You've probably heard the phrase "we eat with our eyes first." That's particularly true with food photography, when the goal is to take photographs that sell--literally or figuratively--a food or recipe to a hungry viewer.
Taking good food photos can be especially tricky because perhaps more than any other subject, food images suffer when the lighting is poor and the composition is careless. Any other subject might look OK when those elements aren't quite perfect, but the difference between perfect light and less than perfect light can mean the difference between food that looks delicious and food that looks downright unappetizing. So how can you make sure that your food images will make your viewers hungry rather than encouraging them to stick to their diets? Let's find out.
Lighting, lighting, lighting
The single most important thing you can do for your food photography is to get the light right. Fortunately with food photography this is actually a little easier than it is with portrait photography. Plates and platters of food are small, so a smaller lighting system is actually preferable to a larger one. This means you can set up your food photo studio in your kitchen, which will make it easier to get great photos of food as it's prepared and ready to serve. A smaller lighting system is also easier to fine-tune, since the lights can be easily moved into different positions around the food. This makes it a lot more practical to experiment until you find the right light for the dish you're photographing.
So what is the right light?
As with all photography, "correct" light is a subjective term. Many food photographers suggest avoiding studio lighting altogether and positioning food next to a window instead. Natural light makes the food look more natural; you can soften the incoming light by hanging a thin bed sheet over the window, and you can fill shadows with a piece of foam board as a poor man's reflector. Although each food is unique and each photographer likes to do things differently, as a general guideline a stronger natural light tends to be preferable for brightly colored and summery foods, and soups, stews and other wintery dishes tend to look best in a flatter, more even light with low contrast between highlights and shadows.
There are times, though, when natural light just isn't available, and then you need to rely on your studio lighting. In general, food photos should be shot with diffuse light, because black shadows and glare generally equal less appetizing food. When using artificial lights, try to simulate the time of day the food would typically be served; breakfast foods such as pancakes, eggs and orange juice should be shot under brighter lights, while dishes served during an evening meal should be shot in a lower light, which will create a more restaurant-like ambiance.
Don't overuse props, but don't underuse them, either
Props are really important in food photography, but using them effectively requires experimentation and practice. Have a range of dishes and utensils available and choose the ones that best compliment your food: brightly colored plates and bowls for summery dishes, and earth-toned ones for wintery dishes. And don't forget about garnishes; a simple sprig of cilantro or a strawberry can really liven up an otherwise uninteresting dish, especially if that dish lacks color.
Once your serving elements are in place, it is important to compliment them with background props. Try to avoid cluttering an image by cramming too much stuff into the background, instead choose one or two simple pieces such as some antique silverware, a wine glass, a second plate of food or a simple side such as a bread roll. Try to put these objects in positions where they will compliment the food but not become the main focus of the image. Use a wider aperture (lower F-number) so that your background props will fall out of focus.
Avoid clutter on the plate itself, too. Try to add less food to a serving platter or a plate than you would normally put there when serving a meal to your family or friends. A big, generous portion like the one you would get at your local noisy chain restaurant can actually look less appealing in a photograph than a small portion placed carefully on a larger plate.
Pay attention to details
One thing beginning food photographers often neglect is the little details in a food shot. While a dribble or splash may look wonderful on one dish, it can look awful on another, so make sure that your plates are clean and any loose crumbs, stray sauces or other elements are only present if and when they add to the overall appeal of the image. For example, a drip of chocolate sauce can look tantalizing when running over the edge of a sundae glass, but a smear of chocolate on that same glass will just look messy.
Experiment with different angles
As any chef knows, it's almost impossible to make food look perfect from every angle. By rotating your plate, getting down low and shooting from just above table height or from a 45 degree angle, you'll be able to hide imperfections as well as change the overall mood of the photograph. Experimentation is key and digital shots are free, so take as many photos as you can from many different angles.
Take photos while the food is still fresh
Freshly-prepared food can lose its visual appeal rather quickly. Ice cream will start melting within a few minutes, garnishes placed on top of soups or beverages will sink, and crispy fresh lettuces will wilt if left at room temperature for too long. So the best practice is to set up your shot before the food has even finished cooking, using an empty plate as a place-holder and arranging all of your props well in advance. Experiment with lighting before the food is ready for the picture, that way you'll be able to get the shot quickly.
Including steam in a photo can be difficult, but is worth doing if you know the right tricks. A cup of hot tea or a cafe mocha will look much more tempting if there is steam rising from its surface--without steam it may just look cold. But since steam is vaporous, always moving and very pale in color, it can be tricky to capture it. Without backlighting, for example, steam will be almost invisible in a photograph. Light backgrounds will also make it difficult to see.
Professional food photographers have their own tricks for shooting steam, and most of them don't involve photographing the food's natural steam. Try using a wad of cotton soaked in water and heated in the microwave--positioned discretely behind a plate of food or a hot drink, it will fool your viewer into thinking there is steam coming from the food itself.
Whether you're a professional photographer, a food blogger, or someone who just wants to chronicle family recipes for a scrapbook--food photography is a sales job. If you can't sell your viewer on your recipes, you might as well forget the photograph altogether and use words instead. A great food photo should look delicious to everyone who sees it, even to someone who has just filled up on a four course meal. If you can tempt that person, you're doing your job right.
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