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Food photography is arguably one of the most challenging types of photography out there. Like painting, you start with a blank canvas and build. Layer upon layer, you construct the photo until you reach the perfect balance of reality and art.
Everything in the photo is a decision. Every piece is perfectly placed by the photographer.
Starting out is frustrating, I know. You’re the chef, stylist, and the photographer. Once you reach technical proficiency with the camera, what’s next? I have been, and in a lot of ways still am, in that position. So, how do you improve your food photography beyond the basics? You work on the story.
Whether it is an after-party from the perfect cocktail, or the homemade roasted chicken recipe on the farm, like all photography, you’re telling stories.
Some shoots are more complicated stories than others, and it may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really not. Here are five quick tips you can use to seriously improve your food photography and tell better stories.
There are really only a few camera angles in food photography that you see again and again, but you need to make the one you choose, a conscious decision. Where you place the camera will affect the type of story you’re trying to tell.
Think of the food beforehand. Its size, shape, height and what is unique about it. Then place the camera where you think best highlights these qualities. Some dishes look great when you shoot from right in front of the food, and others are best suited when the you are looking down from directly above the table. Take a look at the cupcakes below; their spiralled and delicate toppings really stand out when shot from in front, yet the viewer doesn’t even see the size or shape when photographed from above.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to see all the ingredients and beautiful shape of these salmon tacos when shot from the front, so the shot from above was definitely the way to tell this story.
When shooting from the front of the food try to keep a great foreground and background to play with. Use these empty spaces to tell more of a story. Surround your main dish with ingredients and props that relate to the food. Ingredients, sauces, oils, and cooking utensils could indicate how the dish was made.
Tins, jars, herbs, glasses, fabrics and linens could speak about the origin of the dish or the season in which it is served. Placing a few of these in the foreground and background will definitely elevate your story and give it depth.
Light is king, and acquiring a few tools to help you control it will bring your food photography up to the next level. Poor use of light will ruin your story and immediately turn off your audience. So making sure light doesn’t distract will help out your food photos big time.
Placing a diffusor between the window and your table is first on the list. When working with direct sunlight, a diffusor (or even a thin white bed sheet) will greatly improve the quality of light. Softening those hard, dark shadows and bright highlights caused by direct sun light.
Next up are white and black cards. You can make these yourself using foam core boards, bought at any craft store. Size them to fit your needs, using white cards to bounce light into shadow areas, revealing important details, or black cards to make shadows stronger for more contrast.
Here is a little secret, when working with natural light. I call it, blocking (sometimes also called “gobos”). Sometimes that pesky natural light will fall on your background or props, causing them to be as bright or even brighter than your subject.
Since the viewer will always look at the brightest spot in your photo first, if it’s not your subject, it can harm your story. You can use your black cards to block light from hitting areas that will compete with your subject. This is also a very important technique for creating darker, low-key styled images.
With all these props and ingredients in the frame, how will we ever get the audience to look at our subject? Well, bring on the trusty techniques of composing with lines and layers. You can use props or ingredients to create lines and layered effects in your images. This is a compositional technique used by photographers to lead their audience’s eyes to the main subject.
You can use various props to create lines. Like this spoon, which forms a nice line, directing the viewer straight to the bowl of baked peaches and ice cream.
Since shooting from above always gets you more graphic images, there are plenty of chances to create some great lines here as well. Some could be quite literal like this cutlery leading to the round of Brie – or more abstract, like how the knife and pomegranate seeds create lines, framing our subject.
Composing images with layers is always a winner. This Brie, shot from the front, is set in the middle of various props and two large out of focus areas. This creates a layered effect, sending your eyes straight to the star.
This is my personal favorite. I love hunting for props, backgrounds and tableware to put in my images. This little tip was also the first big mistake I was making when I was starting out. It’s great to have props that are colorful, but if you’re not careful that colorful prop can easily upstage your food, and grab all the attention.
When placing items into your food images, try selecting neutral tones, something that makes the food really pop against it. Selecting a neutral background like this black metal tray and baking paper, amplifies the bright red strawberries and rhubarb inside these Crostatas, making them really steal the show.
Do you photograph food? Do you have any additional tips to share with us? Please add your comments below.
For more food photography tips, try these articles: