Welcome to the next installment of our ‘How To:’ range of tutorials. This post is about all things food photography. Whether you’re a budding chef showing creations off to the world or an avid insta-foodie wanting to take your posts to the next level, this guide can help your photographs stand out from the crowd. With everyone stuck indoors, now is the perfect time to try out a new recipe. Besides, did you even make food if you haven’t posted a photo of it online?!
One of the most important aspects of food photography is the planning that goes in to it before you even pick up the camera. The dish you’re working with is often defined by temperature so when the time comes to take the photograph you only have a small opportunity to make the food look perfect.
Consider the angles you intend to shoot it from so that you plate the dish correctly to begin with. If you have tall ingredients such as a large steak or a stack of chips, you don’t want them to block the rest of the plate from view.
You may have a gravy, sauce or jus. Carefully consider whether you want to pour it prior to shooting or whether it would look even more delicious to take an action shot of the liquid gently pouring over the food.
Garnishes such as herbs are also important to consider. If you place them on the dish before you’re ready to shoot then they will begin to wilt and in the case of basil, turn brown within a minute (especially on a hot dish like a pizza or pasta). We always make sure we have plenty of fresh springs of herbs and garnishes usually in glasses of water to keep them cool and fresh and we will frequently replace these as soon as they stop looking perfectly crisp. If you’re shooting at home this is where your windowsill herb garden comes into it’s own!
Cheese and meats can also dry up pretty quickly so if you’re going for a slice of pizza with all the gorgeous, stringy, melted cheese then you’ll need to shoot probably within a minute of it coming out of the oven or it will have cooled and congealed into an unappetising mess! Meat that stops looking juicy because it has been sitting for too long isn’t appetising at all, but occasionally it can be saved with a delicate glaze of oil with a soft brush.
Don’t forget about the extras in your scene either. Cold drinks for instance, don’t stay cold forever and a beer that has no head and no condensation on the glass can look flat and warm. If you want to avoid creating unnecessary waste you can use a fork to stir up the head on a beer or pour it into a pre-cooled condensed glass to make the drink look ice cold. We achieve this effect on shoots using an atomiser bottle filled with water for instant condensation as you can see on the champagne bottle below. At home you could use a normal spray bottle like this from amazon filled with cold water to make your drinks appear frosted and delicious!
While you’re taking care of the extra props in the shot remember to consider your composition too. Shots taken from above need to be composed entirely differently from shots taken face on, even when the food remains the same. When we shoot something top-down (birds-eye view) like the image below, we try to keep images clean and sharp. Symmetry and clear lines help to create an image that is pleasing to the eye.
With images shot from the front however, we often need to arrange the scene quite differently. You will need to carefully consider what you place in both the fore and the background to ensure that the focus of the image and the journey of the eye remain as intended. Therefore you need to lead the viewer’s towards the ‘hero’ of the shot (your dish) while ensuring the other elements perfectly complement it without becoming too distracting. Consider using other drinks, side dishes and props to help set the scene and tell the story. If you are at shooting at home, this might be the perfect time to crack out your fanciest kitchen accessories!
If you’re relatively new to the world of photography and want a quick breakdown of the terminology we use, such as aperture, ISO and shutter speed then head over to this previous post on Pet Photography where I talk in some detail about all of these. Once you’re up to speed, I’ve given some suggestions below on good starting places for each camera setting so that you should be off to a great start with your food photography.
This is more important than other camera functions with this type of photography. If you’re shooting top down, you’ll want the whole scene in focus and so a narrow aperture (high f-stop such as f11 or higher) will ensure you achieve this. If you’re shooting from the front then you will want a blurred background (similar to how we shoot portraiture) therefore your aperture will be wider – around f3.2 depending on the distance from camera-subject-background to give depth to the shot.
We often use a wider lens such as canon’s 17-40mm or 16-35mm for our top-down shots so we can get quite close and don’t need to stand on too many chairs. They’re also very stable and sharp especially at the aperture mentioned above. For the front shots I tend to use either an 85mm or 100mm prime lens. This is because they’re able to come down to nice low apertures and create super smooth compression between your subject and the background and as prime lenses they’re unbelievably sharp. Just remember with a longer legs length you’ll need a bit more space to step back and get everything in frame.
This just needs to be high enough to ensure the scene has no motion blur. If you have use of a tripod then use this to stabilise your camera and you can then lower the shutter to allow in more light but as a guide I tend not to drop below 1/125 wherever possible.
This needs to be as low as possible without making the scene too dark. With a large light source such as a bright airy window, you should be able to have it fairly low (under 400) without issue. You’re also looking to create a nice, gentle shadow like the image below so you don’t need to push the ISO too high and make the image too bright as the shadows cast across the plate from the edge of the dish and the food give depth to your shot.
Lighting the dish you’re shooting is so important for creating great food photography. Harsh, flat lighting can easily dull a potentially great shot by removing all contrast and shadows and making everything appear toneless. You may have heard before that large bright windows make fantastic natural lighting for food photography which is certainly true. By placing the dish near a large bright light source like a window you create beautiful, soft, directional light on one side of your dish allowing for soft shadows to fall on the other side and giving depth to the shot.
However, a lot of the shoots we do are in restaurants or venues where bright, natural light isn’t available. either because of the venue decor or the Great British weather. If this is the case we look to our Elinchrom D-lite Strobes and a large softbox to create that similar key-light source and then use additional lights to create rim/halo lighting from behind the dish for a more dramatic look. We also use other props like blockers – black strips of card/boards to block out light or to absorb reflecting light and stay in control of how the dish is lit.
If you’re struggling to bring natural light into your shot at home, you can always play around with different light sources (having a willing helper makes this process easier!) such as using bright lamps, your phone torch or the selfie ring lights that are widely available for phones. The key is to get as much white, continuous, directional light as possible. Keep playing until you find the right combination for you (and then drop us a comment below so we can share with everyone else!).
Again, we’ve spoken at length on the Pet Photography blog about the editing suite we use for our photographs so definitely check that out if you want to familiarise yourself with how Adobe Lightroom works.
Typically in post production with food photography we aim to do a few specific things:
Firstly we pass images through Lightroom to do some basic edits such as cropping, colour correction, some exposure editing to make sure the dish really pops against the background and sharpening on export to make sure the images are crisp and clean.
Then the photographs might go into Adobe’s sister program Photoshop in order to do more in-depth editing. This can include blemish removal for instance if there are crumbs, marks on the plate, scratches on a surface used etc. I also sometimes work on specific colours in an image so they stand out, for example the red of a tomato or green of herbs/garnishes.
Quick Editing Alternatives
If you haven’t managed to sort out the lightroom app on your mobile or you’re in a bit of a hurry and want to get a photo you’ve taken on your phone onto instagram quickly then here’s a few tips on what we tend to do to make the biggest impact in the shortest period of time:
- Increase the Structure around 30-50%
- Sharpen the image around 10-20%
- Lift Shadows around 15%
- Increase Contrast approximately 10-15%
This will quickly add some drama to the image you’ve created, any additional editing like brightness/warmth etc would be case-by-case if the image needed it.
Sharing your Food Photography
So you’ve planned, plated, photographed and edited your food photographs, now it’s time to share them! If you’re exporting to Facebook or other social media sites then remember that they have preferred dimensions, sizes and formats so it’s always best to double check with a quick google search to make sure all the hard work you’ve put in isn’t undone by uploading in the wrong format.
As always, we would love to hear your feedback and see any photographs you take after reading this post! Get in touch via our contact page here or drop us a post on our social media. We hope you found this useful, remember to share with your friends and check out our other blog posts.