We all know what a beautiful food photograph looks like. Unfortunately, our cameras are clueless. Here are tips for making the most of your equipment to capture the best images of food and the people who grow, produce and prepare it.
Natural light is your friend
It’s free and, in most cases, natural light is the best light for photographing food. When I’m photographing a dish, I start by looking for a source of soft indirect light. (Look at the shadows falling around your subject. If they’re short, the light is indirect.)
Next, determine the direction of the light and make the most of it to create desirable effects. Position the dish at a right angle to the light and you get lots of appetite-rousing texture — the next best thing to attaching a scratch and sniff panel to your photograph. Try positioning a white napkin, a piece of white paper or even the lid of a pan on the side of the dish that’s in shadow and using it to bounce light back toward its source; this will “open up” shadows, or lighten up dark spaces, and create a more even exposure. If you’re photographing a hot dish, position it in front of the light source to highlight rising steam.
Set the stage
Props help tell a story but too many objects in a scene distract the viewer from the main attraction. Remove anything whose color clashes unattractively with the hues of the dish you’re photographing and any object that’s jarringly small or large in relation to the dish.
Imagine choosing a tie or a scarf to complement an outfit and take the same approach with your subject. Look for background colors that complement or bring out key elements in a dish like reds/oranges to highlight chilies and greens to make fresh herbs pop.
Try recruiting someone to hold the dish you want to photograph; colorful aprons and shirts make effortless, interesting backdrops and clue the viewer in to where the dish comes from. Don’t be afraid to include a cook’s (or gardener’s or farmer’s) hands; they help tell a compelling food story.
Find the face
Like people, dishes have a “face” — an angle from which they look best to the camera. Work at a low angle and before you start shooting turn the plate or bowl slowly, watching for perspectives that naturally pull your eye through the dish: a crevice between meat and potatoes for instance, or a “river” of flowing spaghetti.
Play with your food: saw into a thick cut of meat, tear a piece of bread in half or twirl noodles around a fork to create the flow you want.
If nothing works for you, dig in. Sometimes my subject’s best face emerges after I’ve eaten a few bites. At this point I put down my knife and fork (or chopsticks) and grab my camera.
Go beyond food porn
For me the people who grow, produce and cook the food I photograph, and the places in which they work, are as important and as interesting as the food itself. And it’s these types of photographs that usually most interest my viewers.
But photographing cooks in action creates its own set of problems. Most important, before you photograph any person be sure you have their permission. If you’re in a setting in which language is a barrier, permission can be asked with eye contact, a finger pointed at your camera and a nod of the head. In some situations you may need to establish a more formal relationship.
Second, stay out of your subject’s way. He or she has a job to do; yours is to be a fly on the wall. Make sure that you respect personal space and work around your subject; nothing does more to spoil a photo than a chef turning to you with a scowl just as you press the shutter. This may require squeezing yourself into a corner, leaning precariously over a prep table or standing on a chair positioned well out of the way.
Third, watch your background. And before you begin working the shutter do a “hand check”: form right angles with your thumbs and forefingers and position them to create a frame around the scene you want to photograph. Are objects in the background “protruding” from a head or a chest? If your subject is holding a pan or a plate, is one of his or her hands lost in space? If so, adjust your perspective. And if you’re shooting a person full height the general rule of thumb is to either cut them off at the waist or show their entire body, feet included.
Take it over the top
Top shots or overheads are a great way to highlight shapes and forms. The curve of a plate or bowl contrasted with angular utensils draws attention to a dish and makes for an interesting photograph.
It also gives you the option to show an entire place setting or multiple dishes. Throw in a diner’s elbow or forearm clad in an eye-catching fabric and you’ll pull the viewer right to the table.
1. Most point-and-shoot cameras are equipped with a macro function. If you have an SLR but do not have a macro lens try using a close-up filter to help you get closer to your subject. If you’re using a zoom lens on either a point-and-shoot or an SLR keep your focal length greater than 50mm (or equivalent).
2. Don’t use a wide angle lens. It distorts your subject. Plates and pans will be oval, objects will seem farther away than they are. If you’re using a zoom lens, work counter-intuitively: zoom in but step back from the plate.
Photography is about personal style, what draws you to a subject and how to capture that subject is unique to you. The key is to find the best way to focus the viewer’s attention to where you want it by removing distractions from the frame.
Photo credits: David Hagerman