I’m sitting in a café doing an odd thing. Watching someone take photos of cupcakes. What’s unusual about the scene is not that someone is taking the photos. It’s that it isn’t me clicking the shutter.
As a professional food photographer, I’m usually the one on that side of the camera, my tripod getting in the way of the wait staff or with my family rolling their eyes at me wondering if they’ll get to take their first bite before the meal gets cold. These days however, I seem to spy others popping off shots of the delicious dishes in front of them almost as much as I am.
The sheer number of food photos on websites, blogs and photo sharing sites like Flickr is enough to feed millions of hungry eyeballs, and is growing at an enormous rate. Finding quality in those images, however, is still a bit of a challenge.
Tips to photograph food like a pro
Food rarely looks appetizing when shot with a point-and-shoot digital camera on its automatic settings. A quick web search on “food photography” will return a lot of good tips: turn off your on-camera flash, shoot quickly before the food starts to wilt or congeal and get in close.
These are all great tips, and will go a long way towards getting you more scrumptious looking photos. But if you are still looking for ways to improve, try some of these tips:
Simple settings and props
First, decide what detail you want to show in the food or the scene and make sure that you don’t have other distractions in the frame.
If it’s the lusciousness of a chocolate swirl, its simple to do by filling the frame with just the chocolate. If it’s the overall table, back up a little, but try to only include hints of the curve of a chair, or a casually strewn napkin.
It’s far too easy to have too many props distracting from your intent yielding cluttered and chaotic photos. Props, like dishes, flatware, flowers and linens are a bit like jewelry.
It’s always a good idea dress the table, but then take off at least one item before the final shot. Simple settings lead the focus to the food. For this reason, it’s also usually best to stick with white dishes and linens without a lot of ornamentation.
You’ll also need to find the right angle for the dish you are shooting. Most food photos that I see are shot from about 45 degrees looking down on the dish. This is a safe angle as it is similar to what someone who is sitting down to eat the food will see. It’s familiar, and gives some dimensionality to the food.
When shooting, I almost always grab a shot at about a 45 degree angle. However, as with most photography, you are likely to find better shots with a bit of exploration.
For stacks of food, like pancakes dripping with syrup and butter, shooting directly from the side will emphasize the height of the dish. Tilting the camera away from the standard straight portrait or landscape will add a sense of motion.
I often use this for shots that involve pouring or how-tos in the kitchen.
For a more novel look, you can try shooting from directly overhead. The food will appear very flat and more graphic… a fun look for things that are already flat, like decorated cookies.
A great shot means getting the focus right. Often when shooting a plate of food, the camera may be quite close to the dish. If your lens can’t focus that close, you’ll end up with a blurry image. Make sure you don’t hold the lens closer than the minimum range for the camera.
If you are using a point-and-shoot, make sure it is set to macro mode. If using a digital SLR, get familiar with the minimum focal distance of your lenses and respect its limitations. It’s better to not fill the frame than end up with a blurry subject.
Also, auto focus doesn’t always work well on the uneven, soft shapes of food. If your camera has it, use manual focus to make sure you get the right point in focus.
Lighting, of course, is the other key to getting a great food photo.
Like most portraiture, softer lighting helps bring out the right amount of detail while hiding the less appealing aspects of the subject. Side and back light bring out the shape and color where using flash from the front tends to flatten and make the food look dead or oily.
Food is happiest under natural light, so get the food close to a window when shooting. If the light from the window is too bright, it will cast harsh shadows, so soften it by covering the window with white paper or choose a different window.
You may also need to bounce a little bit of light onto the front of the subject, so you don’t end up with just a silhouette. Something as simple as a piece of Styrofoam, or a white napkin draped over a glass, placed just out of frame in between the subject and camera can provide the right amount of additional light.
Use a tripod
Soft light does tend to mean less light, so it’s always best to use a tripod when possible. This not only prevents camera shake but you can use the lowest ISO number. If you can’t use a tripod, increase the ISO setting to a point that you can still safely handhold the camera.
The image may be a bit noisy (grainy) but it is better to have extra noise than a blurry image.
Finally, make sure you set the white balance on your camera. While a yellow glow might be nice to set the mood for some images, color cast is one of the biggest problems beginner photographers encounter, and one of the easiest to correct. At a minimum, change from auto white balance to one of the situational presets your camera has…usually setting like cloudy, interior or sunny day.
Even better, if your camera supports it, do a custom white balance. Take a quick shot of something neutral in color…a white napkin, the grey floor…that is in the light you will be shooting, and then set the camera’s custom white balance to this image. It’s a quick step that will ensure you are getting neutral color with every shot.