Using Focus Creatively with Food Photography

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There are ways to use selective focus, or shallow depth of field, to completely control how you look at an image. Selective focus is using a large aperture, like f/4.5 or wider, to show only a small part of your image in focus. You can control where you want your viewer to look in your image by using this technique.

Eliminate Distracting Elements

If you have a potentially busy scene or environment, you can use selective focus to calm things down a bit and get your viewer to look where you want.

Selected Focus Olives

The left image was shot at f/16 while the right image was shot at f/5.6

When you compare the two images above pay attention to what you are looking at first, and how your eye moves around the images. There’s a lot going on in the image on the left. You really don’t know where to look at first. In the image on the right your eye goes right to the olive oil in the front, which is exactly where I wanted you to look. I wanted to make sure you didn’t get distracted by the text on the jar on the left side, so I focused on the garnish in the olive oil and blurred everything else out. I wanted the first read to be the olive oil, then all other items become secondary. Your eyes naturally look at what is in focus in an image.

Which Element is the Hero?

You can use focus in some shots to clearly show which element the image is about – this element is your hero element. In food photography we call this the hero food.

Who Is Your Hero

In each shot the focus is shifted to change which jar of pickles is the hero jar, the one I want you to look at.

Here are some pickles that I made. You can use selective focus to tell the viewer where they should be looking. If this image was for a recipe of dill pickles, then you would use the image on the left. If this image was for a recipe on golden pickled beets, then you’d use the image on the right.

Pick Your Focus Point

Pick Your Focus

The image on the left was shot at f/8 while the image on the right was shot at f/4.5

I focused on the dill pickle laying on top of the cut pickles. In the left image you really can’t tell where my focus point is so your eye goes all over the place. In the image on the right, it’s a little more obvious. My hero food is the cut dill pickles.

All the images including pickles were styled by my good friend and prop stylist, Amy Paliwoda. We work on a lot of jobs together. Amy is always talking about using props to tell your story. It’s my job as the photographer to make sure I use the proper aperture to have the props help with the story, not cause distractions. With everything in focus, a simple prop can take away from your story. Once you pick your focus, take several shots at different apertures to see which one works the best to tell your story.

When One Aperture Isn’t Enough

Now I’m going to show you a technique I use a lot. I take two images at different apertures, with different depth of fields and then I composite them together in Photoshop by using layer masks. I use this technique when I want the background to be more out of focus, yet keep the food or product in focus.

I have to mention that I ALWAYS shoot with my camera on a tripod. This type of compositing would be very difficult with files that were handheld.

Two Images for Composite

The image on the left was shot at f/8 and the image on the right was shot at f/4.5

For this image I really like how the jars look at f/8, but I prefer the background shot at f/4.5, so I’m going to put the two together in Photoshop by creating a layer mask and put the best background, on top of the preferred foreground.

Making a Layer Mask

There are many ways to do the same thing in Photoshop. My favorite way to do a composite of multiple images is to use layer masks.

In the final composite I will be putting the background of one image onto another image, and also making a duplicate of one light bulb and pasting it onto the background.

I first open both files that are to be put together in Photoshop.

Next, I copy the image with the desired background and then paste the entire image into the file with the jars that I like. Now I have one file with two layers.

Two Layers

Now I need to make the top layer into a layer mask:

  1. Go to the top menu
  2. Click on “Layer”
  3. Scroll down to “Layer Mask”
  4. Scroll over to “Reveal All”

Converting Layer Mask2

Now, look in your layers palette. Your image should look similar to what you see below – the two files, with the top one having a white box next to the image. That is the layer mask.

New Layer Mask

You can see the new layer masked circled in red.

To start working inside the layer mask, you have to use the brush tool. Then make sure your color palette is set to black on top of white for masking through the image. If you mask too far in one area, you can correct it by reversing the color palette to white on top of black and then go back over the area.

In this image I am using a soft edge brush (brush set to a hardness of “0”) for masking through the foreground of the top layer so that only the red background with the lights are left. The image below is how my layer looks mask work completed.

Background Layer Mask

This only took me a few minutes to create in Photoshop.

Now for the final composite below. I also added some text, then copied and pasted an additional light bulb in Photoshop to balance things out in the background.

The additional light bulb was also turned into a layer mask so that I could blend the edges of the image I pasted on top of the file.

Final Composite

Final Layers

Here is what all the layers look like. Layer “2” is the extra light bulb. If this was a file with a lot of layers, I would name each layer so that I knew what they were. In this case it’s easy to figure out, so I didn’t do that. You can see in the mask of layer “1” that the bottom half of the frame is black. This is the part of the image that I masked.

So, next time when shooting on a tripod, experiment a little and take your shot with multiple apertures to bracket your depth of field, and maybe you’d like to composite a couple of files together.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Christina Peters is a freelance commercial food photographer and instructor. She teaches food photography classes at her studio in Marina Del Rey, CA. She also has a food photography blog with loads of tips and tricks for shooting food. Download her free food photography ebook on her blog. You can see her photography work with clients like MdDonald's, Taco Bell, Dominos and others at her website - ChristinaPeters.com

  • David Pulpan

    I would expect you to mention view cameras and shift and tilt techniques, which help to get much much better and more sofisticated results. Aesthetics and photography on another level than Photoshop background blur. There are T&S lenses and adapters available even for DSLR and medium format cameras, too. I mean, this is a must for serious product photography.

  • Hi David, excellent point you bring up. I use this technique no matter
    what format camera I am shooting, even the view camera or a tilt shift lens on a 35mm. I’ve been
    shooting with a view camera since the 80’s. Now with the digital era
    I’ve converted my view camera to be digital with a Phase One digital
    back and a digital lens. This is what I use for all my commercial
    jobs. That being said, I still use this technique all the time with my
    view camera. Even with a lens that you can tilt and swing there are
    times when I want the food 100% in focus and I (or my client) also want
    the background immediately behind it to be out of focus. This type of
    layer mask only takes about 5 minutes to do so it’s a really fun way to
    get the best of both worlds, what the camera and lens can do, plus what
    Photoshop can bring to the image.

  • Yes that is all valid and good points. I too used to use a 4×5 camera for food photography. We also tend to keep in mind that most people do not have access to such gear (I know many pros that do not use large format or medium any more) and cannot afford to buy it. So we like to give alternative methods of doing things with less that anyone can execute.

  • Aankhen

    As one of those people with limited access to such gear, I thank you for it. This was very useful.

  • Martin Cápal

    You are stating the obvious. Sometimes I wonder that all the manuals are like this is a white color and we can see that this is a really white color.
    On the other hand I find it pretty interestingly written article for those who really know nothing about focusing, work with aperture and understanding a distance between the lens and a photographed subject.
    What I really liked that you use logical aperture values, I have seen pics from restaurants from wannabe pros who use like f/0.95 and they call it a food photography. I could recon nothing but a blurred image from an expensive lens.
    Wish you good luck.

  • H

    If you already know everything, then why are you still here in school? Your insults serve absolutely zero purpose.

  • PharoutPhotos

    I am also one of those people and I thought this post was awesome! I thank you very much for your time in writing it!

  • I’m so glad you liked the post. Thanks for your comment.

  • walwit

    Having the main subject well focused with one aperture and the background well blurred with another is something I appreciate to have learnt from this article so I thank the author and hope she keep writing to DPS.

  • Thank you so much and you summed up the article just perfectly too.

  • Vicki

    Ditto to your comment.

    I like Christina’s simple explanation and to be honest, some of us are beginners (or relatively new to Food Photography such as myself). It took a lot of trial and error for me to finally capture some pleasing food images despite much practice on other subjects.

    I have found in my long career that many people might have good technical knowledge of a subject but no creative vision or imagination on how to catch the viewer’s eye.

    What is obvious to some, is totally invisible to others (despite their supposed expertise, experience and knowledge of Photography).

  • Scott Franklin

    Using CS6 overcomes making masks or changing apertures, you simply ajust focus on each shot the get the software to combine the stack, makes life very easy and gives perfect results.

  • Nermin

    Yes, but that process is not selective, and author is talking about manual masking of favorite areas of photo.

  • Scott Franklin

    Nermin, photo stacking is as selective as you want it to be you simply focus for each part of the stack or leave out of focus if you wish, personally I do a lot of macro work on flowers and depth of field is a problem but not with photo stacking, once you have the stack click on an image you might not want creates the effect you want, give it a try, most macro photographers use this method.

  • Hi Scott, I do photo stacking for focus a lot. There is a large difference stacking for macro photography and stacking for a set like above. The difference here is you only need two frames to get this look. With stacking if you leave too much space between frames you will get ghosting, which is very hard to clean up later. I’ve actually switched to Helicon Focus for stacking because my files in Photoshop were getting massive. The trick I’m referring to only takes two files. Stacking these two in Photoshop would have a lot of ghosting and you’d need to take a lot more frames. I’ve also found that certain camera angles in set with lots of directly behind something also cause ghosting when stacking. It’s a great tool for certain shots. The trick is learning which technique you need to use for certain shots.

  • Also, I forgot to mention – a lot of these students are using lenses
    that are almost impossible to manually focus. If they have a kit lens
    the gearing on that lens is meant for auto focus. I find you have to
    manually focus your lens to get the exact focus point for stacking in
    the order you need it to be.

  • Thanks Vicki!

  • Hi Scott and Nermin, I responded to this above.

  • Scott Franklin

    Hi Christina
    Never got ‘ghosting’ but did take a lot of pictures, maybe 10 to 15 per shot which is a lot of work, I will try your method and thanks again for your response I guess I’m just a CS6 fanatic.

  • It really depends on what you are shooting when stacking files like that. Some scenarios work perfectly and others are just riddled with issues. However, it’s a great technique to bring up for folks to hear about who haven’t experimented with this yet and I agree with you, it’s awesome for macro work.

  • Vicki

    You’re welcome Christina.

    I thought Food Photography would be easy as I used to do a lot of Flower closeups, but its not. You’ve got to ensure every bit of the background….. even blurred……is in balance with the subject (in the frame).

    And the lighting……..well, that was even harder (for a beginner like me).

  • Shooting floral is very similar to food. I’ve done a ton of floral for my grocery store clients over the years. One petal can ruin an entire shot. It takes time to get the flowers styled just right so they look good and natural through the camera – same with the food. Many times the set looks crazy, but through the camera it looks great.

  • Martin Cápal

    I also say “on the other hand interestingly written article”.

    No need to be oversensitive. I also mentioned “what I really liked”. Wow another brutal insult. And if u read carefully that wanna be pro is some1 I have seen on the internet. Wow too much insults from me.

    Please, read in english and embrace the reality there are no unicorns in the world.

    I admired the article couple of times in my writting and shared a bit of an negative experience not concerning the author. Dudes..

  • Marshelle Hines Cartwright

    Good article!

  • aar_cee

    Thanks

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