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Food photography for the novice

Your first attempt should be kept simple and natural


For your first set-up, you will need a flat surface such as a tabletop, and a broad light source, in this case daylight through a window. The muffin tray is just one food subject easily photographed with such a simple set-up.
For your first set-up, you will need a flat surface such as a tabletop, and a broad light source, in this case daylight through a window. The muffin tray is just one food subject easily photographed with such a simple set-up.

Everyone seems to enjoy looking at attractive photographs of delicious-looking food. Many photographers would like to try their hand at taking such pictures. If you have never set up a food display and taken a picture of it before - one that you are proud of, that is - but you want to give it a try, this article is for you.

Whenever you try anything new, it is best to take small steps at the start. That is what we are going to do in this example, permitting you to grasp basic concepts one at a time.

Begin your first attempt at food photography with a simple set-up - one you can arrange in minutes in your home. You will need a flat surface. A table or bench is just right. We will assume you don't have studio lighting equipment, just a camera, whether a simple point-and-shoot or one with many features. We will use daylight through a window as your main light source. Locate your table as close to the window as you can.

You will, of course, need food to photograph. For our example picture, we chose easily-recognizable items that were at hand (see below) - two croissants, a couple of ripe strawberries, jelly and a dab of butter. You may select similar food items or altogether different ones, but it is best to keep them simple. Select items that naturally belong together, but that contrast with one another in color, texture and size. Ideally, they will have an interesting or unsual shape or appearance to add greater appeal to your display. Be sure the items look fresh, ripe and edible, and contain no flaws that you can't conceal.


A word of caution - Some of the added substances and methods of preparation employed in some professional food photography render the food inedible. We are not going to use any item or technique that will prevent you from eating the food afterwards. But, if you use food that requires refrigeration or that may quickly spoil, we caution you to not keep out it for so long that it may go bad. If you do, be sure to discard any that is no longer suitable as food. It is safer to choose food that can withstand being at room temperature and exposed to the air without negative effects.

THE ADDED TOUCH

Consider including a moderate amount of colorful spices, condiments or other fitting food accompaniments. Nothing complicated. Just everyday food additives that would normally be associated with your main choice in food. If, for example, you have decided to photograph sliced tomatoes along with some attractive lettuce leaves, then salt and pepper, a daub of mayonnaise or olive oil, and perhaps even a sprinkling of flaked green herbs may give the added touch to your display. For inspiration, think of how a top chef creates that extra visual appeal for an entrée by the judicious sprinkling of an accent item on top of the dish or around it on the serving platter, without overdoing it.

This is the end result, using our set-up. The objective is for your picture to share many of this one's characteristics.
This is the end result, using our set-up. The objective is for your picture to share many of this one's characteristics.

An example of a fairly pleasing, but simple display that includes basic props. Notice how the colors in the flowers complement the colors in the bowl.
An example of a fairly pleasing, but simple display that includes basic props. Notice how the colors in the flowers complement the colors in the bowl.

PROPS - AS ESSENTIAL AS THE FOOD

Now, it's time to think of the best props to employ to construct an attractive display. The choice is almost endless. A wooden chopping block, a platter or bowl, a serving tray or just a paper napkin can be used to contain the food. Whatever you choose, it should not look out of place considering your food selection. Chopsticks, for instance, would not normally be seen with a hot dog.

The first prop to consider is the one that will become the immediate background - a covering for the table or whatever flat surface you use. It can be a tablecloth, a placemat or just the surface itself, especially if it has character or will improve the appearance of the display. We chose a lace table covering, but you might think a checkered cloth or a woven placemat is better suited for your setup. At this early point in your food photography, we recommend against a shiny vinyl, metal or plastic material, or anything that might have reflective problems for you to contend with. We also caution against the use of any material that too closely matches the color or appearance of items in the picture, unless you are sure it will work. Contrasting colors and textures will make your food items stand out more.

You can employ a formal table setting, if it seems suitable. Or just a simple knife, spoon or a fork (or chopsticks). If you wish to add a touch of color using flowers, a colorful napkin that matches the display, or a side bowl or small plate, that is fine. Just be sure it is suited to your composition and does not look out of place. If it begins to look cluttered, it probably is. You will need to remove some items, or re-arrange your composition for better visual harmony.


LET'S TAKE A PICTURE

Using your sense of composition, arrange your food display so that it appears well-balanced and makes the food look attractive. You are not out to win a food stylist's award (at least, not yet); you just want to have a pleasing-looking arrangement that will photograph well. Choose a camera angle that seems suited to the composition. In some cases, this may mean shooting straight down from directly above, but a bird's-eye view generally requires more experience through trial-and-error to carry off effectively. For this exercise, you may want to select a camera angle that reflects the perspective of a diner seated at the table, which is somewhere between 30° and 45°.

Lighting from the window should be spilling over your display from behind it, so that highlights are created on the upper surfaces. These are very important for three-dimensionality and the essential "sparkle" or sheen that typifies much good food photography.

Select a digital sensitivity setting or film speed of ISO 100. Now, make sure your subject is in focus and that you have the right settings for overall proper exposure and the appropriate depth of field, and trip the shutter. Use a tripod if your shutter speed is too slow for hand-holding. The resulting picture will probably look something like the image at right. You will be able to check your image right away if you have a digital or Polaroid camera. Our first picture (seen on the right) looks "okay," but needs improvement to be a good food photo.

The first attempt, a straightforward exposure using daylight illumination from the window. Not bad, but pale-looking and in need of a better camera angle.
The first attempt, a straightforward exposure using daylight illumination from the window. Not bad, but pale-looking and in need of a better camera angle.

The jelly seems to be sliding off the spoon. A small amount added to the front took care of the problem.
The jelly seems to be sliding off the spoon. A small amount added to the front took care of the problem.

KEEP AN EYE ON THE DETAILS

We picked up on a minor problem with the picture from our first attempt. The tip of the spoon was bare (as shown in the upper image on the left), making it look as if the jelly was in motion, sliding off towards the handle.We would like to say we spotted it just after the picture was taken, but, like many pictures digitally photographed, the spoon was too small in our camera's viewscreen when we checked the image for us to notice this detail right away. We corrected it later with image-editing software. You will notice we also brightened up the strawberries a bit.

Let's go back to correcting the first exposure above. We adjusted our camera angle and moved around a bit more to the left. We placed a uniformly yellow-orange card a few inches in front of the display, out of camera range, to reflect window light onto the subject. The reflected light cast a warm glow, adding needed tonal change, increasing the natural gold-brown colors of the croissants. That seemed to do the trick.

By slightly underexposing our next shot, we ended up with a rich-looking photograph of the croissants. But the new exposure setting caused the strawberries to become a little too dark, a problem quickly fixed on computer with our image editor. By carefully aiming a second, smaller reflector that is white or silver, we could have achieved a similar brightening effect when taking the picture.

Your own particular set-up, degree of window lighting, food choice and other variables will undoubtedly be different, but the same basic principles will apply. The importance of using a reflector should not be under-emphasized. Your reflector might need to be red, gold or green in color depending on your subject's coloration, but a white or silver reflector will often be just as capable of improving frontal lighting. The extra illumination it provides will likely cause your camera's automatic light meter to adjust the exposure for richer overall tones.


ON-CAMERA FLASH

You may wonder what would happen if we had used our camera's flash rather than a reflector. We suggest you try it, turning on your on-camera flash for a shot of your food display, then you can judge for yourself how it compares.

We did, just to show you the effect. Our flash picture is on the right, at the top. Not a bad picture, but not a top-quality food photo. It is fundamentally lifeless, lacking the appeal of the picture beneath it that was taken without on-camera flash, which has enhanced three-dimensionality, and warmth and texture that back-lighting from the window and reflected frontal light provided.

THIS EXAMPLE SHOULD GET YOU STARTED

Your pictures of uncomplicated food displays will look pretty good if you employ the basic tips and techniques described here.

As time goes on and you become more experienced, you will naturally want to improve upon your food pictures, eventually getting into prepared dishes that are delicate in nature and require careful handling to photograph at their best.

EXPERIMENT

Don't be afraid to experiment as you go along - with side-lighting, colored lights, additional reflectors, new camera angles, shallow focus using minimal depth of field, dark or exotic backgrounds, hot foods and complex compositions, to list just some of the changes you can introduce. If the pictures you produce look appetizing enough to make you feel you want to eat the food, you have achieved your main objective.

The picture on top shows our food display photographed using on-camera flash as the main light source. The flash's strong light easily overpowered the window illumination. The result is flat and far from appetizing. The lower picture shows our final shot.
The picture on top shows our food display photographed using on-camera flash as the main light source. The flash's strong light easily overpowered the window illumination. The result is flat and far from appetizing. The lower picture shows our final shot.
Further information...

Food that looks good enough to eat

Problem picture #5
Related topics...

Simple home studio

Reflectors