Food photography as a general category can be extraordinarily challenging. Even under the best conditions, it can be complicated to make food look appetizing. The colors need to be right, the background needs to be perfect, and the composition and depth of field need to be spot on. If anything, it's even more difficult to photograph desserts well. Desserts often feature messy sauces and garnishes, cold elements that are subject to rapid melting, and it all has to be photographed quickly and in such a way that it looks tantalizingly irresistible. How do food photographers do it? Read on to find out.
Cold versus hot
There are two kinds of desserts in this world—cold desserts and hot desserts. Both of them can be challenging to photograph because temperature is one of those things that is subject to rapid change. The minute you take that ice cream out of the freezer it begins to melt. And the minute you take that hot apple pie out of the oven it begins to cool. And in both cases, it is necessary to communicate to your viewer the temperature of those desserts or he won't get the complete viewing experience.
Because your dessert is going to have a limited lifespan—and I mean that in the temperature sense as well as the keeping-your-family-from-eating-it sense—you need to plan ahead. The first thing that you should know is how that dessert is going to be presented. Is the apple pie going to be on a plate by itself or will it be garnished with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Or maybe you just plan to top it with a little Ready-Whip. Or, you could plan to add some caramel sauce and a dash of cinnamon. Whatever you decide to do, you need to make sure that it's done quickly and that you know exactly what part of the plate that scoop of ice cream is going to go on, and just how much time you'll have to photograph it before it turns into a melted puddle.
You also need to think about details such as the texture of the dessert and the color. Consider what you’re going to place in the background as a supporting element. For example, some food photographers like to place the slice of apple pie in the foreground and the whole pie in the background. You may also want supporting elements such as whole apples, and you want to pay attention to what not to include as well—definitely don't have the dirty mixing bowl or blender sitting behind your subject or that's going to detract from the appeal of the slice of pie.
Now make a list of all the different shots, angles and perspectives that you might like to use when photographing your subject. If it's an apple pie, consider taking a shot of it from directly above. Then, take a shot of the slice being removed from the pie. Then take a shot of the slice on its own, and then a shot of it garnished with the ice cream, Ready-Whip, caramel sauce or cinnamon. Remember to shoot the images in the best possible order. For example, you're probably going to want to add that scoop of ice cream last, because it's the part that will start to look unappetizing the quickest.
When you're writing up your shot list, make sure you include different backgrounds amongst your ideas. For example, you could have a shot with the whole pie in the background, one with apples in the background, and maybe one with an out-of-focus person wearing an apron. Of course, don't limit yourself to these ideas—spend some time brainstorming and thinking about all of the different ways that you could photograph the pie to make it appealing to your viewers.
Now that your shot list is complete, you need to think about how you're going to set up. Light is the most important element in good food photography, because without good light food doesn't look very appetizing. Pretty much any form of artificial lighting is undesirable, unless you have studio lights that are daylight balanced, but even then it's difficult to position them in such a way that they the light looks natural. If you have a window in your kitchen with good sun exposure, that's going to be ideal. Window light is soft and diffused just like golden hour light is, and you can diffuse it even more if necessary by hanging a white, sheer curtain over the window. If the light isn’t bright enough you can always open up a door as well to let extra natural light in.
If you don't have a good window, you can also take your dessert outside into a shady area. The light in open shade can be a little flat, so you may need to make post-processing adjustments in order to get a good range of tones, but the evenness of open shade is generally going to be preferable to just turning the artificial lights on in your kitchen. If you're using window light or open shade, make sure you have a reflector on hand—you may want to bounce some light into the shadows so that you don't end up with too much contrast in the image. Contrast is generally not something you're looking for when you're trying to photograph food, instead, you really want even light without too much shadow.
Once you've chosen your location make sure you have all of your props ready to go—this is where having that shot list comes in handy. Once you know what sorts of background props you're going to use, you need to make them easily accessible, especially if you plan to capture more than one shot with that scoop of ice cream.
If you're photographing frozen desserts such as ice cream or an ice cream cake, it's going to be in your interest to keep the temperature of your dessert as low as possible. It goes without saying that your kitchen should be pretty cold, but you can also buy yourself some extra time with a simple bucket of ice. The bucket should be large enough that you can move the dessert into it in between shots, so it doesn't melt while you're busy setting up props. Remember that your goal is to keep that ice cream or other frozen dessert frozen for as long as possible. Once it starts to melt it doesn't look quite so beautiful anymore.
Remember that anything that touches that frozen dessert has the potential to increase its temperature, and that includes the garnishes. If you're going to cover it with chocolate syrup, make sure the chocolate syrup has been chilled first. The same is true for things like nuts and sprinkles. Put them in the refrigerator so that their temperature is cold when you add them to your subject. It's a good idea to add all of the garnishes and stage the dessert so it looks exactly how you want it to, and then temporarily return it to the freezer just to make sure that it's cold enough before you actually start photographing it. This can buy you a few extra precious minutes, which you may need especially if you plan to switch out props throughout the shoot.
If you're not sure about your composition or your settings, it makes sense to use a dummy item—something that is the same basic size and shape as your subject—to help you get some test shots before you take a photo of your intended subject. That will allow you to make adjustments to aperture or to the placement of your props and get a pretty good idea of what the final image will look like once you get your subject swapped in.
Hot desserts are also tricky to photograph because of the time constraints. With most hot desserts, you want to give your subject some impression of temperature, whether it's the texture of the filling or visible steam rising off of the surface. Take a look at the difference between a hot piece of apple pie and a cold piece—a cold piece of apple pie will look cold; it will be coagulated and some of the sugars may even be crystallized. With hot apple pie, however, the filling will have a caramel-like consistency. It will just look hot.
Follow all the same room rules for photographing hot desserts as you do cold desserts—plan in advance, make sure your props are ready, and take test shots before you take your actual subject out of the oven.
Of course there are a few minor differences between photographing hot desserts and cold ones. Shooting steam, for example, is a problem you don't have with cold desserts, and it can be very tricky to do well. If you're wanting to capture steam, place your subject against a dark background—steam shows up better against dark backgrounds. You may also want to use other sources of steam than the object itself. A hot piece of apple pie, for example, will only steam for so long after you take it out of the oven, so if you're not able to get that shot right away you can take a piece of a wet cotton, microwave it, and place it behind your subject to simulate the steam that's no longer naturally rising from the surface.
Remember that your goal is to make somebody look at your photograph and wish that that piece of dessert was sitting in front of him. Desserts should look delicious—that means the color needs to be right, the background needs to be beautiful and supportive without being distracting, and the food needs to be styled in such a way that it looks irritable. Sloppy, messy plates are to be avoided, but you do want to have a little bit of drip because the drip can add to the visual appeal. In other words, a little mass but not too much. And the best part, of course, is that when you're done shooting, it's time to eat dessert.
- Plan ahead
- Make a shot list
- Think about your background
- Think about how you're going to garnish the food
- Think about camera angles
- Setting up
- Find good light (a window or open shade)
- Get your props ready
- Cold desserts
- Keep the temperature down
- Chill garnishes and sauces
- Take test shots of a dummy subject
- Hot desserts
- Shoot quickly
- Replace steam with steam from another source
- Use a dark background to capture steam