Especially with the rise of rampant, rapid online media, camera flashes are common, if not always welcome, in modern restaurants. But not every dish—and certainly not every camera—is created equal, which means getting the best shot from dish to dish can sometimes be a challenge. But it’s a challenge we all want to live up to. Food photography is an intersection of professional creativity: the chef works hard to compose an incredible dish, and you work hard to capture its textures and tastes with the perfect shot.
And believe it or not, it all starts with a few basic rules, simple technical and stylistic commandments that will make the most of your picture taking efforts. So before you even consider your next crave-worthy subject, let's have a look at the equipment, techniques, and tips that produce the best shots—whatever the dish—every time.
You need to ask yourself “What is the purpose of my food photography?” to determine the investment you are willing to make. Are you willing to invest in the “big guns” of an SLR (or single lens reflex camera, the tech benchmark of most serious photography)? What’s more, are you willing to spend thousands on the latest digital version? You can take great food photos with a basic SLR, but most pocket digital cameras fall well short of the job (much to the dismay of blogger-hobbyists).
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The main reason to invest in an SLR is the depth of field required for good food photos. Most pocket cameras don't have the ability to change f-stop (varying ratios of focal length to aperture size that determine depth of field), not to mention the lower quality of most pocket camera lenses. At StarChefs.com, we shoot with Nikon, but Canon SLRs are just as good. A top fashion photographer once told me it doesn't matter what brand you choose nowadays; what does matter is how the camera feels in your hand and if you are comfortable shooting with it.
I have definitely found that to be the case. We shoot with Nikon D50's, D200's and D300’s. I really love the D300 for its many features, focal points, high ISO range (meaning a wide range of light sensitivity) and quality in low light. I dislike the D200 for all of those same reasons. Many of our staff like the D50 for its size and ease of use; there are some technical limitations, but it’s good when you’re starting out. (Cameras I would love to own? The Nikon D700 and Canon 5D with video.)
I love shooting food with a 105-milimeter lens, specifically for the effect the longer lens has on food. I’ll also occasionally use a 60-milimeter lens, which works better on rectangular plates or large plates with many things on them; it is also better for overhead shots when you have no choice but to photograph the plate on the table. Of course, if you’re like me, you don’t mind climbing onto a chair in the middle of a crowded dining room to photograph a dish (bearing in mind that the chef might have a mild heart attack if you don’t provide explanation for why his/her dish is on the floor).
Natural light is normally a photographer’s best friend , but in restaurants it’s rarely available and if you don't have a lot of experience shooting with natural light, shadows can be tricky. Instead, we use a Lowell Ego Light on a tripod with an adjustable elbow for perfect light every time. If you don't have a portable light you can try to bounce light using a white card (or even a white plate in a pinch) so the illumination of the dish is indirect and less harsh. Never use a flash to photograph food if you can help it. (Think about your favorite photographs of yourself—they’re probably not flash-lit, where your skin is washed out and unnaturally shiny!)
Lighting might be a mixed bag, but a tripod isn't optional in food photography. If you really want to want to eat the food in your finished photo, you need texture or detail. And that requires an absolutely still camera with decent exposure time (especially when there’s low lighting). Very, very few people can hold a camera steady enough for the kind of detail that makes a food photograph crave-worthy. And we’re, sadly, not among them, so we use an easily adjustable Manfrotto tripod with a piston ball grip. If you don't have your tripod, prop your camera on a chair, a glass, the frame of a doorway, or a nearby obliging head or shoulder to steady yourself and your camera.
Ever seen eerily green or blue shots of food? White balance is the forgotten key to avoiding these unattractive hues. Try it once and you’ll see: it dramatically affects the quality of your photos. If you want to get it totally right, one easy way to customize the white balance is to use a white balance disc that fits onto the end of your lens. Set your camera on PRE while holding down the WB (white balance) button. Then shoot into your light source. This customizes the light you are shooting in. Adjusting white balance couldn't be easier, and it means no more blue food—unless of course that’s what’s on the plate.
Tethered vs. Untethered
To be tethered (or not to be) is not optional for me. I always shoot tethered (i.e. connected to a computer, usually by wire connection), mainly because I can't see the pesky detail in the little screen in the back of the camera and I don't think you can either. So I connect a USB cord to a mini USB to join camera to laptop. Since I'm shooting with Nikon, we use a program called Camera Control Pro to capture the photos. I can see each photo as big as my laptop screen, with the dish in all its glorious detail of texture and color. This easily lets me see not only what angle is best for the shot, but also what focal point is best. Sure, it might feel good to know you can cut and run anytime, but tethered shooting allows me to continually improve as a photographer.
Correct dish titles, key words, and proper organization of your food photography is really important for your development. If you take lots of photos but can't find them, you can't learn—and you can't do much with your photos. I use my initials in the naming function available on most SLRs. Before shooting, I create folders for the photos I am about to take. I name the folder with place (city, restaurant, chef) and date. I create keywords in Camera Control Pro at the start of every shoot so that when the photos come into my laptop, much of the organization is already done. After each shoot, keywords should be added to highlight important elements that you might look for in the future like ingredients, dish names, tools, or techniques.
Unless you’re working with non-edible food, timing does matter in food photography, and there are a few handy tricks to get ready for the dish before it's in front of you. Food needs to be eaten when it's set down in front of you. That goes for the photo as well. (If you’re like me, trying to both photograph and eat a dish before the dish cools, or melts, you’ll learn to work quickly.) If you spend ages trying to photograph a dish, it won't look good. As you develop the following techniques, however, they will become second nature—meaning you will eventually be able to photograph and consume the same dish.
First think about your setting and how you are going to frame the dish. What direction are you shooting in? What is in the background? Is it busy, colorful, dreary? What is the horizon line? Do you want props? What is available? Take the exact dish that the food is going to be plated on and place it in the setting you have in mind. Observe what’s in the fore and background. Take a few shots of the empty plate to give you an idea of what the photo is going to look like. I look for plain, simple backgrounds. Solid or textured and dark or white can work. Cluttered backgrounds generally need to be blurred out (by using a lower f-stop). Also pay attention to the surface and shape of the table top. I look for square or rectangular tables (not round), and I generally push the dish to the back of the tabletop for clean parallel horizon lines.
Framing the Photo
Dishes directly in the center of the photo can be boring and predictable. Instead I often shoot half the dish from the center of the plate to one end. I always try to include both the front and back rim of the plate to give depth of field and align the horizon line to the rim of the plate. Get up close and personal—fill the frame with the dish like the camera lens is your empty stomach. Food often looks better the closer you shoot. And bear in mind, slanted photos generally don’t make for the best shot of any plate.
Now that you are ready (and only when you are actually, honestly ready), it’s time to ask for the food. Asking for the food sets a countdown going, so make sure you’re armed and ready before the chef or server brings out that dish. Nobody (especially the chef) wants to watch a dish cool while you fiddle with your f-stops or change lenses. Like a first date, the first dish will make for the most awkward “getting-to-know-you” session. After that, the process will get reasonably smoother.
At an Angle
When the dish is placed in front of you, start shooting at a low f-stop (I like to start at 3) and take shots straight on, meaning your tripod is even with the height of the table. Turn the plate a quarter turn clockwise until you've shot every angle on the dish. Look at your photos and see which angle is the best. Then repeat shooting that angle at varying f-stops (3.2, 4, 5.6, 6. 7, and 9). See which f-stop unveils the best characteristics of the dish. After shooting straight on, I raise my tripod so that I'm shooting at a 45 degree angle and repeat the same shooting, turning the plate a quarter turn and on different f-stops. Try different lenses, a 50, a 60 or an 85mm if shooting with a Canon. See what works and brings out the best in each dish you are shooting.
Next is the overhead shot. Not all dishes require this shot, but when you are first starting out I suggest you shoot every dish overhead and until you learn which types of dishes make great overhead shots. Again I use the tripod and generally extend it to its tallest height. I'm short, so I need a step-stool or chair to stand on. I place the dish on the floor with light directly over the dish and I shoot at a higher f-stop (between 11 and 16), off-center to make the photo more interesting.
Balancing Texture and Focus
Texture is key to make a dish look as good as it smells and tastes. If there is a lot of stuff on the plate, I might use a higher f-stop, sometimes up to an 11, to include every element (without the plate looking distractingly “busy”). Very often I find something on the plate to focus on, keeping the f-stop between a 3.2 and 5.6 and letting one element play marquee star while the rest blur gently into the background. If you’ve ever drooled over a glistening shot of pork belly without any regard for the rest of the plate, then you can appreciate the impact of this kind of selective (or seductive) focus.
Beyond all the tips and tools mentioned above, I still can’t say anything more powerful than this: practice makes perfect. I started taking food photos in the summer of 2005. For my first three years I was shooting 500-1000 frames of food a day on my editorial trips, which were typically five days a week (every other week!). I can't stress this point enough: the more you shoot, the more you learn. However fumbling those first few (thousand?) frames feel, eventually you’ll recognize the plates set in front of you and remember how best you shot that kind of dish last. Now I can shoot a dish with one shot if I need to, although that expedient (“one shot, one dish”) style has taken a few years to develop and is best saved for truly urgent situations.
Last but certainly not least, don't delete the photos you take, however much you hate them or however much they embarrass you (we’ve all got those photos). You don’t have to frame them. Just save them in a hidden folder somewhere on your desktop. Look back on these photos constantly, pay attention to the settings you shot at, and you’ll become familiar with the tools of the trade as well as your own evolving (yes!) style.