If you’ve ever taken a basic drawing class, either in high school or in college, there’s a good chance that one of the first things your instructor asked you to sketch was a bowl of fruit. Now, looking at some classic still life paintings, you would think that the only thing the old masters had to do with their time was to sit around and contemplate bowls of fruit, but there was really a lot more to it than that. Because of its shape, a piece of fruit is a wonderful study in light and shadow. And depending on the skin or peel of that piece of fruit, it can also be a wonderful study in texture. So how can you use this abundant and classically photogenic subject to create beautiful images? Keep reading to find out.
The good news is that you’re not married to the whole bowl-of-fruit thing—there are a lot of different ways to photograph fruit that don’t involve placing it in bowls. But bowls of fruit can actually be a fun way to approach the subject, and a great way to learn about light, so let’s start there.
Because fruit is (often) round, the way light plays off of its surface can be really beautiful—provided that you have the right sort of light. And the right light (as it is for most photographic subjects) is typically soft and diffuse. Fortunately, a window can serve as a beautiful source of light provided that it’s a window with adequate sun exposure and that the light coming through it is not direct (like those sunbeams your cat likes to sit in). You can improve the light even more by hanging a sheer curtain over your window—the sheer curtain will help filter and soften up the light and though your cat may not approve, your photos will thank you for it.
If you’ve ever looked at those old Renaissance era still life paintings, one thing you probably noticed was that all of the fruit that existed during the Renaissance was completely perfect and blemish-free. Of course, that’s not exactly true because you and I both know that a painter can easily just exclude all the imperfections in his subject to make us all think that Renaissance fruit was completely perfect and blemish-free—but photographers don’t have that luxury. Now, we can go into post-processing and clone out those blemishes, but that can be tricky with a rounded surface because it’s difficult to get the tones exactly right from the cloned area. Instead, try to find perfect specimens to photograph. This is easy in a modern grocery store because modern grocery stores usually carry only the most perfect unblemished fruit (which doesn’t always taste as good as it looks). If your specimens are less than perfect that’s OK too, as long as you can arrange them is such a way that the imperfections are hidden.
Try to arrange your fruits neatly and with some sense of order—for example, if you’re photographing a bowl of apples and pears try to put an even amount of space between each type of fruit and arrange them so that they’re all sitting at slightly different angles—random, but in an organized way. If you’ve got a small bowl of fruit consider using an odd number of subjects (three or five)—that’s based on the rule of odds, which states that people are more comfortable looking at odd-numbered groups of objects than even numbers (odd numbers are dynamic, while even numbers are static).
Once your subjects are neatly arranged, set your camera up on a tripod and choose a fairly small aperture so you’ll get good depth of field from foreground to background. Depending on how much light is coming through that window, that may mean using a slow shutter speed (hence the tripod). Definitely don’t turn up your ISO—your goal is to capture detail, and higher ISOs may mean increased digital noise and muddy details.
The direction of the light
You can dramatically change the look of your photo by changing the direction that the light comes from. For a dramatic look, try setting up your bowl of fruit next to the window so that the light is coming from the side. Lighting your fruit this way, with a single light source, will create strong highlights on one side and dark shadows on the opposite side. That side light will also help bring out the details on the surface of the fruit. Because side light creates shadow even on very fine details, all that texture will be most visible when shot with sidelight.
If you want to take advantage of side light but you don't want such a dramatic look, try using a reflector to bounce some light back into the shadows. That's going to result in a photo that has less contrast and less drama, but your subjects will still have plenty of detail.
You could also light your fruit with front flight—to do this you would need to stand in front of the window yourself and shoot so that the light is directly behind you, falling on the front of the bowl of fruit. This will give you a very even light, but the problem with lighting fruit this way is it can result in a flatter photo without a lot of strong shadows and highlights. You're not really going to be showing the fruit at its very best if you use front light, because objects that are lit from the front have shadows that fall invisibly behind them. So you’ll be losing a lot of that shadow that can help make an object look three-dimensional and beautifully textured.
White grape by Flickr user XcBiker
The third way of lighting your bowl of fruit is with back light. Food photographers like to use back light because it can create pretty outlined highlights around the edges of your subjects. But the main problem with the back light, of course, is that when you light something from behind you can get a blown out background with well lit subjects, or silhouetted subjects with a well-exposed background. In order to make backlighting work you really need to be using that reflector to help bounce some light back into the shadows and prevent under exposure of your subject.
Once you have mastered Renaissance-style bowl of fruit photography, it's time to move on to some more modern ways of photographing fruit. One of my favorite is to use a macro lens, or if you don't have one, the macro mode on your camera. When you get very close to a piece of fruit—close enough that you're excluding most of the context—you’re giving your viewer a look at that piece of fruit from a perspective he probably don't ordinarily use. Done correctly, you can even turn a piece of fruit into an abstraction, and leave your viewer scratching his head, wondering what the subject of the photograph actually is.
For extreme close-ups, try using an extension tube or a screw on close-up filter. Again, uses side light to try and accentuate the texture on the surface of your subject. And select the smallest possible aperture available in order to give your subject good depth of field from foreground background.
Another take on this subject is to photograph a piece of fruit submerged in water. I like use a clear sparkling water, because the carbonation adds interesting texture to the final photograph. Slice up a fresh piece of fruit—citrus fruits such as lemons and limes works great for this—and then submerge it in a clear glass or bowl full of sparkling water. Remember that whenever you're shooting through glass you need to pay attention to reflections, so it's a good idea to put your subject into a light tent to help minimize the amount of glare that you’ll get from your light source. A light tent, in case you don't have one, is just a simple cube with white fabric walls. To use one, place a light source on either side of the cube, place your subject inside, and take the photo. The white material will diffuse the light and make it soft enough to prevent glare. It also helps to shoot from a slight angle so that you don't end up with your own reflection or the reflection of your camera on the surface of the glass.
You can find a lots of really interesting and unique ways to photograph fruit that don't make you look like you're trying to be a Dutch master, but if that's what you're going for there's nothing wrong with that approach, either. I always advocate trying lots of different things, so find a technique you like, master it, and then move onto the next one. I think you'll find that the more photos you take, the more interesting and unique your images will become.
Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?