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In 1928, Andre Kertész took an iconic photo of a fork resting on a bowl. It’s called “La Fourchette”. Despite its simplicity, or maybe because of it, the photo is striking. The separate parts of the composition are banal—a bowl, a fork, and a table—but the photo is a superb study in light and form. Bold shadows emphasize shape and create a visual intrigue that holds the viewer’s attention.
With Kertész’s photo forever lodged in my mind, I’ve taken many photos of crockery and cutlery over the years. Stopping for something to eat or drink is a reason to take the camera out rather than put it away. Although I have a modest collection of antique knives, forks, and spoons at home, eating out while finding new tableware to photograph is part of the fun.
You can use any camera to photograph tableware, obviously, but some close-up capability is useful. Smartphones and compact cameras are ideal, as they allow extreme close-ups with lots of depth of field. Cameras with bigger sensors effectively give less depth of field, and often you’ll want lots of it. Also, a small camera is easier to use discreetly at a restaurant table.
To imitate the Kertész fork photo you need directional light. If you’re taking photos at an eatery, look for lighting opportunities before choosing a table. Window light is directional on a sunny day if there are no net curtains or frosted glass installed.
Bare, clear-glass bulbs create bolder shadows than a fluorescent bulb or shaded light. A table lamp with a tapered coolie shade makes a good makeshift studio light if you move it close to your subject, as it forces its strongest light downwards.
Once you’ve identified a suitable light source for creating shadows, how do you make the most of it? Adjusting the position and distance of the light, if possible, will alter the intensity of the shadow. Look at the Kertész photo and you’ll see there is very little mid-tone detail—it’s a high-contrast photo that emphasizes shape.
Aside from the depth and definition of the shadow, its angle also plays a significant role. A fork or other utensil resting on the edge of a concave bowl or plate creates an elongated shadow. This distorted shape contrasts with the realistic outline that is cast onto a flat surface with the light at a right angle to the subject.
Not by accident did Kertész choose a fork for his tabletop photo. No other piece of cutlery is as intriguingly formed. However, many types of tableware are elegantly designed, so it’s worth looking closely for photo opportunities. Intricate details often make good photos. As well, you can combine multiple items to make the composition more appealing. The graceful lines of several stacked spoons make a good photo, for instance.
When you take photos of shiny silverware, glassware, or cups filled with tea and other beverages, inevitably you’ll see some reflections. Some of these are to be avoided, but you don’t usually want a reflection of yourself in the photo.
On the other hand, the success of the photo might hinge on a good reflection of other cutlery items or perhaps an ornate window or furnishing nearby. This is always worth watching out for one way or another.
Whether through shadows or reflections, look for interplay between the different items on the table. At home, try using a mirrored surface to create intriguing cutlery compositions. Place items carefully so that they harmonize rather than merely obstruct each other.
Whenever a tabletop forms part of your composition, you must make sure that it doesn’t detract from the photo. Just like any background, it has the power to make or break the whole image.
Don’t include it at all if it has a distracting pattern or texture. Look closely at any grain or joins to make sure nothing works against the flow of the photo. In some cases, a well-lit or interesting table surface may play a strong role in the picture. If that isn’t so, it should be low-key.
Once you’ve exhausted photo possibilities based on light and form, it’s always worth examining the little design flourishes found on a lot of fancy tableware. For this minute examination of detail, you definitely need a macro lens or the close-up facility of a cell phone or compact camera.
Armed with close-up capability, you’ll see all kinds of photo chances at a micro-level. Look for little twists and turns in the metal, hallmarks, or even blemishes. These small details often look great when gathered together in a book or printed as a triptych, for example.
I hope this article inspires you to take great photos at mealtimes, though you must be careful not to spoil the enjoyment of those around you. Take your photos quickly and discreetly. You’ll see cafes and diners in a whole new light. Bonne dégustation.