Taking mouth-watering pictures of food can be pretty tricky if you lack the experience. Here are some tips to get you started in the right direction:
It’s all about the light! We often tend to forget that a good photograph mainly depends on good (or at least interesting) lighting. In food photography you usually want to portray the dishes as natural and as appetising as possible, so usually you will only have one main light. The position of the light is essential for a good food picture, typically you will have the light coming from behind and above the dish and use a reflector to lighten the front of the dish and get rid of any harsh shadows. Never have the main light coming from the front as you may be used to from portraits, this will destroy all the fine details of the dish you want to capture. Also having the light coming from behind will enhance the colour and the freshness of the dish.
Depth of Field
We need to draw the attention of the viewer to what we want them to see, in our case the food we are portraying. In the picture of a chocolate cake we want all the elements surrounding the “model” to enhance the picture but the star is the cake, so that is what we want to have in focus. The rest is just details, setting the story and ambiance and those can trail out of focus. Remember that there are Depth of Field Calculators to help you plan your setup and that the actual depth of field does not start at your focusing point but is distributed around it.
Even more than with normal pictures, a correct white balance is vital for a good food picture. We want our salad to be a natural green and not have some unhealthy shade of blue or orange. Make sure you get the white balance correct. Modern cameras work well in automatic white balance mode as long as you don’t start mixing light sources. If you’ve got the sun shining into the restaurant, the lights on to highlight the nice interior and a flash pointing at your food, make sure to use a grey card and shoot in raw to get the colours correct, at least in the post processing.
Choose the Correct Lens
While I’m of the opinion that you can shoot interesting pictures with nearly every lens, there are some lenses that are more suited to shooting food than others. A closeup of a Raspberry will be hard to take with a wide-angle lens, whereas a picture of a drink on the bar showing the rest of the Pub will be hard to take with a macro lens. Make sure you have the tools you need for the job at hand. My usual repertoire includes: my trusty 50 mm (a lens I can only recommend to everyone!), a 100 mm Macro and the classic 24-70mm for everything else.
Storytelling & Planning
Any good picture should evoke emotions or tell a story, both are essential for a good food picture. We want people to be “hungry” when they see your picture so we will have to work with all tricks to get them drooling. A picture of a plate of mozzarella caprese alone will be pretty boring, but put it in the correct setting, maybe remind the viewer of their last holiday to Italy and you are halfway there. Remember the scene should enhance and reinforce your image, but not take overhand. Use props sparingly but plan ahead so that you have everything you need on the day of the shooting. When the food is being prepared it is too late to be creative. Sketch out the idea you have well in advance and make a list of everything you need. Also make sure to communicate with your client if he needs a lot of “white-space” around the dish for headlines, insets or any other text. Plan accordingly.
Editing (photoshopping) is standard these days for any picture you see published anywhere, same is true for pictures of food. The better your picture is the less time you have to spend editing, so make sure you get as much correct in the camera as possible. Ideally you will only want to add the finishing touches to your picture. My standard post processing workflow in Lightroom involves adjusting the white balance, pushing clarity and contrast, as well as colours and cropping. Then I export the picture to Photoshop where I will clean up any blemishes (healing brush), dodge and burn to enhance the dish as I see fit and adding a little vignette, where appropriate, to focus the viewer’s attention or complete the mood.
What about the food?
So we’ve talked about everything except the dish. Mainly that is because it is not your job as photographer to worry about. As with any portrait shooting, nobody would expect you as photographer to apply makeup to a model. The same is true for cooking and styling. Get a professional to do it, it will make a huge difference to your result. Chefs and professional food stylists know exactly how to prepare food for a picture. Make sure you communicate clearly with them before hand how the image should look in the end and then let them do their work. They know how to turn a casual dish into a work of art. Your job is to be ready when they serve the plate. Make sure lights and camera setup are ready, you only have a few minutes to shoot once the plate is served before the food will lose it’s freshness. Use “stand-ins” to prepare your setup, i.e. use a crumpled up green serviette in place of the salad to set lights and be sure that everything looks good and fits together. Rearranging everything when the food is served is too late.
As with any skill taking pictures of food is something you have to practice. So shoot often, pay attention to details and plan ahead, you’ll see your results getting better all the time. The real tricky part is also staying creative. Challenge yourself to take as many different pictures of one classic dish as possible and keep your eyes open for new settings and ideas. And lastly have fun and bon appetit. 😉