Food Photography: A Simple and Inexpensive Approach to Shooting Food

If you admire food photography but have always been intimidated to shoot it, here is a bit of advice. Approach food as you would any other still life. Don’t automatically psyche yourself out before you begin. People often remark that food is the most difficult subject to shoot. Perhaps once upon a time, but today digital SLR's have completely altered the landscape.

Food Photography: A Simple and Inexpensive Approach to Shooting Food


All you really need are a few simple lighting techniques and a camera with some manual control and a fairly long lens. Ideally a macro lens is what you need to get the real food porn shots but if you have a zoom lens that goes to over 100mm you can get some great results.

How to Shoot Great Food Photos

Here are a few basics to get you on your way. Note that all the photos in this article were shot using the techniques detailed below.

Yum Yum

Equipment

Camera: Any digital camera with a long lens will do. A digital SLR is preferred but a good point and shoot with a long zoom will work as well.

Tripod: This is essential. You have to eliminate camera shake from your image. What defines a great food image is a pinpoint sharpness in a part of the image.

Lighting: 2 white bounce cards (pieces of white cardboard that are rigid), a sheet, sheers or diffusion of some sort and some self-standing mirrors from the drug store.

Set-Up

Subject: Start simple. Pre-made desserts are great subjects. Start with fruit or vegetables, chocolates, candy, cookies, anything that does not require a stylist at first. Obviously if you are a chef or a foodie with kick ass presentation skills, you can throw down something more complicated. It’s easier to work with simple food first so it doesn’t die on you while you are figuring out the photographic technique. Once you get the hang of it you can advance quickly.

Props: Don’t overlook this important aspect. Good taste is good taste. It’s important to match the plates, surfaces and flatware. When in doubt go with white props, you can’t miss with white.

Pulled Pork

Putting It Together

Once you have defined your subject, find a window. Direct light is the enemy so if the sun is shining brightly through the window you have to soften the light somehow. You can use a white sheet, tracing paper or if you are planning on doing this regularly invest in a diffusion disc from a camera store. They are translucent round discs that allow light to pass through them. If the weather is heavily overcast you can skip this step since the light is already diffused.

Create your composition on a surface and arrange your props as you would with any other still life. Make sure the light is coming in from behind the subject, this is crucial, food hates front light. You will use the white cards and mirrors to introduce light into the foreground in a few minutes.

Get you camera on a tripod. Decide on your camera angle. There are many angles which work for food but a slightly over or under angle equally work well. For more drama angle the camera pointing up like in the pulled pork shot above. It makes the subject look heroic. For more traditional camera angles play around but it’s hard to go wrong. Go with what looks good for that subject. There are no rules except to have fun.

Every dish has at least one sweet spot and often there are more than one. You can also move the subject around to get the best orientation of the food. The combination of the right camera angle and subject angle can create stunning results.

Also eliminate clutter. Seriously, food looks great uncomplicated and in your face. Don’t overdo the props and stuff in the fame. KISS; Keep It Simple Stupid.

Fireside

Once you have your composition and camera angle it’s important to introduce light into the front of the subject. Remember the light is coming in from behind. If you don’t fill in light in the front then the photo will not be balanced properly and the light will not be right. The key is to balance the light so the front of the subject is exposed and the background starts to be a little blown out.

Achieving that balance is the tricky part. That’s where the bounce cards come in. You can put them on light stands if you have them or just use a heavy object to keep them on the table. Liquor or glass bottles work well since they are tall. Point the cards so the white side bounces the light into the front of the food. You will have to leave a small space for the lens.

Here is the money insider pro tip, take your mirrors and pop light into some areas of the subject. This adds really nice highlights. The mirrors usually have 2 sides one very bright (the magnified side) and one not as hard. Which side you use depends on how hard the light is coming in from the window. You will have to experiment.

Take an exposure reading and then bracket the shot (change the shutter speed to under expose and over expose the image. Insider pro tip use a cable release or timer on the camera to prevent camera shake. Also if the camera model you have has a mirror lock use it. You will have to check the manual.

Depth of field can make or break an image. If you are unfamiliar with this term simply put, it’s what is in focus. What determines depth of field is the f-stop on the lens. The smaller the number f2.8 the quicker the subject falls out of focus. The ability to selectively focus the shot is critical to creating a dramatic and interesting food image.

Banana Chocolate Muffins

Another reason why the tripod also becomes critical is that in order to achieve a small f-stop you need more light. In many instances you have to set the shutter speed on the camera to a long exposure to achieve the correct depth of field.

If your camera does not have manual settings you might have a problem achieving this effect. As long as you can control the shutter speed on the camera you will be OK. Simply keep dialing down the shutter speed until you reach the f-stop you need. The meter in your camera will tell you the correct exposure.

After you get the shot you like, experiment. Change camera angles, depth of field, focal lengths.

Last bit of advice is never, ever use the flash on your camera unless you are exposing manually and using it as a fill light. Even then use extreme care. Food photography hates the crappy flash from the front.

Showcase of Websites with Great Food Photography

Let's take a look at some of the beautiful examples of food photography used in websites. These photos have brought the website to life and they make the visitors feel hungry as well.

Veda Takeout
Veda Takeout

Taste Spotting
Taste Spotting

Ruby Tuesday
Ruby Tuesday

Orcabay Seafoods
Orcabay Seafoods

Open Source Food
Open Source Food

Olive Garden
Olive Garden

Restaurant Nuevo Aurich
Nuevo

The Noodle Box
Noodle Box

Le28thiers
Le28thiers

Jake's Roadhouse
Jakesrh

Sesame
I love Sesame

Famous Cookies
Famous Cookies

Culinaria Food and Wine
Culinaria Food and Wine

Chow
Chow

L'Auberge De
Auberge

More Resources

Conclusion

Treat food as you would any other still life you will be less intimidated. What was once a very hard subject to tackle is now very approachable. If you love food and always wanted to shoot but were afraid because it was too difficult take heart. With these very simple techniques you can get a taste of food photography without it being a bitter experience.

Have you tried food photography before? Do you have any tips or techniques to share with us?

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Onextrapixel.