I often get asked for food photography tips, and I’ve been meaning to put together a post on what I’ve learned that might be helpful. And so here I am, actually doing it. I have no recipe today, but -
To celebrate my birthday I’m giving away a Canon EOS Rebel SL1. Canon Canada supplied me with a Rebel SL1 and lenses to try out myself, as well as one to give away to one of you! And just in time – my old camera was dying a slow death.
Photos are obviously a big part of what I do – food is so visual, and blogs tend to be reflections of ourselves, our personalities showing through our photographs. I shoot for my blogs as well as my cookbooks, and take photos to accompany articles in newspapers and magazines – my cameras are well used (and abused). I’ve been working as a food stylist for print and TV for years (those posters at Jugo Juice? I get paid to grill and stuff wraps and create smoothie swirls!) – but bloggers tend to have different challenges than corporate photographers, shooting in their kitchens without portable studios and stylists on set. I’ve taught a few food styling and photography sessions at the Calgary Public Library this fall, and facilitated a session at the Food Bloggers of Canada conference this spring, and after many requests for a day of playing with cameras and food and light, I had a few friends over for a food photography session on the weekend. Because I couldn’t invite everyone over, I thought I’d share some of our ideas and tips here. (Disclaimer: I am not the best food photographer I know.)
Pay attention to the light. I’ve worked in studios with artificial light, and own a set of strobe lights that have not been out of the basement in 10 years. But luckily natural light is the best for food – and it’s free, and everywhere. You just need to know how to find it, and manipulate it if you need to. Sometimes you need to create your own, especially during the winter months when it gets dark before dinner. To simulate natural light, pick up a rice paper lamp at IKEA (under $10) and a daylight balanced bulb at Home Depot (around $10) and you have a portable light source that’s diffused and daylight balanced, meaning your photos will not wind up with a green or orange cast.
Avoid flash at all costs. Seriously, it just never does food any favours. If you can bounce it off something, that helps – but if you can pick up your plate and find a window, even better. The SL1 takes amazing, detailed photos in low light conditions, which are inevitable – especially in restaurants.
Find a set that works. It might be your coffee table or even your bathroom – wherever the light is best. I shoot almost everything on my kitchen table. As you might have seen, it has a wrap around window, but mostly my food winds up back lit. This may not sound ideal, but it works. Side light works well too, but full frontal can flatten your food.
Direct sunlight is almost always too harsh. Look at the shadows – hold your hand over the table – if they are dark with a defined edge, that’s what you’ll see in your photos. (It can work – just make sure the shadows are what you want.) An overcast day is perfect for taking pictures if you’re outside; inside you can diffuse sunlight coming in your window with a white curtain or even a piece of waxed paper or parchment. You could make your own lightbox, but I never got around to it.
Reflectors are effective ways of controlling the light. Buy a piece of white card stock from the dollar store and a couple heavy-duty clamps from Home Depot – you can use this to block direct sun (shooting in the shadow works) or to bounce the light around. Treat it as a wide, diffused light source and move it around your food, watching as it fills in the shadows.
Pay attention to what you wear. I have a red David Bowie shirt I wear all the time. One day as I was editing photos, wondering why so many of them had a pink cast, it occurred to me that the light was bouncing off me, onto my food. It does. Now I always wear a white t-shirt – if I’m standing in front of my subject, I act as a big bounce card, filling in any shadows at the front as the light comes from the back.
Know the rule of thirds. And then forget it – it’s good to understand the compositional premise but not focus too much on it, or you’ll get too hung up trying to arrange your photos. The idea is to divide your image in three rows of three, like a tic-tac-toe board, with something going on (roughly) at each intersection, because your eye naturally wants something to happen there. Essentially, it keeps things from being too symmetrical or as we food stylists put it, too samey-same.
Pay attention to negative space. People tend to focus so much on their food that they don’t notice what’s going on around it. A few ingredients, a water glass or the cheese that goes with the crackers you’re focusing on adds visual appeal and context. Any lines in the background can draw your eyes in or make an appealing shape for them to follow.
Tell a story. You could take a picture of a piece of lasagna, and it could be a really great photo of a piece of lasagna, but what makes it distinctively yours? Adding context with surroundings, especially people (or even the suggestion of them, with a hand reaching for something or people blurred in the background) will draw the viewer in, make it more personal, tell a broader story.
Avoid stress. (Duh.) What I mean by this is pay attention to points that intersect – don’t let a spoon sit right up against the side of a bowl, for example, leave a small amount of breathing room between items, or let them overlap slightly – it’s easier on the eye.
Change your perspective. Get up on a chair or put your food on the floor – Sometimes W asks for the camera, and the angles he comes up with are ones I’d never think of. And sometimes, they work.
Play with depth of field. This refers to the portion of your photo that’s in focus – a shallow depth of field can create a more dramatic look, when just a point of an image is in focus and the rest is blurred, or you can have a deep depth of field with the whole shot in focus. Shooting top-down shot flattens the image, making it easy for everything to be in focus, as if it was on a canvas. You can control your depth of field with your lens, aperture, and the distance you are from your subject. Changing your lens can change your perspective and create an entirely new effect.
Have a good camera. Yes – a good camera is important. Phones are great for instagramming, but a digital SLR takes the best food photos, and the Canon SL1 is lighter than a water bottle, so not at all awkward to tote around.
4) Foodstyling tricks.
Know a few. In the corporate foodstyling world there are plenty of tricks – on set, typically you’d find at least one food stylist and even a props stylist, and an arrangement of food might sit out on the light box for hours. You may have heard of stylists using Elmer’s glue instead of milk in cereal shots or mashed potatoes instead of ice cream. I learned this spring that if you soak a tampon in water and microwave it, it will steam for ages – and you can tuck it into or behind whatever you want to look steamy. (Seriously – straight from the pros.) But most of us are shooting real food, and want to eat it afterward, so the trick is to make it look as good as it can without messing with it too much.
Use white plates. Or solid ones in muted colours – and choose those that don’t have wide rims, which can create too much white/unused space in a photo. Decorative dishes can work, but can be tricky, and easily overwhelm the food.
Get a few props to play with. Buy single placemats and napkins and such – I grab vintage cutlery and little dishes from garage sales and Value Village. And if you have a recognizable tabletop, as I do, pick up some white card stock to throw underneath or some wood – rough pieces are in vogue right now, but Mike picked up a few planks at Home Depot and a small pot of sample paint and painted them, then distressed them with sandpaper to make a blue background. The other sides were stained dark – two looks under ten bucks.
Pour beverages right before you shoot, so that there are bubbles – without at least a few, milk and coffee look like flat cups of paint.
(This shot was for the Almond Board of California)
Shoot food warm. Food just looks better when it’s freshly cooked; especially meat and baked goods, and particularly chocolate chip cookies.
Add some action. Mike and W are used to being called into the kitchen to pour syrup or shake powdered sugar over something or other. Movement can make things more interesting.
Create steam if you want to. This shot isn’t great – it looks a bit naked without a linen and a spoon, and the rim of the bowl needs to be cleaned up, but because it came straight from the pot, the steam is great. If it’s not hot, pop it into the microwave as soon as you have everything else set up. The continuous shooting action of the SL1 allows you to capture 4 frames per second – and all those lovely curls of steam.
I use Photoshop Elements – which is like Photoshop Lite – and I still use only a fraction of it. If you don’t have software, Picmonkey is online and free. Typically I crop, lighten a bit, and bump up the contrast and saturation, which makes most images look better. The editing part is not my forte. The SL1 has the option to edit in-camera, with filters and everything, so there’s that.
And the best advice, I think, is to get out there and take pictures – the more you shoot, the better you’ll get. Check back in the archives of your favourite food blogs and watch how they’ve improved over the years. You get better by doing.
While you’re at it, need a new camera? Perhaps the world’s smallest and lightest digital SLR?
Up for grabs: a brand-spanking-new Canon EOS Rebel SL1 with an 18-55mm IS STM Lens and a Canon EF 40mm f2.8 STM Lens – with a total retail value of $1009.98! This camera has passed the kitchen test with flying colours – 4 trillion colours, to be exact. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know mine better.
To enter, leave a comment here. Say Anything. Just once per person, please – I’ll do a random draw on November 11th. Good luck!
The small print: This giveaway is open to Canadian residents only (excluding Quebec, sorry!); the contest will close at 11:59pm EST on November 10th, 2013 and a winner selected the next day. Canon is not the sponsor of this contest.