One of the most challenging genres for a photographer is Food Photography. Not only is it important to have good photo skills, but the subject (the food) must look delicious and appetizing. Food photography is about appealing to our visual senses, all the while, making the viewer long for the luscious morsels. This must be accomplished without the aromatic, savory scents and tantalizing tastes that make the food itself so inviting.
Have a concept
Food photography is also a still life image, you start with nothing and based on your idea or concept, you construct the entire scene. Your success of the image will be based on two factors: your concept and the execution, which are equally important. The fun for me is thinking of the idea and then finding the elements that will compose the scene. Sometimes I start with a solid concept (it could be a particular style, maybe I’m using a painting style – think Dutch Masters still life; maybe a fairy tale or literary reference, or even a place, such as Paris, could be the inspiration); other times I might go looking for an object that provides the inspiration; additional inspiration comes from looking at other images (not necessarily food). Having a strong concept before you begin will usually result in a better photograph. The photograph can be complex or simple, everyday or exotic, but whatever you choose, by working with your concept and theme, it will help to set the tone for the background, accessories, food elements and lighting.
Make it beautiful
The Scene: Once you have decided on a concept and the specific type of food, along with a color palette, the fun begins. The basic elements of your set up: background, accessories, props, etc., need to be sourced first. You should relish in finding or creating the scene, to bring your concept to life. This can begin with objects you have around the house and studio, a trip to the mall, antique shops, thrift store and flea-markets, or a bit of on-line shopping – for plates, flatware, serving utensils and decorative items; along with the occasional visit to the local art and home improvement store for a variety of background surfaces – paper, wood, tiles, paint, etc. I have sponge painted and white washed wood planks, carefully arranged marble floor tiles, and appropriated every surface in my home including granite kitchen counters, distressed wood end tables and paintings off the wall. I have found great hand-made and art papers and inexpensive tables that can be used as is for rustic scenes or painted to match a theme. You may need to purchase some things, craft a few pieces, rent others and even if you’re on a good relationship with a local store, you could borrow it for the shoot (if it’s for an editorial they can get a resource credit, if it’s for your portfolio – you could give them a print). Even though I try to keep the scene from being too overcrowded, I like to have several options of each element, and if I don’t use it for this shot, I’m closer to having what I need for a second or third shot. Your set up should enhance the food your photographing, not distract from it.
Note: If you are working with a prop stylist, they will be responsible for sourcing all of these elements, you tell them what you want, your concept and they find a variety of options. For example, if you want a white coffee cup, they may bring a dozen different options, from tall to small, from traditional to modern. If you’re doing the propping yourself, you should follow the same guideline.
The Food: The most critical and difficult part of the shoot is the food, which is as much about cooking skills as it is about art skills. After you have found and organized all the set elements, it’s time for the food. You always want fresh food. You should try to work with items that are in season (even though most produce is available all year long, some things are seasonal, such as figs), they are fresher, less expensive and usually available in abundance. If I need one apple, I will have at least 4, up to a dozen and possibly in different varieties and sizes. If something is going to be cut up or prepared – you need even more, it’s always a great idea to have a few for practice, a few for ‘stand-ins’ and then a few more for the final shot – this leads to having much more than you think you will use. If I’m doing the food styling, I shop for unblemished, photogenic specimens. I will dig through the entire bin of whatever I need to find the best examples; I even ask the produce manager if they have any fresher items in the storage area. If you are working with a food stylist, finding the best food and expertly preparing it is part of their job.
If you are going to be serious about food photography you should put together a resource file of local and online stores, markets, growers and suppliers that you can shop or contact when you need specific items, this should includes props and food.
The food preparation: If you are not working with a food stylist, you will need to practice. Professional food stylists have experience on making food look delicious and appetizing, but they also practice and experiment (examples, stand-ins). If I’m working with a chef or cook in a restaurant, I ask for a stand-in, letting them know it will take a little time to get set up. Then when I’m ready, I ask them to prepare the ‘hero’ and tell them to make the dish look beautiful, and how to put it on the plate. I always want my scene set-up and ready for the food, this can be while the food is being prepared (if someone else is creating the food) or even ahead of that (if I’m creating the food item). I put something as a stand-in for the food while I am setting up the camera and lights. The stand-in could be something that is about the same shape and color of the food item, or the practice food. I place it on the same type of plate or bowl that will be used for the final image. This allows time to get the photo set-up the way you want it before the food goes in place. Test the lighting, choose the perfect angle and get the exposure set.
Keep it real
I'm a big advocate of using fresh, real, edible food, but I’m also realistic. Some foods don’t photograph well (such as Milk, white glue or hair conditioner can be a good substitute), other foods may need some enhancement. Brushing cut fruits, meats and moist foods with oil or glycerin can keep them looking fresh a whole lot longer; under cooking meat and poultry – so they don’t shrink and dry out; microwaving, moist cotton-balls and placing behind hot foods adds a bit of steam; spraying antiperspirant on cheese keeps it from deteriorating so quickly, but does make it inedible; using acrylic ice-cubes in drinks or sweating a glass with Crystal Clear and a spritz of glycerin are just some practical solutions for difficult subjects. If you’ve tried to photograph any of these items, you know what I mean.
If you are photographing for your portfolio, a magazine editorial or cook-book, you have some license to use enhanced and artificial ingredients. In this case, the photograph is really only an illustration to go along with the article or recipe, consider it similar to a painting or illustration. However, if you are photographing for advertising uses, all of the food that is being advertised must be the real thing. If you are photographing cereal, the cereal must be real (okay, so you had a case of cereal and spent the entire day choosing the perfect corn flakes), but the milk and any other items can be substitutes. If you are photographing hamburgers for one of the fast food companies, all of the items on the burger have to be exactly the same items that would be on the purchased burger. That being said, you can take a bit of skillful artistic license - the burger can be specially undercooked to retain it bulk and moisture, the edge can be flattened to appear thicker; the tomato slice can be from a really ripe, beautiful specimen; the loveliest green curly lettuce leaf carefully placed; and from a case of buns, only the most perfect with sesame seeds glued in just the right places; all prepared by the loving and careful hand of the food stylist.
Don’t forget the details
While you are working on the set and the food, don’t forget the little details. What prop or accessory element will make the scene look more realistic, if that is your goal. Which items just clutter up the scene? Take them out. Does the food need some garnish, a little cilantro leaf or slice of lime perhaps? Maybe a few crumbs by that cake or cookie, or a few bubbles on the surface of the drink or soup to make it look fresh poured and not so perfectly sterile.
Light it up
Without light there is not a photo to be made. So, choose your light and choose it carefully. It can be natural light or photographic strobes; it could also be halogen work lights from the home improvement store. It will depend on your budget and skills. Set the proper white balance on your camera or create a custom setting. Most food looks best with a soft diffused light source, a soft-box with strobes, or even direct the light through a white sheet or frosted shower curtain. I like to position my main light to the side of my subject and camera. I then add a fill light, which could be just a reflector (30x40” white foam-board or photo reflector), on the opposite side to add some detail in the shadows and soften the contract. Most food shots do not look good with extreme contrast and dark shadows. Indirect light from a window can also provide soft, beautiful light. Use a reflector to bounce some of that light into the shadow side. Try using a small make-up type mirror to reflect light into specific places in the scene, I like the magnifying side to direct the light. Sometimes I also use a harder light source, such as a spot light or strobe with a honeycomb grid, as a secondary light to add some contrast and sparkle off of shiny surface. A light on the background can be employed to add some detail and depth in the background.
Take the photo (choose your gear)
As a photographer, I find myself getting caught up in the gear junky trend, but honestly, you don’t need a lot of gear to make great photos. In addition to the camera, you need a decent lens. For most of my food photographs I use a slight telephoto (70-200mm), this lens also has a close (or macro) options and an F-stop range of F2.8 to F32. This slightly long lens does a nice job of not distorting the subjects, it narrows down the angle of view (which minimizes how much background you need), and allows for a range of depth-of-field options from shallow, which makes one element stand out, or extensive DOF, if you need everything sharp. It also allows me to shoot an overall scene and come in close and tight for interesting details and textures. Keep in mind you don’t want your all of the photos to be all one viewpoint or style, so change it up. Also, try a range of angles, sometimes I shoot overhead and straight down on the scene, another shot might be at table height, making the food look majestic and monumental. The tripod is the unsung hero of food photography. By using a tripod, you keep the viewpoint consistent and can review the image to check for lighting, focus and styling (checking those details to make sure that piece of cilantro is in just the right place).
Finish it up
Today’s digital photography also implies that a photograph is not done until it goes through some post-processing. My goal is to get the image correct in camera capture and then touch it up and enhance it a bit in Lightroom and Photoshop. It could be because I come from the era of film, but I believe that the sign of a good photographer it to make the image in camera. My typical post-processing is to import and open the RAW file in Lightroom and then choose and rate the images from all those shot, finally to create a collection (if you’re not using Lightroom, you need to check it out, I find it an amazing tool). After the selections have been made I then move to the development section of Lightroom, first thing is to adjust the exposure if needed (exposure, recovery for highlight, fill light, and black point). I then check the white balance and make any adjustments, food looks better on the warmer side (tip: shoot a gray card or color checker in the first capture, use it to neutralize your white balance and then custom adjust). The next step for me is to adjust the rest of the color. I might add a little vibrance and saturation and possibly use the HSL tool to individually adjust some of the colors. I also use the crop tool as needed, the spotting (retouching) tool to touch up any minor, small spots, the graduate filter to lighten or darken a side or edge, and the adjustment brush to selectively adjust specific parts of the image. I might add a very slight vignette to darken the edges. Anything in the image that can’t be controlled in Lightroom will be taken care of in Photoshop, such as extensive retouching, adding or removing items, and removal of dust on glass surfaces. But remember, my goal is to get it right in camera and only touch up and enhance a few things in the post-processing.
List of tools
· Camera, 70-200mm F2.8 lens ( with a Full-Frame sensor) or 50-150mm lens (for DX size sensor) with macro capability
· Strobes, softbox, honeycomb grids, radio slaves
· Home Improvement store halogen work lights, with cinefoil, and diffusion screens (white sheets, frosted shower curtain, rollux)
· 30x40” white foam board, photo reflectors (white & silver)
· Styling tools & supplies: tweezers, bamboo skewers, 1 & 2” paint brushes (brushing crumbs from the set), floral wire, quick tak, spray bottle, scissors, X-Acto knife, mirrors, aluminum foil, glycerin, oil, corn syrup, scotch guard, rain-x, Krylon – crystal clear & dulling spray
Find a few recommended books on Food Photography here.
Beginners Tip: If you are just starting out and don’t have food styling skills, nor can you afford a professional food stylists, start with fresh fruits and vegetables (work on cutting, slicing), food ingredients, dry goods (crackers, breads), and already prepared non-perishable food items. You might also consider working with a local chef or friend who loves to cook. Keep it simple. Work on your styling and photography skills, look at a lot of food images (even recreate your favorites, as practice) and practice, practice, practice.
Judith Pishnery began her passion for photography while in high school and continues it today. As a professional photographer, Judith works on assignment for editorial, advertising and corporate clients. Not satisfied with just assignments, she has always had a variety of personal photography projects in the works, which have been exhibited and collected throughout the South East. Additionally, she has been teaching photography for more than 20 years at various art colleges throughout Atlanta and leads workshops in the US and Europe. She is currently a photography professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus. After many years of teaching and working as a professional photographer, Judith recently completed an M.F.A. graduate degree. She currently resides in a small town outside Atlanta, not unlike where she grew up in Pennsylvania, with her husband and two dogs. To see more of Judith’s work and a schedule of workshops visit www.pisconeri.com.