Think of those mouthwatering images of chicken marsala, blueberry pancakes, or this photo of grilled beef and asparagus. They almost always look better in the photos than they do on the plate; (unless of course mom made them). But, have you ever thought past the photo and wondered what preparations went into photographing the food? We all love to eat it, but there are also plenty of photographers who make a decent career in food photography.
If you're not a professional food photographer, those blueberry pancakes can look great in photos or they can look tired and dishevelled. A lot of thought and preparation goes into the food photographs you see in cookbooks, print ads, posters, or menus. Like any other photography niche, it's a speciality with its own art. I've compiled some thoughts for you to consider when photographing your favorite dishes and if you're thinking of making this a career.
One reason the food looks so fresh on the pages of magazines is because it is fresh! That's one of the biggest challenges for a food photographer, keeping the food fresh while they photograph it. Lettuce goes limp. Meats and cheeses change color. Baked dishes start to settle in their pans. The list is quite long, and the battle is intense to persevere and capture the images while the food looks fabulous.
Fortunately, there are food stylists who prepare the food and the scene, working with you to create the best possible image for the client. Kind of like a makeup and hair stylist for models! Food gets primped and pampered as well. It's essentially the hired model for the gig without needing the pay.
Lighting and Atmosphere
Food always looks best in natural lighting. As often as possible, it should be your goal to capture it in natural light. Because of this, a lot of your shots will be done during the daytime. However, there are times you'll want a low-light situation with candles and lamps, such as in the restaurant setting above. The main priority is often the food itself, but in this case, it's about the atmosphere that surrounds the food. These considerations will be based on the client's needs.
Most likely, you'll be shooting a combination of atmosphere and dishes close up. The lighting might be low at times, regardless of the time of day because you'll be indoors in most cases. It's best to use a tripod to reduce the possibility of blurred images. It also helps to set your camera's self-timer to 2 seconds (most DSLRs have this option along with 10 seconds, which is a bit long to be waiting between each shot).
The key to food photography is having a tight image that makes the food look like you could eat it. For the close up shots, set your camera to macro mode and really get in there. Consider the entire frame when you're photographing it. Empty space has no place competing with food.
Getting up close and down low is one of the best angles. Slightly above also works. You want to look for the texture of the food - if it's in the beef, such as the image at the top of this post, then you want to be down low to capture the details in the sides of the cut of beef. If it's a pie, you may want to shoot from slightly above to get the texture and geometry of the crust and the swirl of the whipped cream while also the filling. Perhaps there are scattered berries surrounding the pie, too. Whichever angle makes the food look most delectable is the one you want. If you shoot quickly enough, you should certainly try several different angles to ensure the best one is captured.
The Food Itself
Ideally, the dishes you're photographing look tempting to eat and are colorful. Dishes that are all one color, such as brown, look dull in print. For example, to photograph a pumpkin pie, the food stylist will likely add whipped cream, and perhaps even some real pumpkins in the backdrop. Or in this example of a carrot cake, they've added some fresh carrots to brighten the scene. The white frosting on top gives added contrast, and the cutting board gives texture that crosses the grain of the carrot. It's orchestrated quite nicely!
I'll add that by using the carrots, it shows a main ingredient in its raw state. This is a tactful approach. Sometimes you'll see images that are the actual process of cooking or baking. For example, a bowl of flower, blueberries and eggs might be off to the side of a photograph of ready to eat blueberry pancakes (can you tell I'm craving pancakes as I write this?). Images that show the process are especially helpful in cookbooks, more so than for a menu. A drink is sometimes added, such as the glass of wine next to the beef and asparagus. Something to consider as well.
One last note on the food. Be sure that there are no crumbs or spills in the way. Just like this cutting board is clean as a whistle, you want your images to show an equally clean environment. Some apple pie dripping on a pan is natural; just don't let it run down to the counter where it'll just look messy. Really take a look at everything in your frame so you can catch these details.
So, if by now you're thinking, I can do this! It's predicted that the demand for photographers will increase by 10 percent in the next 3 years. Good news, and since food photography is in the field of commercial photography, such as advertising, this bodes well since that's one area that's expected to increase the most. The trick is building a portfolio that will get your foot in the food photography door.
Perhaps a local restaurant, coffee shop, diner or pub will let you photograph their food in order to help you gain experience. If they like what you do, they may even use your images. You might have to find a food stylist to help you with the preparations, unless someone who works there is knowledgeable already. The chef should know enough about display, if they're willing and able to help.
Lighting, composition, and freshness of the food will be your three main concerns. Nailing all three of these ought to result in great images for your portfolio.
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