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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.
May 15, 2012 10:51 pm
I was recently hired to shoot food for a restaurant that has no windows. Strobes it is ;)
April 2, 2012 08:17 am
Hi, I've written an article about my process as a food photographer with some tips if anyone is interested. Many Thanks! http://www.ryanballphotography.co.uk/food-photography/
February 3, 2012 02:03 am
I have such a hard time with light. My kitchen is windowless. Guess I need to move dishes to the dining table :)
January 18, 2012 02:58 pm
Mouth watering photography! I love to learn this but I just can't resist food especially desserts.
January 10, 2012 08:06 am
I just shot a cake and some home made bread my wife baked. shot overhead, slight angle, stand-up eye level, and filled the frame; 4 out of 10 ... I was glad I came back here to get the heads up again. great article.
October 20, 2011 05:04 pm
Excellent info, we did a shoot at www.bestexposures.com for a local restaurant and was really upset when they didn't use them on their menu - we came to eat there a few weeks later and all over the walls were the images of our shots - and the ads, and despite being friends and that we gave them full copyright release - they ordered all the prints from us, and got us a MUCH too expensive xmas gift.
We used most of these ideas, there are a few others - one of the ones I really loved was to have boiling hot water poured on the food so the steam is captured in the picture - and the use of oil to make certain foods look wet and fresh... and don't forget ingredients being dropped into water, with all the little air bubbles rising
October 5, 2011 08:46 am
I often photograph food for fun. People may look at me strangely, but it's part of enjoying the meal. I shot this after our family ate a huge meal of sushi.
October 4, 2011 12:58 am
I love this style of food photography: http://www.flickr.com/photos/matani-collection/sets/72157627635647049/
October 1, 2011 08:21 am
Great tips Matt, thanks for sharing in this article. Food photography is much more difficult that many (including myself) thought until they try it.
September 30, 2011 11:41 am
may i know what is the best setting for very yellow down light? as my white color ingredient turn into yellownish.
September 30, 2011 11:03 am
I voted in your poll, I use CS5 for editing.
September 30, 2011 10:43 am
I photograph food professionally for magazines. This is a great field of photography as you get to meet new people and experience new places. I'm joined with a food critic who writes the articles for the magazines and does the food tasting. When I talk with the executive chef of the restaurants, I always tell them that the food has to be as it will be presented to the customer. In other words, no fake food. Also, the meal has to be in the same condition for the food critic to taste. You might think that they would make two of everything, but in this economy, product waste is money going out the door. I spend about 90 seconds with a plate as you have to ready for the next one.
Most of the time, we are required to photograph these at night or in a "reserved room". This means that typically there isn't any window light available. After having done this some time, you get in the groove and know what works. I use my Nikon SB800's with a collapsible shoot through umbrella and a piece of white foam core for fill if needed. Check out this post on my blog where I explain this in depth: http://spencerpullen.com/2011/03/for-the-love-of-food/
There is also a lighting diagram on the post as you can see my exact set up. I have read many books on food photography and many of them rave about window light. This is great as long you have a window or sunlight to work with. It's also good to know how to use strobe when you may be faced with a situation where the conditions are not perfect.
Great post. This is a great resource for learning digital photography information...
September 30, 2011 04:40 am
Great article showing some fantastic dishes and beautiful composition.
But, what I really miss is the technical information regarding the camera settings. Shutterspeed, aperture, ISO rating and focal distance not to mention the fact whether or not a flashgun ( on or off camera) was used.
For the simple novice photographer like me this would be tremendously helpful.
PS this does not only apply to this article but I guess you already understand this.
Best regards from the Netherlands.
September 30, 2011 03:36 am
Great tips. These will come in handy for us in the production kitchen. One issue I'm having is the reflection from the stainless steel on the work tables and mixing bowls we use for our Just Good Chocolate Nibblers. Any advice? Polarizing filter?
September 30, 2011 02:09 am
Once again, excellent information. No matter how long anyone has been in photography, one never ever stops learning. Thank you for all the sharing this newsletter provides to everyone.
September 25, 2011 11:28 am
wow, great tips.. will going to learn that.
September 25, 2011 06:45 am
Oh, one great tip too: Colourful plates go only with matching food. I would love to take pictures of some of the nice things we often cook at home, but sadly we have blue plates here. I've tried it, the outcome is not so nice ...
September 25, 2011 03:50 am
I do like the tip suggesting to shoot overhead. I sometimes stand on a chair too, but only at home. If out to eat I really don't take my camera into the establishment, as I have never saw a photographer shooting food - ever.
I did take this at home ... "Retiree's breakfast"
and this ...
September 24, 2011 12:17 pm
Excellent info! I might try my hand at food photography with these excellent tips. I want to do a food website so this will come in handy! Thanks yall. Phil
September 24, 2011 02:33 am
Fantastic tips, I love photographing food, but since I'm not really good at it I often waste the chance and even forget to shoot.. I will start following your advices as I'm in Sardinia and I have so many interesting occasions food-wise.
September 24, 2011 01:27 am
Thank you so much for these tips. Right now, food phtography is my favorite favorite genre and I'm constantly practicing. I'll share this with my readers. They'll get a kick out of these tips!
September 24, 2011 12:49 am
I like the idea of using window light for food photography - when ever possible I prefer natural light to studio strobes! Although I do not do food photography professionally, I like to play around with concepts from time to time, like this shot for 4th of July which I called Red, White and Beer! Beer is food, right?
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