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This post is a follow-up to an earlier Digital Photography School guest post on 10 Tips for Mouth Watering Food Photography. Check out the original first before reading on to this post.
If there’s one thing people love more than eating their food, it’s taking photos of it. Whether a quick camera snap or an elaborately lighted, high-production image we just love seeing photos of food. Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful while creating my own food photos.
As often as you can, avail yourselves of the talents of great chefs, friends in culinary school, a rocking food stylist or the best BBQ dad you know. People who know how to cook and present food well will help up your game. In food photography it’s not just about great tasting food, but the little production elements behind each dish that help give it an authentic, stylistically simple or extra zest of eye-appealing deliciousness. Don’t know or can’t find any of these types of people? No worries. Treat yourself out to an early dinner (before big crowds arrive and the sun disappears) at a nice local restaurant and try to get a seat next to a window or at an outdoor, shaded table. Put any self-consciousness aside for 15 minutes and order some colorful or well presented food and start snapping away. Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere!
This won’t work for all dishes, but shooting directly down on your food from overhead can provide some pretty striking images. You’ll get to better see the direction the light is hitting and lighting the food from an open window, creating interesting contrast and sometimes a little shadow mystery. Try not to shoot too wide (distorted food doesn’t always look so great) and stand up on a chair (a stable one) if you need to. Even better, if you’re doing this at home, set down a table cloth on the floor and if you’ve got a tripod with a ball head, rig it up to shoot directly down for extra stability.
I utilize this particular angle all the time when I want to lead the eye across and out of an image. It works great for full table settings, multiple dishes or an obscure background element. The key is to get just above sitting level so that you can capture the entire spread in the frame while minimizing negative space in the background.
Creating the effect of a packed table full of food and utilizing all the space in the frame shows a nice atmosphere. It gives the eye a lot to absorb. Just try to make one of the dishes the clear subject of the frame. You can even leave spaces in and around dishes as long as you try to utilize the space in a way that makes the photo feel complete.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a big chunk of negative space. In editorial or advertising imagery it leaves plenty of room for copy, and really hones in the eye where you want it focused. Look for an angle that doesn’t make you feel like you’re wanting for more substance in the frame. It can be tricky to master, but take lots of shots and at different angles to develop a feel for it.
While not a hard and fast rule, I often find it more pleasing to shoot as deep as possible when overhead, and fairly shallow when at a lower angle. Shooting deep overhead allows you to get the entire table surface in focus instead of just the top of a dish or two. However, a shallow depth can work well too, as long as you ensure your main subject (often the highest point of it) is in focus. Nothing worse than thinking you’ve got a great photo of a pasta dish overhead, only to discover later on the monitor you got the bottom of the bowl in focus and a soft top of the dish where your eye is most drawn to.
When you’re at a lower angle, it helps to shoot at shallow apertures and really isolate your subject from the background. This allows you to also create a pleasing fade away from your main food subject. It works especially well in food that has a number of items in a row – like the scallops below. I recommend a prime lens like a 50mm for this. Adjust shooting at different shallow apertures until you’re happy with a good background blur, while still keeping enough of the dish in focus.
Crumbs scattered about a half eaten pie dish hold a particularly charming appeal. Food is meant to be eaten, and we all generally find it pleasing to see bits and pieces of dishes picked out – a sign that someone is enjoying it. So take a timeout after a few shots of the perfectly prepared dish and start digging in! Then, reset your frame and show a few crumbs scattered about, a rumpled cloth napkin in the corner of the frame, an open sugar packet and half drunken espresso – you get the gist.
If you have access to a restaurant kitchen – or want to set up your own Martha Stewart cooking episode in your home – showing the ingredients that come together to make a dish, the food as it’s being cooked, or the chefs cooking it are a great way to add a story to your food photography. Everyone is curious how a dish is made or what special ingredients go into it. The people making our food can often be just as important. Note the popularity of TV chefs.
There are plenty of different ways to light food, but many food photographers and magazines hold window light in high regard. You can create very pleasing contrasts, fill in with white cards, backlight for a fade away affect and much more. Generally, it gives food a very earthy and wholesome feel. Place a dish down on a round table with a window in one direction and take a new photo of it from every 15 degrees. You’ll get to see how the light affects the dish from a variety of angles and find a few you really enjoy.