While I did start college as a photography major, I graduated with a BA in English so now I’m more writer than photographer but the advice I give to newbies in both arenas is similar. A photographer or a writer is serving as the audience’s eyes since they’re not onsite. Your job is to give your audience the complete essence of the event, to make them feel like they were there, that this is real.
How? Enter it. Look into the thing, don’t just look at it. Think about it. See what you’re seeing and understand it. The more you do this, the faster it will happen. Soon it will be second nature. It will happen so fast, it will only be after the fact that you will understand all the elements. In a sense, you’re operating as a good portrait artist. A portrait reveals character. A snapshot reveals nothing.
What does this have to do with food? Food photography can be conveying the commercial aspect of food. Or it can be revealing the essence of the food like a good portrait artist would. Your final results depend on what your intention is.
Here is an image of cherries.
It tells you about the shape of the fruit, the curve, the variations in color, the stem, even the imperfection. You know something about the cherryness of cherries by looking at the very simple image.
Why did I crop so the one stem is off the frame? Because I liked the motion it suggested. Cropping is your friend, but use it wisely. It can make your image more successful than the original or spoil it.
Composition should be mentioned somewhere so I’m choosing here. I don’t know if there’s a rule that holds in a majority of cases but my feeling is you’re generally better off not taking a photo of anything straight on. Or if you do, crop it so that the center of the attention is high or low, left or right. Just being off a couple inches/degrees/pixels will improve almost anything. I like negative space, it points to what you want the audience to pay attention to. Feel free to argue this point with me; I probably won’t argue back since I have violated that rule even in this article.
Here’s another image of food with motion. Caramel.
I thought about this a lot. How do I tell the story of caramel? How do I express its thick consistency, the speed at which it pours?
I set up my Nikon D7000 with the 55-200 VR zoom on my tripod. I created the tableau on top of a bookcase, set the timer and took about fifteen shots standing there with a spoon letting the caramel flow. This happens to be f/4.0 at 1/200 sec., ISO 250 but it really had nothing to do with me. The camera was in autofocus because it was so dark in the room, I trusted the Nikon could figure it out better than I could. Yes, I was using the flash.
What made me choose this image over the others, which were excruciatingly similar, were the tonalities of the caramel on the spoon as well as the flow. I tried pouring from a variety of heights, thinking or imagining the higher the better. But that wasn’t true. The longer the stream, the less essence of caramel was present.
As it happened, the background I was using did me no favors, and wound up turning the foreground into a PNG file and pasted it onto a vintage horse liniment label. It works, don’t you think?
Inside or outside. Some people have a little photo studio carved out of their living space. I have shot in the house without lights using a tripod but prefer natural light. It’ll work fine either way. Be creative. Set up a background and a foreground and you’re set. Having some choices of background is helpful. They should be easy to interchange while you’re working. Depending on your mood and your needs, outside you’re probably better off on an overcast day or in the shade. That you can fix a wide range of lighting issues in Adobe Lightroom is your safety net.
This shot was taken in my faked-up studio on a bench on my deck. I stood on the bench and shot downward. The only real intention was to convey the deep coloration of egg yolks. No lighting effects were necessary.
I want to mention the importance of the fork to the composition. It’s at an angle, giving the eye flow and motion to look at. The black handle gives you contrast to rest of the image, which is quite light/bland. It may be said that your eye is pulled to the eggs by their intense color and being pointed to by the fork. There is natural movement.
This is another image I did outside with flat light. Yes, it was starting to rain, you can see the raindrops on the spoon.
You can probably tell by now I like my colors saturated and dramatic. This is another PNG that I placed on a vintage spaghetti advertisement. I especially like the echo of the sweet potato crisps in the glass with the color of dress in the background.
Yes, I used Photoshop and the Gaussian blur filter for the background. First I tried a white layer and adjusted the opacity of the background image but that didn’t work nearly as well as just blurring it a couple times, retaining the deep colors but little detail.
Here’s a little progression so you can see where I was going with another recipe.
The book is about layered food in glasses. I made some ice cubes of fruit juice —I don’t always know what I’ll do with things, but once you have them, ideas come to you.
I went outside with the glasses full of colored ice cubes. I looked at that and said “I really need some sparkling water.”
I thought Wow this is really great. The light was right, the lowering sun was hitting the glass perfectly imparting a warm tint. The dark grass in the background was blurred so set off the lighter colours. Then when I got into Photoshop, I cropped it and chose this as the image to use in the book.
Why did I crop it that tight? I’m not selling soda or fruit cubes. I wanted to convey the heat of the summer, the sparkle of the water, the beautiful combination of orange and red. All that said to me “This is a refreshing drink.”
To end, here are two images that show how natural light can be used to great success. Try to shoot either in the morning or in the late afternoon when the light is softening.
This peach was taken in the morning and the sunlight did me a lot of favors. I love the shadow of the leaf and the light blushed the fruit in a way that would take effort to achieve in a studio.
This next one was taken later in the afternoon and between the condensation on the glass and the color of the light, this image just glows on its own. I didn’t do anything but the most rudimentary 2 minute tweak on the image to bring out what was already there. I didn’t highlight the leaves, or mess around with the contents of the glass.
No, I’m not bothered by most of an image being in shadow if there’s something in the composition that rewards the eye.
You can do food photography in a cold and detached, photorealistic manner which offers a perfect representation of a piece of pie. But does that photo make you want to eat that pie? That’s the question you should ask yourself as you attempt food photography.
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