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It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a foodie or not, everyone loves taking photos of food. Shooting food can be an imperative part in creating a story, it can also elicit great reactions from others and trigger memories for the photographer.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is a saying in the photo industry about food: “If you can shoot food, you can shoot anything.
Food can be a very difficult subject to photograph correctly, and it can be frustrating when you know that your meal looks fantastic but the photo doesn’t do it justice. More often than not I see photos of food that could go from bad to great with just a couple of tweaks. The good news about food photography is that it’s only as difficult as you make it.
Food is not only an excellent subject (one of my faves) but taking photos of food can actually be easy and fun! Below I’ve listed 8 steps that will walk you through a casual food shoot and pretty much guarantee you’ll get the shot you want.
Capturing great food photos during your travels is as easy as read, shoot, repeat. Just to give you a point of reference, all of these photos were taken on a covered back porch, no fancy equipment needed!
Turn Off Your Flash
In most countries they’ll arrest you for flashing–so why flash your food? Nothing looks worse than a flashed plate of food. It flattens the image and generally makes the food look unappealing. The entire purpose of photographing food is to make people want to eat it.
When you use flash, that idea goes flying out the window. This photo was taken with an on-camera flash and lights the food from the front. The lighting makes the food look flat and boring. You can also clearly see the wooden table and grass outside the porch–both are distracting.
Natural Light Is Your Friend
If you have a studio you can do some pretty amazing things to light your food just the way you want it. However, a studio set up is costly and pretty darn difficult to travel with. It’s also unnecessary. You don’t need a studio to achieve great results!
Natural light is your friend when it comes to photographing food. Move your food near a window or even take it outside for better light. Making use of the natural light around you is the second step in achieving a great food photo.
Light Your Food from the Back and Top
This will sound odd to anyone who is used to making sure that their main light is aimed at the front of their subject, but food actually looks best when it is lit from behind.
The light wraps around the food from the back creating texture, making it look more appealing. This is one of the most important things to remember with food photography and will help set your food photos apart from the pack.
The above photo illustrates steps 2 and 3 and shows that we are using the natural light on the on the porch to light the food. As you can see from the shadows on the table created by the plate, the light is coming from the back.
Bounce Light from the Rear to the Front of Your Dish
At this point, we are finally getting a little closer to a good image. However, because the plate is lit from the rear, it’s causing shadows on the front of the food. We could correct this through editing or we could just save ourselves the time and shoot it correctly now, ensuring that we will get fantastic light on our subject from the beginning.
So how do we clear up the shadows in the front of the dish? The key technique here is to bounce the natural light that is coming from the rear right back onto the front of your dish.
Bouncing this light back onto the front of the food will fill in the shadows on the front of your dish that were created from the back lighting. You can already start to see the front shadows lightening up in this shot. The shadow on the table from the dish is much more diminished as well.
I used a large piece of white paper for this shot but you could use any reflector that works. If you’re on the road or in a restaurant, you’ll probably have less options so it helps to think outside the box here.
Here’s a list of different items that reflect light that you might have readily available to you: White paper, paper towels, napkins, mirrors, glass, aluminum foil, metals of almost any kind, kitchen utensils, marble, hard plastics, coins, sunglasses/eyeglasses, foam core board, water of almost any kind – lakes, oceans, water droplets, even a glass of water can reflect and bounce some light around your scene.
Keep in mind, if you use a reflector that is any other color than white, some of the hue from that reflector will bounce onto your dish affecting the overall color of your food. In some cases while traveling I have used several of the items above, including white napkins, foil, glasses of water, etc. to fill in some shadows–they really do work.
However, if you are serious about food photography, it would probably be worthwhile to carry a small whiteboard (think Mat Board) in your bag with you to pop out and use. It could be easily stored in your laptop case. If you do this, invest in a board that is white all the way through.
Depth of Field Is Important
A lot of times with food you’ll want to focus on just one part of the dish and let the rest of the background fall into a slight blur. This helps bring the viewer’s eye right onto the star attraction. You can accomplish that look using a large aperture to achieve a small depth of field.
To get a small depth of field you’ll need to be able to change the apertures on your lens. If you shoot in manual, you’ll be able to do this easily. Though, if don’t, then look for an ‘A’ symbol on the modes of your DSLR. Then drop the number as low as it will go (this will be determined by the type of lens you have) aim for f/3.5 or below.
I tend to shoot most of my food photos around f/2.8. Although it seems confusing, just remember: the smaller the number, the larger the aperture.
On a point & shoot camera look to see if your camera has a built-in setting for food. If so, use it! It should automatically give you a larger aperture. If you are using an iPhone, Hipstamatic has a great food film/lens pack that automatically blurs out most of the background, which I highly recommend.
The above photo was shot at f/13 creating a pretty large depth of field, which isn’t doing anything for this photo. Too much of the image is sharp (even the dish) making it almost impossible to bring the focus onto the food alone. A smaller depth of field will greatly help this image out.
The Background Matters
A good background can turn a good food shot into a terrible one or a fantastic one, so make sure to pay attention to your surroundings! So many people forget about the background of their food images and it drives me nuts.
A sloppy table full of napkins and utensils will clutter up your scene and detract from your star subject. So, take just a few minutes cleaning up the area around your shot, it will pay off in the long run. Trust me.
It can be a great move to add glasses and other kitchen items to the scene if they are placed properly. The trick is making sure they are placed in just the right spots to accentuate your dish, not detract from it.
One thing that looks great in most food photos is a glass of water off to the side of your dish. It adds depth to your photo and the water will naturally reflect some of the light.
In the case of the photo above, the cups are just randomly placed in the rear of the dish and they look distracting. Also the lines from the table are really driving me nuts here, because they are pulling the viewer’s eye away from the food.
If I’m going to use this table to hold my dish, I’ll have to make sure those lines are out of the shot completely.
Keep in mind that even the color and shape of the plate your food sits on can make a huge difference in the overall image as well. I’m starting to notice that the white dish isn’t really helping out the subject either–it looks a little bland.
Perspective Is Key
Try to take several photos of your dish from different angles. Sometimes shooting directly down on a plate looks great and other times it may look best to shoot from the side. Mix it up and take a few different perspectives of your dish so you have several to choose from.
It usually helps to fill most of your frame with food. Don’t forget about the rules of composition when you are lining up your shot. I purposely made sure to use a terrible perspective in the above photo, plus the composition is horrific. Shooting this dish from the side makes the S’mores look flat and boring, and there is no composition here at all. It’s a very haphazard image.
Lastly, you may notice that the horizon line is crooked. This is a really common problem so make sure you think about keeping the horizon line straight when you shoot. You don’t want your food to fly away!
This final image shows all the changes that were made. We kept the lighting the same: natural light without flash. We stayed in the same spot on the porch, and used the natural light coming in from the back. And we bounced that light back onto the front right side of the subject with the help of white paper.
The biggest change is the background. I realized after a few photos that the white dish made the marshmallow look too washed out. The food didn’t have any pop to it. I switched the white plate for a dark blue one, and it made a huge difference. This is a great example of how a simple change in your background can change the entire look of the image.
I opened the aperture all the way to f/1.8 so that I could use a shallow depth of field to bring focus to the top s’more. I also changed my perspective. Instead of shooting from the side, I took the photo a bit from the top to create depth. Because s’mores are small in size, I filled the entire frame to make them look larger and more dramatic.
I took all of these photos on my sister’s back porch with very basic equipment: a camera and a piece of paper. All of these small changes were easy to make and didn’t require much work, yet the end result looks drastically different than the first photo.
The Final Touches
We’ve learned that food tends to look unattractive if it’s too dark, so remember you can always lighten up your food images in the editing process if you feel they look a little drab.
You should also apply a bit of sharpening to the key areas of your food to make it stand out more. After I uploaded this photo in Photoshop, I sharpened the very front of the top s’more and brightened the image up a bit for a boost.
A helpful tip: Don’t be afraid of action. If you are trying to do a photo essay of a restaurant make sure to include some action shots. It can be a great idea to incorporate a shot of a waiter pouring a drink or the chef putting the finishing touches on a plate of food.
You can also incorporate action in the food itself. For instance, you could shoot maple syrup drizzling down a stack of pancakes. Good luck and happy shooting! If you have any questions, just leave a comment.
Beth Salvon is the author of the popular photography ebook, Getting Out Of Auto. This article comes from the book, which has over 70 pages of tutorials, tricks, and tips to help get you out of auto and into shooting well in manual mode.
Main image via AM FL