The Thanksgiving meal. It takes you all day to cook it. You start with the Thanksgiving Day Parade and work steadily through the football games. The tantalizing aromas waft from the kitchen as the family eagerly waits at the perfectly set dinner table. Thanksgiving is finally here!
But when you look down on that perfectly browned and juicy turkey on the platter, the photographer in you screams “Wait! Take a picture!” So you grab the camera to snap a few pictures of the food as it heads out of the kitchen. But it takes a little longer than you thought and all you end up with is a table full of hungry family members, a soggy cold turkey and a few boring pictures of uninteresting food.
That’s when it hits you, there is more to great food photography than just great food. Whether you are looking to capture the family feast for your Instagram feed, or have broader aspirations of becoming a commercial food photographer, understanding a few key concepts can help turn those ho-hum images into a feast for the eyes.
Professional chefs say we eat with our eyes first. We eat with all of our senses. Who doesn’t react to the smell of freshly popped popcorn, or the sound of sizzling bacon, or the feel of creamy, cold ice cream against the tongue? As food photographers, our challenge is to induce those same reactions using only the sense of sight.
Your mama may have told you not to play with your food, but that is exactly what you will be doing when you style food for photography. The single most important thing to keep in mind is to pay attention to the details. The food you shoot needs to be visually appealing and so much as one crumb out of place can ruin a shot. Serving dishes need to be smudge free. Glasses need to be cleared of streaks. Keep the shots free of drips and spills. Anything that can distract from the food itself needs to be eliminated.
The second area of focus is to engage the senses. Don’t just shoot a dinner roll. Add a pat of butter to melt over it to convey that piping hot, fresh out of the oven taste we love so much. Add a cup of steaming hot coffee sitting next to the pumpkin pie to bring the tantalizing aromas to the viewer’s mind. Think of those Pavlovian responses you want to create in the image. and then use visual tricks to invoke them.
Next hone in on contrasts of textures, colors and shapes in the food. Mashed potatoes and gravy are a holiday tradition – but have you ever really looked at it? Make it visually more appealing by adding flakes of fresh ground pepper around to break up the monotonous colors. Creamy egg nog is so much more enticing to look at when sprinkled with nutmeg and garnished with a cinnamon stick.
Photo © Picalotta – Dreamstime.com
Lighting is important to any photo shoot but is critical for food photography. It is important that the star of the scene, the food, is well lit and shadow free. There is nothing worse than a beautifully lit still life where the food itself is nothing but a black mass.
Focus first on the dish and then adjust the fill lights as necessary around the scene. Natural light works best with food, so if possible use a sunny window as your light source. Foods that naturally have a large range of highlights and lowlights (think dense and dark carrot cake with light cream cheese frosting) can benefit from using HDR processing – shoot the same picture intentionally compensating for overexposure and underexposure and combine using software such as Photoshop – to show all the intrinsic details.
Shooting detailed food pictures is very similar to macro photography or nature. It is a challenge to achieve clear focus through the entire depth of field. Use small aperture settings (high f/ stops), and if that isn’t enough try using stacked focus (shooting the same image focusing on points at different depths in the field and combine using post processing).
A turkey is a turkey. A turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and candied yams is a Thanksgiving feast. Swap out the pilgrim’s hat and cornucopia for a stocking hat and red balls and you have a Christmas meal. Put it on the grill and it’s a summer BBQ. The point is by creatively adjusting the setting surrounding your food can give your resulting photos wider applications. And don’t forget the generic shot, which leaves the uses to the consumers imagination and broadens the appeal.
Pay attention to the serving dish. Swapping fine china for stoneware, or serving food directly on a rustic wooden table, completely changes the feel of the images. Try using as many combinations as possible.
Of course you know to take the shot of the finished product, but also shoot the raw ingredients as well as every stage in the cooking process. These types of images are extremely useful to bloggers and cookbook writers.
Be creative with your props. Adding a recipe card or blank page instantly makes the image more appealing to restaurants or cooking schools. Throw in a cute teddy bear as the chef and now it’s a kid friendly photo. Add a football and you’re talking Thanksgiving Tailgating. Thinking outside of the box when looking to accessorize the pictures will help set your images apart from the myriad of similar ones.
Planning ahead what you want to shoot, and having everything ready as the food is prepared will also help keep the rest of the family happy and well fed. And finally, have fun with it. Since you’ll be so busy creating top quality photographs, maybe you can get somebody else to do the dishes!