How to photograph cooking :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph cooking

by David Peterson 0 comments

Confession: I love cooking shows. I love cooking blogs, too. And it's not just because I hope to one day be able to re-create all those recipes for my own family table, it's also because I just think there is something magical about the process of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into something delicious. And there’s something even more wonderful about beautiful photos that chronicle the process.

The very best food blogs have this down to a science. They know exactly how to light and shoot the process of preparing a recipe in order to make it as enticing as possible to an audience. You can do the same thing, too, and you don't even need a food blog. Here's how.

Cooking is a part of pretty much everyone's life, unless you have the means or the time to eat at a restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If that's you, then you definitely fall into a special category. But for almost everyone else, there’s some degree of food preparation happening in the home nearly every day. For some people, preparing food is just a way to get fuel into the body. For other people the kitchen (and hence the food preparation) is the heart and soul of their home. If you're in the latter category, then there's a really good argument to be made that you need to spend some time chronicling that food preparation with your camera.

Photographing family recipes

Let's say that your grandmother makes the world's best apple pie. See if you can arrange a time to take some photographs of her working her magic. Now let's leave off for a minute the fact that you're going to get a free apple pie out of the deal, and think about this from a serious perspective.

The light

In order to give your grandmother and her apple pie the justice they deserve, you need to make sure all the conditions are right. If your grandmother's kitchen is cramped, small, and messy, it may not be the best place to capture the magic. More importantly, if the only real light in the room comes from the overhead fluorescents, you may likewise want to arrange to have your photo session happen somewhere other than your grandmother's kitchen.

If your own kitchen doesn’t fit the bill, find a friend or family member who has an open kitchen with good natural light coming through a window. If it’s an eastern-facing window, morning will be the best time to take pictures. If it’s a western facing window, afternoon might be the better choice. Of course, if there is a lot of light streaming through the window at either of these times of day, it’s a good idea to hang a sheer curtain over the window in order to diffuse it and give it a softer quality. This is really critically important when photographing food because food can start to look unappetizing very quickly if you're photographing it in the wrong light. Natural light and food preparation are friends—if you can photograph the kitchen when it is almost entirely lit by the sun, you're going to get much more beautiful photographs.

This might mean baking apple pie early in the morning, and it definitely means you should avoid tackling this project after the sun goes down, when your kitchen is lit by artificial light alone.

Now depending on how much light there is in the kitchen, you may need to turn up your ISO and use a larger aperture in order to keep your shutter speed where it needs to be. For this exercise, we're going to be doing some close-up shots of hands, wooden spoons and other food prep tools, which means that your shutter speed will have to be fast enough to freeze the action. At close range, this may mean a shutter speed of 1/500 or so.

Now let's say you just don't get enough natural light through the window to allow for that. In that case, you may need to add light. I suggest a pair of tabletop lamps with daylight-balanced bulbs, which won't change the color of the natural light that you do have coming through the windows. You can also use bounced flash, provided that you have a large white ceiling in the room that you can bounce the flash off of. To do this most effectively, you'll need an external flash, which can be pivoted towards the ceiling. The white ceiling scatters the light, which will soften it in much the same way that the sheer curtains does.

The background

Another important factor in food photography of any kind is the background. I can’t tell you how many otherwise beautiful food photos I’ve seen that were ultimately spoiled by the background. Food prep is messy work—almost no one will deny that. But if you have apple peels (except for carefully arranged apple peels), browning apple cores, empty mixing bowls piled up with smaller mixing bowls and this morning’s breakfast dishes in the background of your photos, it’s going to look ugly. You can blur these distractions out with a larger aperture, but only to a certain degree—even blurred-out clutter will often still look like clutter.

Instead, move those distractions out of the background. I’m not saying you have to have someone standing by to load those things up in the dishwasher as they get used (though I’m sure Grandma would appreciate that), but you need to make sure they stay out of the photo. Instead, you can include other pleasant objects in the background—a bowl of whole apples, for example, or a vase full of flowers. Or the partially blurred faces of your over-eager children and future pie-tasters.

The preparations

Remember that your goal here is to photograph the whole process of making the pie, so you may want to start by including a shot of the ingredients as they’re waiting to be added to the bowl. If your grandmother is working from a handwritten recipe or something she cut out of a magazine, photograph that, too. You’ll also want a shot of your grandmother’s hands making the pastry or peeling the apples—these are going to be pretty special photos to have for future generations, especially if the pie recipe gets passed down to your own children. And don’t just focus on hands, you’ll want some images of your grandmother’s face, as well—try to make them candid, so you’ll capture the serious expression on her face (because apple pie is serious business) and her thoughtfulness as she explains why apple type is important and what makes a perfect pastry.

The finished piece

Get some close shots of the finished pie, of course—depending on how close you get this may mean you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod and slow down your shutter speed. At close range you need to use narrower apertures, because the closer you get the more limited your depth of field is going to be. And remember that close subjects are tricky to keep in focus when you’re hand-holding your camera, because just a slight change in camera position can be enough to throw off your focus point. That’s another good reason to bring your tripod along for this shoot, even if you won’t be using it for the majority of images.

Finally, remember that the pie-making process doesn’t end when the pie comes out of the oven. It ends after the last slice has disappeared into someone’s stomach. Make sure you get some shots of your family enjoying their treat—take care with these photos, though, because nothing is more unflattering than a shot of someone with their mouth stuffed full of food. Instead, get some photos of your kids admiring those slices before actually tucking into them. Forks cutting through pie slices are another way to go. An empty pie pan says an awful lot about the quality of that pie, too. Be creative and think about some of the different ways you might be able to communicate the importance of your grandmother and her pie recipe to your family.

I like to move everyone outside for these final images because that natural light does such a great job of really bringing out the beauty of food. Just be sure to choose an area where there is good light—open shade is a good choice because it’s nice and even and you won’t get any detail-obscuring shadows or burned out highlights. Do be aware though that open shade can be a little flat, so you may want to bounce some light back onto your subject with a reflector or use a black flag to deepen the shadows. You can also shoot during the golden hour (that hour just before sunset) for equally soft light that has a pleasant, warm cast to it—but work fast because golden hour light is fleeting.

Conclusion

Food is something that we all have in common, and it can be a really profound way for a family member to show love to the other members of her family. Yet it’s something that we don’t always think about when we embark on the task of photographically chronicling our family history. If there are recipes that are really important to you, that say something about your history or that remind you of your childhood, you’re doing your whole family a disservice if you fail to document those recipes, and I don’t just mean on a recipe card.

Summary:

  1. Find good light
    • Window light
    • Daylight balanced artificial light
    • Bounced flash
  2. The background
    • Blur or remove distractions
    • Add relevant props to the background
  3. The preparations
    • Photograph ingredients
    • Photograph the chef's hands and face
  4. The finished product
    • Photograph the final product
    • Photograph people enjoying the food

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
13 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.