Shooting food is one of those things that sounds like it should be easy. After all, what could be difficult about photographing something that looks great, that doesn’t move and that doesn’t need to smile at the camera? Should be a piece of cake, right? And then there are the perks… a couple of quick snaps before sitting down to eat at your leisure in a fine restaurant. Dream job!
Ok, it’s time to set the record straight. Photography, as we know, is easy for everyone . . except photographers!
I’ve been photographing food for a number of years now, mostly on-location for magazines and book publishers and I can tell you it’s not so easy. And half the time I don’t even get to eat anything. If I’m travelling with a magazine, for example, here’s what usually happens: we arrive at the restaurant and the journalist sits down for lunch, chatting with the owner as they uncork a nice bottle of wine. I, meanwhile, take myself off to a quiet corner so as not to disturb anybody and I spend the next hour trying to get some decent images of whatever the waiter brings out for me. By the time lunch is over, my food is cold and dry and I haven’t eaten anything except a couple of breadsticks. The journalist, on the other hand, is happy, well-fed and ready to go!
I’m not complaining of course. It is a great job and I do get to eat delicious things. Food, however, is never easy to photograph well . . although it’s very easy to photograph badly. So here are a few tips I’ve put together to guide you effortlessly though your next shoot. I’ll cover what I think are the main aspects to consider; equipment, location, point of view and lighting.
Working on-location, and usually without an assistant, I need to keep my equipment down to a minimum. That means:
Modifiers – Elinchrom shoot-through umbrella, Elinchrom reflector and grid, Lastolite reflector and a small flexible mirror. If travelling, just the mirror and a shoot-through umbrella will be enough.
That probably sounds like a lot but it isn’t really. I use a trolley case to carry everything around in or a small backpack when travelling.
Despite that long list of lighting and modifiers, if everything goes well then I won’t be using any of it!
The best light for photographing food is natural light so when I arrive at the location I spend the first few minutes searching around for some interesting places where I can make the dishes look their best. My choice is usually based on two factors; light and background.
In terms of light, I’m looking for a table near a window with some fresh light seeping in. Or if there’s a garden or a terrace then I’d go and find a place there too. These become my ‘sets’ and I’ll tell the waiters where I’ll be working so they can prepare things.
In terms of background, I want either a simple table cloth and the usual cutlery, glasses and so on. Or I’m looking for something a bit different; wooden surfaces, old materials, little corners of furniture, chairs, stone floors, foliage etc.. anywhere that could work with the dish or the location (or the brief) to create an interesting image. I don’t mind breaking the rules and putting things in strange places if it works visually.
Sometimes, of course, there is no natural light and no terrace, or it’s night-time, or it’s raining, or it’s sunny but the sun’s in the wrong place. That’s when I delve into my kit to make my own light or to modify whatever is available. In that case the choice of location is based purely on the background.
POINT OF VIEW
There are generally three points of view when dealing with food: from above, from the side and from somewhere in between. Each dish will present itself best from a particular angle so I usually ask the chef which is the ‘front’ of the dish so I know how he likes it presented to the client on the table. Then I’ll close one eye and move around until I find the right angle. I’m generally looking to see if I can read the dish, by which I mean whether I can see the main items, the height or layers, the surfaces, colours, angles. In general, flat food types look best from above and structured dishes with a certain height are best shot from the side. Everything else is somewhere in between and in the end it comes down to the visual taste of the photographer.
Once I’ve decided on my point of view then I’ll start working on the background items, moving things slightly to balance the composition or to create an atmosphere that suggests something about the location. For me, less is more. I prefer just a few objects to come into the frame around the dish, often out-of-focus to suggest a presence while keeping the attention on the food. I’d normally only shoot one or two options for each dish. I prefer to work quietly at this point. It’s a bit of a Zen moment for me. I prefer to concentrate on getting one good shot rather than ‘photo-bombing’ in the hope that something will work.
You can place objects both in front of and behind the dish. If you’re including a glass or a bottle of wine make sure it’s a white for fish dishes and red for meat and so on. If in doubt, ask the waiter. Also any cutlery should be the right type for that particular dish. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to get it wrong in the heat of battle.
By the way, don’t limit yourself to just shooting ‘food on a plate’. There are often better images to be found while the chef is still preparing the dish or when adding the final touches like a drizzle of oil or a sprinkling of cheese.
In terms of lenses, I’m almost always using a 60mm or 90mm macro and selecting an aperture to give a depth of field that covers the important part of the dish. Sometimes I’ll choose a large aperture to create a sense of intimacy, other times a smaller aperture to keep a little more in focus. In the past I worked a lot with lenses that offered tilt movements, such as a Lensbaby Edge 80 or Zörk multi-focus lens. With these you can have a line of focus moving right up through the image, detailing certain parts of the dish while at the same time maintaining the intimacy of a large aperture. It’s pretty cool but I tend to use the effect less these days.
As I mentioned earlier, food looks lovely under natural light. It looks terrible under the tungsten light of a restaurant or when lit directly by a flash on-camera. Even with a well-placed, softened flash off-camera the food will take on a slightly plasticky feel. So whenever possible the answer is to use natural light.
There are two really important factors that need to be kept in mind when talking about light. The first is the quality of the light, and the second is its direction. All the gear I listed earlier is there to give me control over these two factors.
The quality of light changes according to the size of it’s source relative to the subject. A small light source will give a harder, more contrasty light with strong shadows. A large light source will give a softer, less-contrasty light with more delicate shadows. The sun, for example, is a small light source so it gives a hard light. A cloudy sky is exactly the opposite. My modifiers allow me to control these characteristics, either softening or hardening as I need to. I can also create my own hard or soft light from scratch or I can mix natural light with a little of my own. It’s all good fun. Once you have taken control of your lighting then anything becomes possible.
The direction of the light is another crucial factor. As is true in most fields of photography, a light arriving from slightly behind the subject will highlight texture and give a sense of depth. Food looks great when lit from behind or from the side so when placing my dish I position it to use the light at it’s best.
With all that back-lighting you’ll want to fill in the shadows at the front of the dish and usually a small Lastolite reflector will do the job. If you’d like to add a touch of drama or highlight a certain part of the dish then you can add a touch of flash with a grid reflector fitted to keep a narrow beam of light. One of the most useful items in my bag is actually the cheapest… a really simple piece of mirrored plexi-glass which I place on the table held by a Manfrotto Mini Spring Clamp. I can use this to create a natural highlight across the plate or a more subtle fill light, depending on how I position it.
Bear in mind I’m shooting almost exclusively on a tripod (Manfrotto 055) so I can be precise with my framing and focus as well as employing longer exposures if I need to. The flexibility of the Manfrotto 055 also lets me get overhead shots of the food as I can extend the centre column horizontally to get right over the dish. My tripod is fitted with a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared head. It weighs more than a ball head but I just love the precision if offers me so I find it hard to work without it now.
So just to recap:
- Choose the right location. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.
- Find the viewpoint that best describes the food and try to create a sense of intimacy in the image. Introduce a few objects if necessary and take control of your composition so that everything in the frame is there for a reason.
- Think about lighting and remember a back light or side light works best in most cases.
- Relax and enjoy it. If you’re stressed it’s not going to work.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
You’re almost there. But before you pack everything away, don’t forget to make a note of the name of the chef and of the dishes you’ve photographed. You’ll need them for the captions.
Now just offer the restaurant owner your business card and If you’re lucky they’ll ask if you’d like a quick bite to eat before you go. Ahh, the perks of the job, at last!