Introduction to Food Photography
Food photography may not be as popular as landscape photography or portraiture, but it’s a genre which holds many advantages over others. We all buy, prepare and consume food, so we don't need go to too much extra trouble in sourcing our subjects. It’s something that can be done in the convenience of our own homes (regardless of the weather), and by working with the seasons you have a continuously changing variety of subjects to work with.
The photographs you see in magazines and books will almost certainly have had some input from a stylist, one who is experienced with working with different foods and props in order to make everything look presentable. Perhaps most of us don’t have a natural aptitude for food styling, but simple garnishes for most dishes shouldn’t be beyond anyone’s creative capabilities. So what else does the budding novice need to know?
What to buy
Shooting food in its natural state requires that it be fresh and ripe, and free from blemishes, bruises and marks. Just like people, putting food items in front of a camera can reveal flaws that might be completely unnoticeable when viewed less critically...
Supermarkets generally stock the more cosmetically appealing foods, as opposed to local markets whose produce may vary more in appearance. Nevertheless, each has its advantages; while you may be able to find what you want easier in a larger store, a market is likely to sell more exotic foods. You may even find citrus fruits with a leaf or two still attached, or zuchinni complete with their flowers - things you may not ordinarily find in pre-packed supermarket produce.
Although many professional food photographers use medium format systems for their work, both for the highest level of image quality and also for shallow depth of field, many opt for the flexibility of DSLR instead. A short to medium telephoto lens of between 60-105mm (equivalent) is ideal, allowing the photographer to quickly alternate between close-up macro images with restricted depth of field, and those further away where a number of peripheral details may be used to contextualize the main subject. Tilt-and-shift lenses can also be useful when capturing a whole table's worth of food, although these lenses are considerably more expensive than conventional optics.
Whether it's natural or artificial light you’re using, diffusers and reflectors can be incredibly helpful when working with food. You may not need to buy specific equipment if you don’t already have it; a sheet of fabric can be pinned to a window to help diffuse its light, while walls and ceilings can successfully be used as reflectors. Reflectors are particularly useful if you have a simple daylight-based setup where light is only coming from one side, such as a window or skylight.
The old advice of using a gardening spray can is often mentioned when shooting flowers, but it applies equally to fresh foods. For a single shoot and smaller foods you generally won’t need much water, though, so you may find it easier to invest in a small bottle designed for containing beauty products. While physically smaller in size, this will do the job just as well and will give you greater control for smaller setups.
A small brush can also be helpful, either to brush away dust or hair, or for evenly distributing glazes and sauces, while a rocket blower can also be useful for foods which may be too delicate to touch without damaging, such as raspberries and other soft fruit.
DSLR photographers may prefer to use a tripod and live view when photographing food, as it’s convenient for accurate framing and checking focus and detail. Even with the aid of live view, though, it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate small imperfections, those which may only become clear when images are viewed on a larger display. If your camera allows it, consider tethering it to a computer as you shoot; this will make it easier to quickly spot anything you may fail to otherwise, and will save you having to clone the same thing out of a whole series of images. Alternatively, magnify the live view feed to zoom around your image, where you can fine-tune both your composition and focus.
Unless you’re photographing at very close distances, you’ll need to consider appropriate props to go with your own food. At a basic level this can simply be the bowl, plate or cup in which the main subject is contained, as well as any cutlery. More elaborate set-ups can include a stack of serving bowls and a ladle, as well as flowers and other table decorations. It may be tempting to dress up a scene with a variety of props but try to exercise some restraint; don’t include props for the sake of including them, think instead about what actually works and what you would expect to find in and around that particular dish or situation.
Once you’ve begun to develop a style and body of work, you may find yourself approaching the same foods from different directions. For example, a serving of a dessert on its own can look fine, but would it look better with the serving bowl and spoon in the background, and perhaps another serving elsewhere in the image? Or how about capturing a dish in the pan or tin in which it is cooked, rather than that in which it is served?
|Here, a simple garnish of chopped walnuts and parsley was used to give the dish
an autumnal feel
Adding people to your images can also make for a more interesting photo, even if you only include a pair of hands - cradling a bowl of soup, for example, or holding a plate or fork. Something else to consider is whether your images could benefit from a simple garnish; for a main meal this doesn’t need to be anything more than just a scattering of chopped herbs, while for sweets consider a dusting of cocoa or icing sugar, or a palmful of chopped nuts.
Don’t be afraid to work some movement into your images if you feel it may help. If you don’t have an assistant, you can set your camera up on a tripod and use either your camera’s burst shooting mode or (if it has one) an intervalometer. Either will allow you to take a series of images as you pour over a sauce or sprinkle over a garnish. This is particularly useful for the former as once a sauce has been poured over you will only have so much time before it begins to coagulate, forming an unappealing skin.
Lighting and color
There’s no right or wrong lighting for food photography. The good news for those staring out is that, for most subjects, daylight is arguably the most flattering (and easiest) light to use. You should, however, always consider what kind of light best suits your chosen foods, specifically by thinking about when it would typically be consumed.
Strong daylight, for example, is an ideal match for boldly colored food and drink which would be typically consumed over summer, an image which can be intensified by the use of colourful bowls, placemats and tablecloths. It’s also suited for foods which have been glazed or dressed in some way, as the highlights created by the combination draw attention to the food’s texture and finish. Flatter lighting, meanwhile, is more appropriate for hearty autumnal and wintery foods, such as stews and roasts, as are more neutral and earthy props. These aren’t fixed rules however, and sometimes breaking them is exactly what helps create a more unique image.
|Stronger lighting and colorful props work best with foods typically eaten during
the warmer months, particularly those with strong colours
While you should think about what background works best with your chosen food, if you're taking your photographs at home you might find yourself running out of options for natural surroundings pretty quickly. If you plan an image with shallow depth of field - i.e with a blurred background where only color but not detail can be seen - you can use a range of different backdrops constructed from things around the house. A colored t-shirt for example, can be used quite successfully, and the likelihood is that you’ll have a few different colors to choose from already. You could even opt for a large plain-covered book, or even just a piece of card.
|You don’t need to stick to complimentary colors when deciding on props and backgrounds. Try combining different shades of the same hue...||...or alternatively stick to a neutral palette|
Experimenting with complimentary colors can bring a natural harmony to your subjects and their surroundings, but don’t feel restricted by this. Some of the best food photography makes use of only one dominant color throughout, but with the subject, props and surroundings each in a different shade to provide a separation. Many foods, such as cakes, biscuits and so on, are naturally bland in color, so think about pairing them with a more lively tablecloth, plate or backdrop, as this will lift the image as a whole. Whatever you do, try not to overcomplicate your surroundings as it’s this is likely to detract attention from the main subject. Complement your foods simply, with plain backgrounds and props which don’t bring too much attention to themselves.
Venturing further afield
You can give your images a more rustic feel by photographing certain foods in their original packaging, such as oranges in wooden crates or berries in cardboard punnets. With their branded packaging and unflattering lighting, supermarkets aren’t ideal locations to try this (and you may have trouble getting permission to photograph inside them anyway). Instead, venture down to your local market where your chances of success stand to be higher. Remember to ask for permission from the stallholder before you begin shooting, though, not only out of politeness but also because they may be willing to let you photograph from behind the stall, or be photographed themselves.
|These breads were still wrapped in the bakery's paper packaging, which is
much more pleasing to look at than the plastic sleeves common to
Photographing food in different environments will help you develop an interesting portfolio of work, so it’s worth enquiring at a local café or restaurant as to whether they would allow you to photograph inside their premises. There are a handful of good reasons for doing so; not only will you be able to photograph a range of different foods, but you won’t need to spend money on any additional props. If you’re lucky enough to have a full day or so to shoot, you can give your images a sense of narrative by documenting food being prepared to being displayed and consumed.
Some businesses may even wish to use your photos on their website or for other promotional material, which will help you gain exposure, but make sure that all issues regarding copyright and exclusivity are agreed to prior to any photography taking place.