard. You want the food to be the hero after all, and the props should be there to accentuate it, not distract from it.
Prop styling can be as simple as a rustic metal baking sheet or as elaborate as a full kitchen setup around a jar of pasta.
One of the best ways to build skill as a food photographer is to study; not in the sense of studying books or even camera techniques, but to study the work of photographers you admire, just like an aspiring painter might study Matisse or a portrait photographer might study Richard Avedon.
Hunkering down in the cookbook section of your favorite bookstore is a great way to start. Lucky Peach, Kinfolk and other indie food magazines have their finger on the pulse of modern food photography and styling, making them a great reference point. Saveur magazine nominates great food blogs for their outstanding photography each year, as does The Huffington Post and even PBS.
Instagram is a veritable treasure trove for stunningly conceived, styled and shot food photographs if you are willing to dig through the masses to find those gems. Keep a pinterest page or a physical bulletin board of the shots that inspire you most. Spend time with the images, thinking about what it is about the imagery that resonates with you. Is it the quality and angle of the light? Is it the styling? Is it something deeper, like the story that’s being told? Time spent studying food photography will impact your images just as powerfully as studying lighting and mastering your DSLR settings.
You should be referring back to all the basic tenants of photography, such as the rule of thirds, engaging the edges, and basic color theory when crafting your images. Sometimes the composition on the plate will drive the composition of the shot, sometimes it will be the other way around. Either way, your aim is to seek balance in your shot. Aside from lighting, the main telltale sign of an amateur photo is a poorly balanced composition, one that just doesn’t seem to feel quite right.
Today’s most successful food photographers tend to shoot with the camera at a 45 degree angle down toward the subject or from directly overhead, using a tripod extension arm, which is a must have tool in the kit of any aspiring food photographer. These two angles are great to start out with, but by all means, explore. Know that a typical single editorial or commercial food setup will take several hours, if not all day to shoot. Even on the most high profile of shoots there is some serious exploration going on, not just in terms of angle study, but also exploration in lighting, composition, styling, lens choice and exposure. Don’t be afraid to take the time to explore and take lots of test shots, like a professional. Just be sure your food stylist has back up food ready to go, should your plate expire, lose its beauty, or succumb to your hunger.
Soup at 45 degrees and shot straight down from a tripod extension arm.
One of the great things about shooting a plate of food is that it doesn’t squirm and it doesn’t blink, unless you’re shooting a particularly strange and exotic dish. Because your subject is essentially a still life, there is no reason to shoot hand held. Shooting on a tripod eliminates the possibility of camera shake and allows you to shoot at the optimal ISO and shutter speed for the depth of field that will best highlight your subject. On top of that, a tripod forces you to be more cognizant of your composition, and allows for minor tweaks to bring about balance and a perfectly level horizon line. And should you need to swap out your primary dish for the backup, you eliminate the need to re-explore. You can seamlessly swap out the new dish.
In the past, shooting tethered was only available to professionals shooting with Capture One software. Now, with the advances with Lightroom, you can tether a laptop to your camera and shoot like the pros. Not only does this allow you to preview your images on a color-calibrated screen, but it also allows your collaborators to quickly view the test shots, without crowding around your camera. This way, your stylist or client (should you have one) can review, give feedback and make styling adjustments that you might not have caught on your own with just your LCD screen as reference.
One of the most appealing lighting strategies for food photography is to use a soft light from behind your subject at 45 degree angle, allowing soft shadows to fall toward camera. The trend of today is natural light, which doesn’t necessarily have to be true natural light. It can be faked in a pinch with a speedlight and a nice big diffuser or soft box. Don’t have a dedicated diffuser or soft box? You can whip one up in a pinch, there are countless tutorials on DIY diffusers online.
One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring food photographers make is that they use studio lights or speedlights and it’s obvious that they’re studio lights, because the don’t do anything to modify their light source. That, or they think they need to rely on TRUE window light and are seriously limited in the time they have to work. That’s not to say a nice big window with diffused light isn’t great, because it absolutely is. You just need to make sure you don’t have any direct light hitting the window. You have to modify the window light, just like you need to modify any strobes you might be using. If an actual beam of light is coming through the window, you need to diffuse that puppy with a window shade, fabric or other material to soften that light. A hard beam of light is like a naked studio light, it’s going to be harsh on your subject, create dark shadows, too much contrast, and just overall, look awful.
On the left we have a tomato lit from behind by a window with direct sun, creating specular highlights and harsh contrast. On the right is the same tomato and window, with a semi-opaque white window shade softening the light.
I can’t stress enough the power of a reflector/fill card. Fill cards bounce light from your light source to the subject, so you want to treat it like a mirror, and angle it so that the light bounces off the reflector and hits the area of your subject that needs some fill light. Because it’s a not a mirror and just a white card or white fabric, this reflected light will be subtle, just ever so slightly opening up your shadows and allowing for more details to be seen. A gobo (go-between) is similar, but instead of bouncing light you’re blocking light. Sometimes you need to block/bounce just a tiny portion of the light, sometimes you’ll want to block the light from an entire light source. For instance, if you are using a window behind your setup, you may need to block out a secondary window to the left or right of your subject, to ensure you have light coming from behind with soft shadows falling toward camera as your primary light source.
On the left, we have a carefully constructed composition with a light source falling in from behind. On the right, a reflector was added left of camera to ever so slightly fill in the shadows.
In professional photography programs it’s drilled into students to SWEAT YOUR HISTOGRAM. What exactly does that mean? It means don’t simply set your camera so that the exposure meter falls right on the line between overexposed and underexposed and think you’re done. Sure, that’s a good place to start, but your histogram is really what you need to be looking at to finesse your exposure. So go ahead, take your first photo of your dish with your meter squarely on the 0 line. Now, review your photo on your LCD, but make sure you use the screen that shows the histogram on the right of a smaller thumbnail of your image. You may think that a perfectly even bell curve is good, but that’s only if you’re shooting with a moderate, well balanced image. If your image is predominantly middle toned, a ‘normal’ histogram curve tells you that it’s properly exposed. But what if you had a squid ink pasta on a dark plate, with luscious deep red beets on the side? If you tried to get a normal histogram curve on that shot, you’d overexpose your blacks and lose all the drama of the image. In that case, you want to adjust your settings so that all of the histogram falls to the left of the middle point, by shifting down your exposure by a stop or two. In fact, you want your histogram to be as close to the left hand edge of the histogram without creeping up the side. Creeping up the side means you’re losing detail in your blacks, and you don’t want that. Likewise, for a shot of vanilla ice cream in a white bowl on a bright white marble table, you’d want to shift your exposure up a stop or so until your histogram is as far to the right as possible, without creeping up the right hand edge. Creeping up the right hand edge means you’re losing detail in your whites, and you don’t want that either. It’s handy to review your histogram while also having your highlight alerts enabled, to make sure you push your images as far as they should go in the direction that your subject requires, without going too far. Again, test shots are your friends.
On the left, we have the light food/light background and dark food/dark background exposed for middle grey, which your camera will always register as correctly exposed. When we bump the exposures a few stops up and down, we then get a more ‘correct’ histogram for the subject matter, with a more properly represented white and black. Notice that the histograms on the files on the right are pushed far to the right (for whites) and to the left (for darks).
Given that you are already committed to using a tripod like a professional food photographer, you can use any shutter speed your heart desires. This in turn gives you full control over not only your depth of field, but also the amount of noise in your image. Because here’s the thing: On a tripod, your shutter speed doesn’t matter. You have light that you can control (namely, a window that you can diffuse or a studio light/external flash head you can adjust the strength of), so you are free to keep your ISO nice and low in the noise-free land of professional photography.
Your ISO is nice and low and your shutter speed doesn’t matter, next up you want to figure out what depth of field the subject requires. Shooting top down, you are free to set your DOF as wide as you please, since the food is likely all on one plane. When you’re shooting from other angles, really think about how much of the food needs to be in focus, and adjust your aperture accordingly. Is the hero of your shot fully in focus? Does it need to be? How much focus do you need on your supporting elements? Use your DOF preview button, which is that little guy beneath your lens release button, to check your DOF as you adjust your settings. Once you do start taking test shots, zoom in and analyze how much of the image is in focus. If you’re shooting tethered, you can do this right on the nice large preview file in Lightroom.
So how does it look? Too little focus in front of or behind your point of focus? Too much? Easy, adjust where your focus point is falling, and reduce or expand your depth of field by using a larger or smaller aperture. If you’re shooting manual, don’t forget to adjust the shutter speed to counteract any changes you make and keep that histogram right where you want it. It sounds basic, but it’s incredibly important to really zoom in and take the time to sweat your focus just like you sweat your histogram. Keep taking test shots until you get the depth of field with the focus point that is right for each setup.
The other setting you want to pay close attention to is your white balance. Proper white balance means the difference between eerie off-color food that is tough to fix in post and a delectable dish that is so true to the real thing, you can almost taste it. You can use a grey card and either set a custom white balance in camera, or use that grey card reading in Camera Raw to set an accurate white balance after the fact. Alternatively, you can use the expodisc, an incredible tool to achieve accurate white balance.
An easy way to achieve accurate color is to shoot a grey card in your scene, under the same light as your subject. Accurately exposed, this grey card can be used in ACR or Lightroom to set a proper white balance on your final image.
When you break it down, even the simplest looking food shots are incredibly complex. There really is an art and science to making it look effortless. You have angle and quality of light, depth of field, composition, exposure, color accuracy, styling, lens choice and a myriad of other considerations to keep in mind. On top of that, you have the task of creating something artful and special. Fortunately, once you start challenging yourself to buckle down and make intentional choices for all those elements, it starts to become second nature and you can focus fully on the art of the plate.