The Art of Food Photography [a Painters Approach]

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A Guest post by Will Kemp.

Ever wanted to create more drama in your food photography?

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Want to break away from the whimsical cupcake shot?

Sometimes the inspiration isn’t from instagram but in your local museum.

To be exact Classical paintings.

I teach aspiring artists how to understand the importance of colour, contrast and composition when learning how to paint. I’m also a keen photographer and there are many similarities between the two.

Painting, as with photography, is more about keen observation than having the latest shiny sable brush. As a painter, you know you will be studying the same image for maybe 10-20 hours so you want to make sure it is exactly right.

Below are my 5 top tips to recreating that Old Master look.

1. Use a Single Light Source

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This is very effective when you’re painting because it really helps to give the illusion of depth and that is one of the trickiest things to achieve when your trying to convince the viewer of your subject.

When you use one light source you produce lovely shapes of what are called cast shadows, as in the shadow cast by an object. I often study the shadows more than the subject. You don’t need an expensive light, the photo above was lit using a $5 torch.

You can use this technique when composing your photograph to try and keep it really simple, that way it looks more dramatic .

2. Contrast is King

No, not content, contrast. Beginner painters often don’t paint shadows dark enough in their painting, thus not giving a illusion of depth.

You can’t adjust the HDR for the painting so you have to create it in front of you rather than after the event. Try to limit Photoshop to under 5 minutes.

3. Use your Eye as the Zoom

In can be very tempting to constantly zoom in and out of a subject, to move the angle high and low.

With paintings you have physical limitations with your eyes. Roughly a 50mm equivalent crop factor, so experiment sticking with one prime lens and move your legs, not your zoom.

4.Create Harmony with Complementary Colours

To mute down a orange in painting you add its complementary colour, blue.

This helps to create harmony and balance in your piece.

If you look at the local colour of the onions, a warm orange juxtaposed with a more muted cool blue of the bowl it helps to make the onions ‘pop.

One strong colour, orange balanced with muted versions of its complementary colour, blue helps to balance and this formula was used again and again in Old masters paintings.

5. Find interest in the Ordinary

As a painter you learn to find interest in anything you see, the way light just hits an object, and the power of negative space, in this case the handle of the bowl and the cast shadow of the onion on the table top. Both are really helpful for you to be able to draw objects more accurately.

So don’t wait to have the perfect object, the perfect lighting or the perfect equipment.

You don’t need it. Just start simply, and enjoy it!

Will Kemp is a professional artist currently teachingClassical painting techniques on his blog and has just released the Art of Acrylics online course.

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  • Adam

    Wow, I asked and DPS delivered. I have wondered about treating photography more like a painting and using some of those color rules when creating a fine art food image. I also like the look of dramatic food, so the one light trick is appealing. Thanks for a great post.

  • Hi

    This is a stylistic shot of a slice of orange, bottom lit – the Bokeh makes it Painterly

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/labelled/

  • Adam

    Erik, I’ve seen a lot of your work, and am always impressed. I love how the details of the orange are enhanced by the bottom glow. I really like how the label is there and is a prominent part of the image, but doesn’t really compete for attention with the flesh of the fruit.

  • Hi Adam, Glad you liked the post, the old masters can really be an inspiration for contemporary photography compositions. Sometimes simple can be better.

  • ccting

    I think it has different semantics behind the shot.

  • ccting: I dont think that word means what you think it means.

    This is certainly a different approach to food photography, but I don’t know if it’s something I’d advocate for general use of any kind; it’s very specialized.

  • Sarlacc

    Thank you for the inspiration!
    I like the way the light looks like it’s sunlight coming through a window, I am definitely going to try for this effect.

  • I love the crossover of perspective from one art form to another because it really just reinforces that our eyes are our best tools, and for a great photo as with a great painting it all comes down to simply looking deeper. Thank you for this article I really enjoyed reading your advice. cheers Kim

  • Colleen

    Excellent article; I’d love to see more like this, about how we can use tips from painting to improve our photography.

  • I love the look of food in paintings. I’ve often tried to imitate it. Here’s one try that turned out ok.

    http://quotidian-photography.blogspot.com/2011/11/toothsome-thursday.html

  • Thanks for sharing, and those tips can be applied far more than just in food photography. 🙂

  • This is a shot of pies from Thanksgiving. I used a single light source (the sun) and a prime lens. It’s not as dramatic as the onion photo from the article but I was thinking in the vein of this article when I shot it.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tallok/6439211709/

  • thinsmek

    Thank you for writing this up, this is wonderful advice!

  • Nice…… good photography is one of those things that are made to look easy; but it isn’t!

  • The onion image looks so rustic, great image!

  • May

    Hi Will! I’m new to your site and I’m loving it!!! Thanks for your free lessons.

  • Abby

    Hi Will,

    I’m trying to use your technique to create the painterly look for my subject. Please comment with thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vtabbey/9361690895/

  • Hi Abby, you just need to increase your shutter speed a bit so the whites don’t burn out on your image, this will also help to make the darks look blacker (as the exposure is shorter) which will make it look morw ”Old master’.

    Also, there are a few compositional issues with ‘tangents’ have a look on my blog for the article on
    ‘Are you unwittingly creating a compositional cardinal sin?’

    These 2 tips will improve your photo dramatically.

    Pleased you’ve been inspired to have a go!

    Cheers,
    Will

Some Older Comments

  • Will Kemp July 25, 2013 07:04 pm

    Hi Abby, you just need to increase your shutter speed a bit so the whites don't burn out on your image, this will also help to make the darks look blacker (as the exposure is shorter) which will make it look morw ''Old master'.

    Also, there are a few compositional issues with 'tangents' have a look on my blog for the article on
    'Are you unwittingly creating a compositional cardinal sin?'

    These 2 tips will improve your photo dramatically.

    Pleased you've been inspired to have a go!

    Cheers,
    Will

  • Abby July 25, 2013 05:15 pm

    Hi Will,

    I'm trying to use your technique to create the painterly look for my subject. Please comment with thanks.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vtabbey/9361690895/

  • May March 21, 2013 07:06 am

    Hi Will! I'm new to your site and I'm loving it!!! Thanks for your free lessons.

  • David February 21, 2012 03:59 am

    The onion image looks so rustic, great image!

  • PaulB January 15, 2012 02:02 am

    Nice...... good photography is one of those things that are made to look easy; but it isn't!

  • thinsmek December 6, 2011 03:33 pm

    Thank you for writing this up, this is wonderful advice!

  • BigBearNelson December 6, 2011 03:01 am

    This is a shot of pies from Thanksgiving. I used a single light source (the sun) and a prime lens. It's not as dramatic as the onion photo from the article but I was thinking in the vein of this article when I shot it.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tallok/6439211709/

  • Cécile December 2, 2011 12:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing, and those tips can be applied far more than just in food photography. :)

  • Jessica Sweeney December 2, 2011 11:23 am

    I love the look of food in paintings. I've often tried to imitate it. Here's one try that turned out ok.

    http://quotidian-photography.blogspot.com/2011/11/toothsome-thursday.html

  • Colleen December 2, 2011 05:49 am

    Excellent article; I'd love to see more like this, about how we can use tips from painting to improve our photography.

  • Kim Foale December 2, 2011 05:20 am

    I love the crossover of perspective from one art form to another because it really just reinforces that our eyes are our best tools, and for a great photo as with a great painting it all comes down to simply looking deeper. Thank you for this article I really enjoyed reading your advice. cheers Kim

  • Sarlacc December 2, 2011 05:18 am

    Thank you for the inspiration!
    I like the way the light looks like it's sunlight coming through a window, I am definitely going to try for this effect.

  • OsmosisStudios December 1, 2011 11:50 pm

    ccting: I dont think that word means what you think it means.

    This is certainly a different approach to food photography, but I don't know if it's something I'd advocate for general use of any kind; it's very specialized.

  • ccting December 1, 2011 01:39 pm

    I think it has different semantics behind the shot.

  • Will Kemp December 1, 2011 10:34 am

    Hi Adam, Glad you liked the post, the old masters can really be an inspiration for contemporary photography compositions. Sometimes simple can be better.

  • Adam December 1, 2011 08:02 am

    Erik, I've seen a lot of your work, and am always impressed. I love how the details of the orange are enhanced by the bottom glow. I really like how the label is there and is a prominent part of the image, but doesn't really compete for attention with the flesh of the fruit.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck December 1, 2011 07:49 am

    Hi

    This is a stylistic shot of a slice of orange, bottom lit - the Bokeh makes it Painterly

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/labelled/

  • Adam December 1, 2011 06:40 am

    Wow, I asked and DPS delivered. I have wondered about treating photography more like a painting and using some of those color rules when creating a fine art food image. I also like the look of dramatic food, so the one light trick is appealing. Thanks for a great post.

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