As the saying goes, “You eat with your eyes first.” If it doesn’t look good, it probably doesn’t taste good either. With food photography, it has to look good because tasting is not an option. A lot of times you’re being tricked into thinking something tastes amazing when in reality it isn’t. For instance, what you might think is a delicious bowl of ice cream is actually mashed potatoes or the whip cream on top is in reality shaving cream. While this doesn’t sound great, tricks like these are used all the time to give the photographer or food stylist the time that they need to set up that one perfect mouthwatering shot. So, what can we do to make it look delicious? Here are five tips to get you started.
Lighting is key. It helps describe the space and sets the tone of the image. While professionals will use expensive lights and diffusers to create stunning images, in reality they are just trying to mimic natural light. The best part about natural light is that it’s free. Just go find a window and set up next to it and voila, you’re in business. The only problem is, natural light is often inconsistent and unpredictable. So back to the lights. A set up with one full spectrum light and a softbox with some kind of reflector, I just use a piece of white foam core board, can go a long way in creating realistic, consistent natural lighting. Try setting up the light low and to one side of your subject and placing the reflector on the opposite side. The light becomes the sunlight and the reflector becomes the reflected light that might come from the wall next to it, and also keeps the shadows from being too dark. Play around with the distance and angle of the light to add drama or lightness to your photo.
- Angle / Distance
The angle and distance from your subject can have a big impact on your images. Some food looks better from above, like pizza, or from the side, like a stack of crackers, or maybe at a 45-degree angle, like beverages. Close up shots can feel very intimate and are great for showing details, while overhead shots can be very graphic, abstract, and useful when you want to show a lot of things at once. Choosing the right angle can be a challenge. I find that experimenting and taking lots of test shots is a big help to finding just the right angle for a subject.
Using props can really help you tell a story with your photos. The right props will set the mood and establish context. Are you in the kitchen or at the dinner table or maybe on a picnic? Maybe the story is the recipe, so you create a narrative by showing your dish surrounded by colorful ingredients or the necessary utensils to make the dish. If the story is a meal, display the dish on the dinner table with a glass of wine and a fork resting on the plate like you just took a bite. You’re trying to tell a story, not just about the food, but also about the person that’s creating it or enjoying it.
Composition can make or break even the best dish in the best possible lighting. Good composition directs how you view the image, how your eye moves around. It determines what you see first, what you see last, and how quickly you get there. Composition can be thought of as a set of rules to follow, but I prefer to think of them more as guidelines. The key to good composition is that you’ll know it when you see it. But here are some ideas to get you started.
Rule-of-Thirds: Divide your image into nine equal segments, three vertical and three horizontal. Then position the key elements of your photo where these lines intersect.
Leading lines: This can be any element with a directional feel. For instance, a fork and a knife could be used to lead your eye around the image and point the way to your subject.
Spontaneity: While you might have spent ten minutes setting up a pile of crackers just right, it needs to look like you just plopped them down and left them exactly where they landed. After all, you are trying to create a natural, imperfect feel.
Cropping: A lot of the composition doesn’t take place in the camera, it happens when you crop it. I find that it’s best to be a little zoomed out when taking the picture so that you have more options when it comes time to crop. Deciding where things intersect with the frame can help to create interest.
Using focus and depth of field as a compositional element can also help to create a hierarchy within your image. For instance, having your subject in sharp focus and the background blurry leads the eye. I find that this works best for close-up shots of food, or maybe in a setting where the background is busy and distracting like a restaurant.
Keep experimenting. Like I said, there are no real rules, just guidelines. Sometimes what works in one situation won’t work for the next. The great thing about digital photography is you never run out of film, just hard drive space.