Food photography is one of those subsets of general photography that makes people stand up and take notice. Tell someone at a cocktail party you’re a food photographer and the response you’re likely to get is “wow!” The next question after that is generally, “How do you get into food photography.” I was lucky enough to have a formal education in commercial photography and then apprentice with some wonderful photographers. But don’t rely on others to teach you what you want to know. There is no substitute for doing.
It’s important to understand that all specialties of photography require a particular skill set and attitude that are individual to that specialty. If you’re a move fast, shoot from the hip, f/8 and be there kind of photographer, food’s probably not going to appeal to you. If you’re methodical, studious and like to study a scene and tweak it for hours at a time, you’ve got the right raw materials.
1. Understand how food works.
It helps to be a foodie. First, it just makes life easier to be around things that you like all the time. Also, it’s important to be able to converse with clients and others in the business about food. I’m not a chef by any stretch but I like to cook, I certainly like to eat, and I enjoy learning about new foods. It might be important to know the difference between ice cream, sorbet and gelato one day. Remember that to illustrate the essence of a food you must first know what makes it special.
2. Understand how light and composition work.
This of course applies to all photography, but more so in still life/food work. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to light food well (although certain types of shots, like splash and pour shots, do call for specialized gear.) But you need to know how to use the tools you have available. For most beginners, good window light, a sturdy tripod and some reflector cards are sufficient to get the images rolling.
3. Understand that food produced for consumption is not the same as food produced for photography.
You don’t need to be a food stylist, but you do need to understand the processes and methods that go into food styling. One of the best ways to learn this and to understand it better is to carry a camera with you and for one week. Shoot everything you eat just before you eat it. You’ll quickly understand how much work needs to go into manipulating and styling food for photography.
To learn about a recent food shoot and a quick description of our workflow view this video.
4. Understand what creates an emotional response in your audience.
Pay attention to how you and others around you react at a great meal. Find what set’s off their emotional and biological responses and incorporate those triggers into your work. This can be very challenging. When we’re at the table we eat with all of our senses. The aroma and feel of food in your mouth can be just as exciting as the flavor itself. Of course with photography you’ve only got a two dimensional visual representation so we’ve got to work extra hard to make those visual cues stand out. Get close to the food, use all of the visual tricks up your sleeve like selective focus, hard light, chiaroscuro and contrasting colors.
5. Understand what others have done before you and how you react to their work.
Look at the work of other photographers and artists who do the type of work you enjoy. Study their work and find out why you like it. Incorporate those aspects into your work.
Finally, understand that, like all lifelong pursuits, it’s a process. One great thing about food photography is that you can work on it at your own pace. You don’t have to arrange models and locations and wardrobe, just go to the store, buy food and shoot it. Remember Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So go shoot something.