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There are some common mistakes photographers make when starting to shoot food. Are you guilty of these five food photography mistakes?
There is a saying that if you can shoot food, you can shoot anything. Some would disagree with this, as every genre of photography has its own challenges. However, food can be very difficult to shoot purely for the reason that it dies in front of the camera so quickly.
One minute your towering stack of pancakes causes your salivary glands to go into overdrive, the next minute you wouldn’t feed the pancakes to the dog. Despite what many an Instagram account would have us believe, a lot of food is not really that good-looking. It’s up to the photographer and usually a food stylist and a whole team of people to create the drool-worthy images you see in cookbooks and magazines.
Great food photography is about planning and considering all the details up front. It is also a process of constant problem-solving. Thinking through the key aspects that make up a great food photograph before picking up your camera will go a long way towards helping you get the best results.
As with any form of photography, the most important principle is light. Without light, you’d have nothing. This is why photography is often referred to as “painting with light”. Whether you are using natural or artificial light, the approach you take with your lighting will make or break your photographs.
Often what separates the professional food photographers from hobbyists is their keen understanding of the physics of light and how to manipulate it to get the effect they want. If a client wants you to shoot their orange juice product to look like it was taken early in the morning on a sunny day and you live in rainy London, you will have to know how to recreate that light.
Lighting is not just about getting enough light onto your subject. As long as you have some light, you can get a decent shot with a longer exposure. Good lighting is also a matter of correct light.
For example, a common issue is restaurant photography where the indoor lighting contaminates the scene, creating unwanted color casts, particularly in the highlights. This can be difficult to fix in post-processing but can be avoided by overpowering the ambient light with a flash system, such as a speedlite, or flagging (blocking) the top to keep the unwanted light from hitting your set.
Image composition is an art form in itself. Apart from light, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of food photography to master. It can take years for composition to become second nature to you. Going in-depth on this is beyond the scope of this article, but there are some things to be aware of that can help you improve your compositions right away.
To start with, keep it minimal. Your main subject with a couple of supporting elements, like a prop and a square of linen is all you need. Use three to five elements in your composition. Using odd numbers while composing your scene will add more symmetry and balance than even numbers, which can create competition between the elements and divide the viewer’s attention.
Think about the textures in your scene. Adding texture in terms of your props or surfaces and backgrounds, or even supporting ingredients such as seasonings or garnishes can really elevate the simplest food image.
Another tip is to keep your surfaces and background neutral. Bright colors will detract from the food and even cast unwanted tones onto the food.
Before beginning to shoot, it’s crucial to decide on the best angle to shoot your food scene. The right choice will depend on your subject.
Foods with several layers, like burgers or stacks of pancakes, look best when shot at eye level, so every element can be seen. On the other hand, flat foods like pizza and cookies look best shot from overhead or at 90 degrees, as this angle puts everything on an even plane and brings a graphic element to the subject.
This is a great angle for tablescapes or other scenes where there are numerous elements that might not otherwise fit into the frame.
Another popular angle is forty-five degrees or three-quarters view. This angle works in many situations with many types of food. It works with most focal lengths and the main subject’s shape, height and texture are displayed.
One angle I would rarely recommend is a low camera viewpoint, where the camera is aimed slightly upwards. You sometimes see this in burger advertisements, but it rarely works for most types of food subjects.
When approaching a shoot, you also need to be aware of where the sharpest focus should land. Typically this will be more toward the front of the food. In addition, think about how much of that area should be in focus. This will influence the f-stop (aperture) you choose.
I rarely shoot any lower (wider) than f/5.6 for my food compositions, as I find not enough of my subject will be in focus otherwise. When shooting food, the objective is to show off the food and make it look its best, which won’t happen if most of it is blurry.
Once you have taken your shot (preferably with your camera tethered to your laptop) check your focus at 100% magnification. Make sure focus is where you want it and the depth-of-field is not too shallow.
Also, calibrating your lens to your camera will ensure that you are not missing focus due to technical issues.
The beauty of digital photography is that you can sometimes address issues that you have encountered during your shoot in post-processing. One example of this is using the crop overlay tools in Lightroom or Photoshop to finesse your compositions. However, image crop is a point that needs to be addressed when shooting.
Common mistakes new food photographers make is shooting the main subject too close, to the point the viewer doesn’t understand what is being portrayed. Or the cropping is too tight to show the food in its best way.
In the image below, the Indian-spiced prawns look much better when the scene is shot wider and includes a couple of elements that they’d be eaten with, like naan bread and chutney. The closer shot lacks movement and flow and is overall less appealing.
When shooting, try a couple of different crops and see which looks best. Also, a good tip is to shoot your scene wider than you want it to look in the final image so you can use the crop guides in your post-processing program of choice to improve your composition.
Hopefully, these tips will help you plan for your next food shoot. Let me know in the comments some of the challenges you’ve faced with your own food photography and how you’ve overcome them. What food photography mistakes have you made?