Q&A: Food Photography Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Great Food Photos
Food Photography is difficult because it requires multiple skills: close-ups, lighting, focus, depth of field and the subtle use of shadows. Add to this how quickly fresh food can change, dry-out or wither right before your eyes, especially under lights and to have a nightmare waiting to become a reality.
There are also sorts of stories about what food photographers do to make food look good including spraying food with varnish or hairspray, but mostly it is just experience and knowing what to do.
There is lots of advice about this topic. This article reviews the best of the best tips, tricks and techniques for taking great photographs of food.
When photographing food you want to ensure that the viewer really wants to taste and eat the food in your image by making their mouth water. To do this you have to use superior presentation, composition, settings, focus and lighting. However you also need to study and understand the features of the food you are photographing.
Visualise the picture you want to take with the food item in your mind. You will then have to work out how to develop this look step by step. Think about cutting the cake or other item to highlight how it is eaten and to give the impression that its ready to eat. Some food items look good all by themselves on a suitable background - such as burgers, fruit and desserts on a plate. Other foods need something else as context and need to be presented as a serving - for example soup, cakes, bread cheesecake, ice cream and many meat dishes an this makes them difficult to shoot.
Many foods do not have contrasting texture and any thing to provide depth of field. For soup, add some garnishing, capture the steam rising on a fresh dish, add some water droplets to fresh fruit and vegetables and use a beautiful plate or setting. For other foods show a serving on a spoon or display a slice or serving. So take care with you planning and preparation - it can be very creative and a lot of fun.
You should spend time deciding what is the best way to present the food item and to highlight it by choosing an apt background. In many the photographs the background may be out of focus and you should be aware of this and select a background that will work in this way.
- Choose simple and non-distracting table wear that complements the food item and showcases its key features. White bowls and a plain white or light colored table clothes are ideal for most photographs but they are highly reflective.
- Add a garnish or other highlight to add some contrast to your food items and can provide shadow and contrast to develop depth and a 3D look. You can often use some of the raw ingredients. For example, you could surround an image or a strawberry dessert by adding several fresh strawberries. Try to highlight the detailed features of the food and its unique characteristics. There features could be the texture of a vegetable, the color of ripe fruit or the steam wafting up from hot food.
- Use props when appropriate - Don’t be reluctant to jazz up the setting to increase its appeal. Maybe you could add a glass of orange juice next to a pile of pancakes? A glace of wine can add a nice touch to a plate of steak and vegetables? Perhaps you could sprinkle some hundreds and thousands or icing sugar to surround your cupcakes? But remember that to many or props that are too interesting may detract from the food.
- But keep things stylish and simple - Remember to always keep in mind the feature of the food and the story you want to tell about it. You may be better taking close-up macro photograph of the food item rather than worrying about props
- If the meal on the plate has several items it could become confusing and distracting, and it may be better to focus on fewer food items and take several shots.
Perspective, Orientation and Camera Angle
What is the best camera angle for food photography? The options are shown below
A. Top View - 90 degrees
This perspective, or at an angle of 75 degrees (15 degree from vertical) can creates a wonderful view of some foods. It is the way you see the food when it is served to you by the waiter.
B. Slanted View - 45 degrees
This is the angle you usually see food on a table for a buffet or at dinner for foods presented for you to choose. This is probably the most misused position by food photographers and can be very boring as it is overused and boring. Try other angles as well. Watch your focus and depth of field for 45 degree shots
C . Angle of 10-20 degrees (15 degrees)
Many experienced photographers claim that angles around 15 degree is the 'magic angle' to take food photos because it provides depth and interest. As in the case A above, take care with the background if you use this angle.
D. Horizontal to Table
If you decide to take the shot horizontally, make sure your background is free of distractions as at this angle it will often be more visible and can create distractions create noise in your photograph.
So how do you decide what is the best angle? There is no magic formula and it depends on the following:
- Type of Food
- Quantity of Light and how you can control it
- The best angle to display the highlights such as reflections and shadows
- How to get the best depth of field and 3D look to the image
- The Horizontal Surface and the background for the food.
Food Structure is often the key - How is the food styled or presented? What does you food look like in 3D? What is the shape of your dish? Does the food item of dish have a height? These are the things you should consider when deciding on the angle. A food item or serving that is relatively high is generally best shot at the 0-20 angle, which allows you to use the height. If the dish is flat or has no vertical interest it may be better to take the shot vertically.
Compromises - It is well known that in photography there are factors that you can control and some that you cannot. For example, sometimes you will have flexibility in the distance away from the food that you can shoot, other times this may be very restricted. Sometimes you can control the direction and strength of the light, other times you cannot. Always remember the rule of thirds when you are composing the shot. Place the key feature of the shot at a third of the distance from two adjoining edges. Many cameras can display grid lines that will help you to apply the rule of thirds.
How to Get the Lighting Right
Lighting is probably the most important and difficult requirement. Professional food photographers use highly sophisticated studio lighting and proper sets when taking photographs, but for most people these facilities will be unavailable. But natural lighting is more than adequate for most food photos and there are various ways to change things to control the light and innovate to get the lighting you need.
You may not have this setup but there are many ways of achieving something similar if you know the principles.
- Use Natural Light with Diffusers and Reflections - Whenever and wherever possible make good use of natural light as it is the best option. The best place to put your set-up is beside a large bright window, with a white curtain to diffuse the light and avoid harsh shadows. This applies if the light shines directly though the window.
- Only Use Flash as a last resort and use a flash diffuser - Flash photography is generally too harsh for food. It flattens everything in the image, blasts away the colours and can produce unwanted reflections and shiny spots. Even when you shoot at night, always employ a diffuser for the flash or bounce the flash off a ceiling or a wall, rather than directly onto the subject.
- Make your own light Box - A good way to light the food is to make use of a light box that you have made yourself. Grab a cardboard carton and cut out three side and cover them with translucent paper. Leave the other side open for setting up the photo. For lighting shine a desk lamp or something similar through the translucent material to diffuse and soften it. Such a simple device can be used to take excellent photographs.
- Ideas for Do it Yourself Tiny Spotlights - Book reading lights, optic cable lights, tiny LED torches, home made spot lights fashioned from house and car lamps and lights. You could also make use of a highlight pen lights (with a diffuser) or bed side reading lamps that are designed to be attached to book. Use your imagination.
- How To Get Food Looking At Their Best? - Try to position the food so that it has a sheen and appears translucent for that mouth watering appeal. To achieve thing place a spot light at a 1000 or 1400 clock position. Check in the viewfinder to get it right. Shadows will also appear that will provide highlights and give the food a 3D look.
- White Cards and Fill Lights - Use a white card positioned at the front of item being photographed so that light can be reflected back on the onto the food to provide fill light. White card can also be used to soften or remove harsh shadows that may appear in front of the food. Placing the food on a piece of aluminium foil (that will be outside the frame) is a great idea because you can use it as a backfill reflector and you can bend it to get just what you want.
Adjust the white balance (Color Balance)
Remember to adjust the white balance on your camera for the items you are photographing. For example meat dishes require warm tones - to avoid the blueish tinge that appears under some fluorescent light makes meat look horrid.
Use a Tripod or other means to keep the Camera Still
In low-light situations such as photographing in restaurants and kitchens, you will need long exposures and even the slightest camera movements will blur the image. Use a tripod whenever you can. Otherwise rest your camera on the back of a chair or a glass or some other object, or prop your hands against something.
Depth of Field and Focus
A large depth of field allows objects positioned at wide range of distances behind and in front of the focal point to be displayed in focus simultaneously. A shallow depth of field means only a small range of the image will be sharp and properly focused and this may make the image unappealing (though it can be 'arty'). Everything in front or behind the central area will be blurry and unattractive. The depth of field is controlled by many things including the by the aperture of your lens, which is measured in f-stops.
There are various online calculatorswhich show the principles.
- Depth of Field - Modern cameras can help with depth of field - Use aperture priority mode, select an f-stop and the camera will adjust the other settings to provide the correct exposure. A setting such as f/32 will generally mean the features in the background and foreground will be in focus. On the other hand a tiny f-setting such as f/1.4 will usually mean the background will be blurred
- Most modern SLR cameras have a preview button for displaying depth of field, which adjusts the lens to the aperture you have chosen and allows you to preview the image and depth of field that will be provided by the setting.
- Getting closer to the food will generally make it harder to control the depth of field. The closer you get, the exact and careful you will need to be with the focus. Moving further away will always be better than blurry.
Tips for Improving Focus and Sharpness
- Hold your camera steady or better still use a tripod
- Shutter Speed is the obvious way to get a sharper image as it avoid vibration effects. But keep in mind that faster shutter speed mean wider apertures and loss of depth of field.
- Reducing the aperture (increasing to say f/20) will improve the depth of field but will require longer your shutter speeds, which risk more burring through movement. It is always going to be a compromise.
- Choose a film with a larger ISO and you can use smaller apertures and use faster shutter speeds, which improves sharpness. It is a compromise because this faster film will increasing the noise of your shots and loss of detail.
- Use good quality lenses and make sure that they are clean
- Use the Sweet Spot for the lens - All lenses have certain parts of their aperture ranges that are sharper than others. In most cases this ‘sweet spot’ is one or two stops from the maximum aperture.
Shoot A Lot
Always take a large number of photographs from various angles and choose the best. Photography is something that can only be learned by doing, after you have been taught the principles.
You have to learn to work quickly while the food remains fresh. This means preparing well before hand by even using an empty plate to help you set up your shot before the food is ready.
A summary of other tips are shown below: