A Food Photography Primer

Over time, a few readers of this blog who seem to have been enjoying my food images have been asking that I write a post with a few pointers about food photography: today is the day for that. Bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive course on food photography, but just a reflection on some basic rules of photography that play an important role in making a good food photograph.

There is no magic, food is just one of the subjects of studio photography and food photography is still photography, so the same basic principles apply. As such, there are three main guiding criteria that everyone with an interest in food photography should focus on:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Post-Processing

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

1. Composition

Composition is an element that can literally make or break a photograph. A successful image, including one of a food item, needs to have a strong, clean, balanced composition or it will look flat and boring at best. Here are a few pointers as to how to tackle this aspect:

  • Devise a plan before your shoot: pre-visualize how you would like your image to look like and figure out what you need to accomplish your vision (in terms of props, lighting, background and focal length of your lens)
  • Set up well ahead of time, when you have no time pressure: the shoot should be set up according to your plan and your vision, with everything in place except the food you are going to photograph. Take a few test shots in the same light that you would use for the real thing and see how your image looks like through the lens you chose. Use this opportunity to find out what does not work and to move things around or change camera/lighting settings until you achieve a pleasing composition that conveys your vision. Add the actual food item to be photographed only when you are all set and ready to go, so when you photograph it, it is going to be perfectly fresh, in top condition
  • Although composition is subjective and should convey your own vision, there are a few “rules” that will generally make your image a stronger one, including the following:
    • Less is more: keep your composition clean and simple;
    • Compose in such a way that the main subject of your image is immediately obvious to everyone;
    • Avoid blank space near the edges of your frame: make sure that your subject and other meaningful elements of your composition fill the frame in a balanced and pleasing way, making sure that you have a strong foreground, middle ground and background in your image;
    • Very rarely does a subject that is in the smack center of your image look good (unless you are going for an extreme close-up where your subject fills the entire frame): try to create some more dynamism by for instance resorting to the rule of thirds, that is placing your main subject off center, near one of the corners of your frame, or positioning important elements in the frame along an imaginary diagonal line;
    • Know your camera’s commands well and select a focal length and an aperture suitable for what you are trying to accomplish: do you want to achieve a compressed look with quite shallow a depth of field? Select a telephoto lens. Do you want to place a strong subject in the immediate foreground in the context of a wider scene with greater depth of field and a clearer sense of depth? Go for a wide angle lens. Do you want more depth of field? Select a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). Do you want only a narrow area in your image to be in sharp focus with the remainder being rendered as a soft blur? Pick a large aperture (smaller f/stop number). Every tool (i.e., your lenses) should be used for the purpose it is intended for and ultimately to realize your vision.

2. Lighting

Lighting is the essence of photography (the very word “photography” comes from Greek and means “writing with light“) and yet it is an often overlooked component in a photograph. Almost never will a photograph taken in bad light look good. Once again, here are a few things to bear in mind while you are planning for your shoot:

  • If you want to photograph using natural lightnever set up in direct sunlight (you would end up with harsh, unattractive contrast) – prefer the light of an overcast day or light coming from a northern facing window or skylight, but be prepared to supplement it with some extra light source so as to avoid that the image looks too flat – also, be ready to use a tripod (especially if youintend to use a smaller aperture) as your shutter speed will likely be fairly slow, unless you crank up the ISO which however may end up in a noisy (as in, grainy) image
  • Stay away at all costs from your camera’s pop-up flash and never place a flash head directly onto your camera’s hot shoe as this arrangement would give you flat, unattractive front light: remember, photography (like painting) is the art of creating the illusion of a 3D object in a 2D medium, and the key to achieve that is creating visible, pleasing shadows in your image
  • In order to create visible shadows you need to ensure that your main light source (AKA your key light) is off axis with your camera: side lighting and backlighting are both effective ways to create shadows
  • Generally, in food photography you want to achieve soft shadows and stay away from harsh, unpleasant shadows. The way to do this is to use a large light source or, if you don’t have one, to make your light source as big as you can: remember, the bigger the light source, the softer the shadows it will cast. This is why photographing food (or making people portraits) in natural light on an overcast day is something appropriate: thanks to the cloud cover, the sky turns into a gigantic source of diffused, soft light. In the studio, soft light can be achieved in several ways: by using a light modifier, such as a soft box (essentially, a big diffuser) or an umbrella (a reflector) or (assuming you have white walls and ceiling) by bouncing the light of your flash head off a wall or the ceiling
  • If you need to open up a bit the shadows that you have created, so as to reduce the contrast and provide more detail in the parts of your image that are in the shadow, you should use a fill light, which is another light source coming from a different direction and with a lesser intensity than your key light (you don’t want to obliterate your shadows altogether, you only want to make them lighter): a second flash head at a weaker setting or a reflector that bounces some of the light coming from your key light back into the scene are both good solutions to achieve this (tip: some aluminum kitchen foil crumbled and then flattened out works fairly well as an improvised silver reflector)

3. Post-Processing

Neither in the “good ol’ days” of film-based photography nor in nowadays digital photography world will a great image come straight out of the camera. While the old GIGO rule still applies (Garbage In, Garbage Out – meaning, if you start out with a bad image, it will be very difficult that you may turn it into a good one in post-processing alone), even a very solid image out of the camera will require some extent of post processing to become a great photograph. A few tips:

  • Shoot RAW, not Jpeg: by shooting RAW you will retain the maximum flexibility on your files and will not have to live with choices irreversibly made by the camera – the possibility of changing your white balance into whatever light temperature you desire is by itself totally worth the choice of shooting RAW instead of Jpeg
  • Learn how to use at least the basic features of Photoshop (or whatever other image editing software of your choice): at a minimum, learn how to crop your image (should you need to); how to work with levels and curves and with the dodge/burn tool to control contrast and exposure; how to use the saturation and color balance commands to control color; how to effectively sharpen an image; and finally how to work with layers so every change you make can be reversed at a later time if need be
  • Generally, be subtle with your changes and only aim them at optimizing your image so as to extract all of its potential from that digital file and turn a good image into a great one.

That’s it! I hope the above may be of help or inspiration to some of you to push the envelope a little bit and try to apply all or some of the above tips to your own food photography and see what comes out of it. And especially, have fun in the process and experiment!

If you are interested in seeing more of my food images, feel free to check out my photography Web site.

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About Stefano

I am a photographer and an ISA certified sommelier. I contribute to two blogs, Flora's Table (the fine cooking and wine blog - www.florastable.com) and Clicks & Corks (my photography and wine blog - www.clicksandcorks.com). My photography Web site is at www.LightQuill.com
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14 Responses to A Food Photography Primer

  1. This article sounds like a blessing for every food blogger !! I took time to read it all and it’s perfect !! The perfect guide to manage a successful blog !!

  2. Thanks Stefano, this is SUCH a useful post – and one that I will refer back to. All your food images are lovely. 😉

  3. Stefano,
    I love this post and I’ve been waiting this post! Thanks for sharing the good tips!

  4. Pingback: Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, Wine Aging, Wine of 50 States, Food Photography and more | Talk-A-Vino

  5. Bonjourno Stefano! Both you and Francesca are such a beautiful team. You compliment each other beautifully. Francesca delicious dishes and your beautiful photography and wine pairing. I really enjoyed your quick summary for the top tips of food photography. I have so much to learn but am learning along the way. My biggest issue is having hungry teenagers in my home. I could plan all day the setting and be prepared but then if I turn my head for one minute, my teenagers start taking things off the plate and eating them. That little issue always makes me feel very rushed as I feel like if I just had a couple of more seconds I could have gotten a better shot. However, I much rather have happy and healthy teenagers… Take care, BAM

  6. I have been reading this for a few days, there is so much in this post that is so important, thank you Stefano for this, I know nothing about photography, will hopefully get a camera soon and have pasted this entire post as a document I can look back on, I don’t really have an innate sense when it comes to photography and this is one thing I really want to learn,

  7. Thank you so much for posting this tutorial, Stefano. I will refer to it again and again as I strive to improve my photography skills.

  8. Pingback: Crème Brûlée or Burnt Custard | Maria Dernikos

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