The art of food photography is a synergy of many things really. It involves your skills as a photographer, which in itself is a fusion between skills with a camera and your understanding of lighting. But it also involves culinary abilities as well as presentation skills. Culinary skills is not an absolute must have. You can always take help from family or friends to conjure something up. But presentation skills are very important. This is a specialized skill, much like photography or cooking. If you are serious about making a career in food photography you can either hire a specialist food stylist, which can be expensive though, or pick up a few skills of your own. As a food photographer you may not have a complete mastery over all of these skills. But certainly it does not harm you either to possess some knowledge. It is only going to improve you as a food photographer.
Lighting: Artificial and Natural
Natural light is wonderful. Being a natural light photographer I always prefer to shoot with it if it’s in abundance. In an open airy kitchen light is usually abundant. But not all photographers have access to a large open airy kitchen. If there is a problem with shooting inside the kitchen, bring a table out on the patio or garden and shoot under the open sky. Alternatively, you could use a large window in the living room. I would still use a few accessories like a couple of light stands holding up a diffuser cloth. It works to reduce the intensity of light. In other situations you can use artificial daylight balanced lights. LED lights produce soft, white light which is ideal for that purpose. I would also use a diffuser, white cloth and some props. More on that later.
Bringing out textures vs. creating a soft low contrast look
Different types of food items require different lighting approaches. You need a slightly contrasty lighting effect for certain food. A glass of wine for example, cannot be done justice with using a large soft light source. You need at least two lights and use grids to focus the light. For other types of food, however, you need a softer, more uniform lighting source. One that produces less contrast.
Contrasting lighting can be achieved by positioning the key light slightly away from the subject of your photo and preferably placed at a steeper angle. I personally prefer placing the light a little towards the back of the food. This does two things really. First it creates a glistening reflection on the top of the food, which is perfect for certain items like crisp French fries, grilled chicken etc., but it also tend to pop the colors. But above all it increases contrast in your images.
If you don’t have too much of artificial light don’t worry. As already stated, natural light is good enough to start making excellent food photos. At the most you need a large window which preferably do not receive too much of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight isn’t suitable for photographing all types of food, except when you need to deliberately get some high contrast going. A large window is the ideal source for a diffused light source. Diffused source is ideal for soft, shadow-less images.
The camera angle can accentuate or deflate an image very easily. So, it is important to get the camera angle correct. There are two choices really. Going in from a steep angle or going in from a low angle. The decision is yours, no doubt, but the kind of food you photograph somewhat compels you to shoot in a specific way. A few simple techniques you can adopt –
For flat, almost two-dimensional food such as an omelet and toast breakfast, or a grilled steak, or pancakes or even a freshly baked cheese and macaroni pizza, choose a steep or high angle. You can also choose to shoot from directly overhead. Since these items are almost flat texture and colors are to be highlighted along with attention on their presentation rather than size and dimension.
Larger items like a cake or a club sandwich or a burger can be shot from a low angle, accentuating their size. When shooting a club sandwich or a burger you need to keep in mind a couple of things. Shooting from top will almost always focus on the top layer. That means the fillings and the other layers never get any attention. That’s not something that you would want.
I love shooting ingredients. Indian food is all about spices and various rich flavors. We tend to use roasted masalas and seeds quite a lot in our culinary delicacies. This is something that makes for interesting image ideas.
Zoom in, zoom in and zoom in. I can’t overemphasize this thing any further. The whole idea of food photography is to make the food look super enticing and super exciting. For that you need to be able to zoom in really close and entice the viewer as if he can smell or even taste the food. If you don’t have a macro lens choose a point & shoot camera with a built-in macro mode. These cameras always remain favorite for their versatility. The built-in macro mode is very good.
Don’t attempt at capturing the whole plate with the food. If there is only one item that deserves the attention of the viewer, then experiment with the camera angle. I have a personal inclination to fill only about three-quarters of the frame with the food and leaving the last quarter empty.
If you have a decent macro lens you can choose to play around with your depth of field. I, personally, love to play around with the depth of field of my food photos. Depth of field refers to how much of the frame is going to be in sharp focus. There are some undocumented rules though and some optical limitations. Such as, when you are shooting from a top angle and the camera is almost parallel to the table. In this situation the plane of focus is parallel to the subject and the whole of the frame is going to be in focus.
This is however not applicable for all situations. Let’s say that you have made a nice big club sandwich, and the background is not exciting at all. You could change the background and shoot with a larger f-number. Alternatively, since you don’t need the background, you can chose to shoot with a small f-number, and using selective focusing methods create a shallow depth of field.
Sometimes the angle at which you shoot from along with the space behind the food determines the depth of field. Let’s say in the example above, when shooting an omelet you don’t have too much room behind the food. If you shoot from directly overhead the entire frame will be in focus. If you shoot from an angle anything other than 90 ˚ you can choose to have some of the frame to be out of focus. I sometimes play around with the angle of the food, the composition, and the depth of field combinations to create a composition that’s ideal for the kind of food that I am shooting.
Let’s say there are an array of freshly grinded masalas that I want to photograph. I will arrange them in a flat array so that I can get an overhead shot that has a large depth of field. If on the other hand if I am shooting a bunch of cupcakes I would select a small f-number, compose so that I get a tight framing, place the cupcake that I about to focus on around the sweet spot (rule of thirds apply here) and leave the rest of the cupcakes in the background out of focus.
image credits: Michael Stern