Food Photography 101: The Basics
Thinking back to when I launched this site, I knew pretty much nothing about taking pictures of food. I made something, put it on a plate or in a bowl, put it on the counter or table, snapped a picture and ate it. It wasn’t until months later, when I was still blogging and photographing food on a very regular basis that I realized I had quite a bit to learn about how to make the food that I knew tasted fantastic look just as good. Let’s be clear – I am in no way an expert when it comes to food photography and still have countless things to learn, but I have received a number of emails asking about how I go about taking my pictures so I thought I would share that information with all of you.
So, how did I go from pictures like this (posted in March 2007, a month after launching the site):
To this (posted four months ago in July 2009)?
After the jump I will outline the tools and methods I use for taking my pictures, and how they go from food sitting on a table to the pictures you see on the site.
I will reiterate – I am not an expert and there are many resources available both on the web and in book form to give you even more information on specific photography techniques and food styling, which I encourage you to take a look at. I try to read as much as I can and pick up tips from a variety of sources. Now, let’s get started!
Part I: Lights, Camera, Action!
Two of the biggest factors in how pictures turn out is lighting and being familiar with the settings on your camera. I’ll talk about each of them separately.
By far, the absolute best results will come from using natural light, i.e. no camera flash. In order to do this, you’ll need to photograph during daylight hours, which becomes very difficult after the time changes in the fall. It’s virtually impossible to get pictures of dinner before the sun goes down when it gets dark around 5pm. I will touch on a couple of alternatives in a moment. In addition to using natural light, you’ll want to become acquainted with how light enters your house. I always find it best to photograph near a window, but one that does not generate direct sunlight, as that will typically wash out the photos. So typically a north or south facing window will allow generous light through a window without direct glaring sunlight. The color and intensity of the light will also change throughout the day, so on a free day when you have time to play around, try taking pictures of the same object in the same place at different times and see how the light changes affect the pictures.
Now, as to those alternatives for the nights when it’s pitch dark by the time you sit down to dinner. There are really two ways you can work around this. The first is to set aside enough leftovers in order to re-plate the dinner the next day and do your photo shoot then when it is light out. The second option (which I currently do not do) is to purchase some external lighting. I have heard rave reviews about Lowel EGO lights from other food bloggers, and plan on looking into them in the near future.
I will also note that if at all possible, refrain from taking pictures under fluorescent lights, as they almost always cast a yellow hue to pictures that is very difficult to remove, even when using photo editing software. If there is no way around you shooting your food at night and you don’t have any external lights to use, I would suggest replacing fluorescent bulbs with those that mimic natural daylight, if possible.
The more you understand about how your camera works and the different functions it has the more successful you will be with your food photography. Since different cameras can be vastly different I am going to go through some of the basics. First of all, you do not need a super expensive camera. Digital SLRs are all the rage and they sure are nice, but certainly not necessary. I do all of my photography with a great point and shoot camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 (thank you to my Chief Culinary Consultant for a wonderful gift!), which allows for a great number of manual settings. Some of the settings that you will want to familiarize yourself with on your camera:
♦ No Flash. Turn off the automatic flash on your camera, as it tends to either completely wash out a photo or cast a yellow hue to it. By turning the automatic flash off and adjusting the settings I will describe below, you will stand a much better chance at a great looking picture.
♦ White Balance. This setting can turn your pictures many shades of blue or yellow or a perfect white. Most cameras have several preset settings that you can cycle through to see what comes closest to the actual color based on your current lighting situation. My camera has an option to manually set the balance, where you take a sample shot of a pure white object so the camera has a frame of reference. This single feature is pure gold, so familiarize yourself with what your camera has in terms of white balance settings.
♦ Macro Setting. This is identified on most cameras with a flower. You will want to enable this setting when taking close-up pictures of food. It enables the resulting photograph to display much greater detail since it changes the focus on an object that is very close.
♦ Exposure. On my camera you can change this quickly right on the back of the camera, but you should check where yours is located. Basically, the exposure defaults to zero. If you move it down, the camera will allow in less light (I have done this a couple of times when the light coming in the window was exceptionally bright) and if you bump up the exposure it will allow in more light, which is quite helpful on days when it’s raining or overcast and there isn’t a lot of light to be had.
While there are some other settings that can be manually adjusted (such as ISO speed) I typically keep everything else on automatic and spend my time adjusting the white balance and exposure, and of course use my macro setting. More than anything, just become very familiar with your camera. Bust out the manual and play around with all of the settings so you know what they all do and how they affect the outcome of photographs.
Part II: Set the Scene
Now that we’ve covered the basics of lighting and camera settings, it’s time to whip up the dish and get it ready for its close up. Below are a number of variables that you’ll want to think about as you get ready for your photo shoot:
♦ Plates. You will typically want to stay away from very dark or very busy dinnerware, as it tends to take the focus away from the food. I am a big fan of using white plates, bowls, etc. or ones that have a very minimal design so that the beauty of the food really has an opportunity to shine through. I have, of course, used other pieces of dinnerware and as you start taking more pictures you will start to envision what you want the final photo to look like and will mix and match pieces to build that vision.
♦ More Props & Food Styling. This is an area I am still trying to improve upon and am continually looking for new ideas. Styling the food on the plate to maximize the drool factor will take some practice, as will setting the actual scene that you will photograph. Will you include silverware, a glass, a placemat, etc.? One thing that I have found helpful is to browse through the images on sites such as TasteSpotting and foodgawker to see how some of the better pictures have been set up and photographed and try to incorporate some of those ideas into my staging. If you are looking to pick up some different accessories, check out dollar stores and discount retail stores for some steals that you can use to build your prop inventory.
♦ Backgrounds. What you choose to have in the background of your photo may be greatly determined by how neat or messy your table or counter is. If I can get a clean background on my wood table, I will just shoot on that, which provides a nice contrast to white plates. However, if there is a lot of stuff in the background or I’m shooting at an angle that will get random furniture in the background, I will often times use a backdrop. The tool I use most often is a white foam core board (you can purchase these for a couple of bucks at craft stores) that I will prop up behind my plate. This is also a useful tool for reflecting incoming light from a window. You can also browse a craft store for material of different colors, patterns and textures that you can mix and match based on plates you use and the color of the food.
Part III: The After Party
No matter how great of a job you do at setting your white balance, exposure, judging the light and setting up the perfect picture, it won’t be perfect. It won’t look how you dreamed it would look. Don’t fret – that’s what post-processing software is for, and no, it doesn’t need to cost you an arm and a leg. While Adobe Photoshop is the defacto for those with design backgrounds, it’s expensive and you can do great work using free software such as Gimp, Picnik or Picassa.
Edited to add: Reader Amanda of Amanda’s Cookin’ shared in the comments section that she uses Adobe Elements for her photo editing software and that it is less than $100 and has just about everything that Photoshop has. I wanted to pull this up into the post to be sure everyone saw it – if you are pining for Photoshop but it’s out of your budget, you may want to look into this more affordable alternative. Thank you for the suggestion Amanda!
You want to find a balance between bringing out the best in your picture and over processing. In general, I will use a light touch to adjust the color balance, brightness and contrast, and then will add some sharpness to the photo. That’s usually all I do but it can make a big difference. Don’t be afraid to do some cropping as well – done correctly it can really transform a picture. Here are two recent example of before and after:
Part IV: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse!
Basically, take as many pictures as you can using as many different camera settings as you can from as many different angles as possible. The more you shoot and begin to get comfortable with your camera and understand how your lighting is affecting the photos, the better your photos will become. It certainly takes a lot of practice, and even then sometimes the stars just don’t seem to align. For any typical recipe you see on this site, I take anywhere from 15-60 pictures depending on what it is and how I want to display it. Sometimes there will be a couple dozen photos that I like of that bunch, and sometimes I struggle to find two that I can use. It’s a constant learning experience and I have enjoyed learning more about photography along the way.
I have really enjoyed putting together this tutorial and hope that it has been helpful and perhaps taken the mystique away from food photography. If you have any specific questions I would be more than happy to answer them for you to the best of my ability. Happy Baking, Cooking, and Shooting!