Food is one of the most photographed subjects in the world, not just because it’s a central preoccupation for many of us, but because of social media. In particular Instagram, where the hashtag #foodporn has so far garnered over 163 million posts. Food porn, which has come to mean the celebration of strikingly presented and desirable dishes, neatly sums up our general obsession with eating for pleasure. But has it also changed the way we treat photography? If millions of diners and bloggers are snapping away with phones that deliver technically competent images and sharing them with millions of others, doesn’t that subvert professional shooting?
There’s a reason why professional photographers still have work, and it stems from the purpose of ALL food photography, which is to make the dishes look appetising. Sounds obvious? Like the purpose of all portrait shooting that’s commissioned by the sitters is to make them look good? It is indeed clear enough, but it means employing some very specific skills to get that result, above all in lighting. Just shooting whatever’s laid down on the table in front of you is not likely to cut it. Whatever creative freedom there may be in styling food — and yes, there’s a lot — the range of lighting that does the job of making it mouth-watering is actually quite limited.
With so much food photography online, especially on social media platforms like Instagram, it’s important to know what the professional industry standards are. In fact, doubly important because the majority of posted food images are extremely low standard. A harsh thing to say? Yes, indeed, but both true and inevitable. I say inevitable because food and drinks photography is a highly specialised genre that calls for total control and great attention to detail, so the usual casual approach never works well. Places to look for high-level examples of food photography are the websites of Michelin-starred restaurants (not all, but most), and advertising, including video, from major food brands and the food sections of large retailers with good product reputations (for example, Marks and Spencer). As you would with entering any new and specialised area of creativity, it’s essential to look at your competition, to learn what the standards are and know what you’ll need to do to at least match those standards yourself.
6 ESSENTIAL QUALITIES FOR A FOOD PHOTOGRAPH
This is an important and basic concept in a genre of photography that unfortunately lends itself to fussy and messy sets, with basically a lot of physical elements scattered over a table or a kitchen surface. Clean means stripping away all inessentials so that everything in the frame contributes to the image. There should be nothing distracting or unnecessary in the frame. Robert Golden, who was once one of the leading European food photographers and food commercial directors, wrote “Within the four sides of the format frame is found a sector of the world. Everything relevant to the objects, conditions and events of interest must be included within the frame, and nothing more. For something essential to fall outside the frame or something inessential to fall within it changes the meaning and the concentration.”
While there are occasionally times for moody atmosphere and for hinting rather than revealing, food photography much more often needs to show people the dish in all its appetising qualities (see below). This usually calls for good shadow fill, so that shadows are open, not dense. In other words, shadows are for modelling and sometimes for their graphic outlines, but not to conceal.
However, you like to express it, whether as shape, form, modelling or volume, it helps to think of a dish as a constructed object. Lighting is the way to do sculptural, and this is the reason for the overwhelming popularity of the single bank (see below). In any case, celebrate the craftsmanship.
In food photography, this has a very specific meaning, which is a surface quality that promises mouth-feel. In other words, it’s not just how to reveal sheen, lustre, silkiness, crumbliness, crunchiness, and so on, but to help the viewer imagine how a mouthful will feel when they eat it. As with sculptural quality, lighting is the way to show texture.
When your photographic subject is small, as most food dishes are, and when it’s something that your audience is hopefully projecting forward to how it might taste, it comes under closer scrutiny than usual. Total attention to detail is important, and that includes making sure that all the culinary details are correct.
This is the ultimate goal as well as a quality of photography. While setting up the shoot, keep assessing this; keep asking yourself ‘does it look appetising?’ In the end, this is a visceral judgement.
In food photography, this is, without doubt, the most important ingredient. Technically it determines modelling and texture, but it also influences the less tangible atmosphere and feeling. Despite fashion cycles in lighting over decades, the persistent standard for food has long been a single light bank — a square or rectangular light source that gives a broad, even light, directional yet diffuse because it is larger than the product (like a north-facing window). This is lighting that goes all the way back to the Dutch Golden Age in painting. It lights the product evenly, casts a soft-edged shadow that can be modified with a reflector, and gives a clean broad highlight on shiny surfaces like glazes. It’s universally appealing.
In the early days, the choice was between flash and tungsten. Flash had the advantage of speed that could catch any action, like gravy pouring or steam rising, and was cool (though the modelling light gives off some warmth). Tungsten’s advantage was being continuous light — you get exactly what you see — but at the cost of heat that wilts fresh leaves and melts ice-cream. Modern LED panels, however, are completely cool yet bright, and their colour temperature can be adjusted, making them perfect for a large proportion of food photography, and the LED Light LYKOS Bicolour is ideal.
This is now my standard lighting unit, and I use six. For my particular style of food lighting, I like to gang together four, behind a 600mmx400mm sheet of 3mm translucent acrylic for a large diffuse bank. You could also simply aim them on lighting stands (the 3-Pack Photo Master Stand, Air Cushioned Black Aluminium are ideal) through a freestanding sheet of acrylic diffuser, but personally, for rapid adjustment of position I like to mount them as one unit on a 190XPRO Aluminium 3-Section camera tripod and 500 Fluid Video Head with flat base. Admittedly, the fluid head is over-spec’d for just carrying a light, but it makes life easier. I use another one or two LYKOS units facing upward beneath a larger sheet of 5mm translucent acrylic, either as a sheet or as a preformed shooting table, as shown. I should also mention that the tripod of choice for a DSLR is the 055 carbon fibre 3-section photo tripod which can easily be set for an overhead position — one of the standard options for food photography.