In the realm of commercial photography, food photography is a relatively new subject yet one of the quickest evolving. Owing to the rise of “Instagramable” images, the endeavor is to capture food in its most appetizing form. We often hear people say “you eat with your eyes first” and that’s exactly the job of a food photographer – Make the food look devoursome!
With the rise of social media, came the rise of several niches in photography. However “food photography” as a genre really took off.
#food is one of the widely used hashtags in the Instagram world. That is around 352 million posts!
Food photographers are expected to deliver both print quality photos and digital images. However, digital is the strongest hook today since we often hear clients speaking about posting the images on Facebook, Instagram or their website!
There’s a lot of focus on the photographer since the professional is entrusted to build imagery. The client expects you to capture the most complex dishes in a way that makes it look appetizing! The elements that make a food photograph great ranges from the lighting, props to styling.
Understanding the What the Client Want
For a client to invest in photography services the most common use is advertising – be it online or offline. With e-commerce, there has been a surge in the requirement of images shot against a “white backdrop” where essentially a food item is shot in the same way as a product photo. Clients use these images on their website or different restaurant aggregator sites. White background shot are also easy to use in graphic design, menus, and in-store branding material.
On the other hand, there are clients who come up with requirements of executing a food shoot specifically for social media! It’s here where the importance of props and style becomes even more important. Another requirement, that emerges often is food photography for editorial coverage. In most of such cases, the images that are shot for social media purpose are leveraged for editorial coverage as well.
However clear the client brief is, some food items may not ever look good or appetising in a plain white setting backdrop. In these cases, the photographer may have to resort to a minimally stylized shot.
For a comprehensive guide to food photography, you can check out this resource over at Pixpa.
Essential Equipment of Food Photography
As a professional, one is always intrigued to know the kind of gear the peers possess to assess what makes an image so good.
Which Camera to Use for Food Photography?
Unless one has to blow up the image to the size of a billboard, any semi-pro Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) and above should suffice for a food shoot.
They say the camera is just a tool to shoot which our mind envisions and hence not so important. However, a good quality camera would make the image better in terms of quality and usability. A smartphone is still no match for a good DSLR if you want to capture great quality images.
The Best Lenses for Food Photography
As food tends to be smaller in size (as compared to products and humans) the choice of lens is also quite simple. You can capture almost anything food related with a focal length ranging from 24 mm to 200 mm. In most of the cases, one has to zoom in a lot to shoot food hence professionals prefer using any lens with a focal length above 70mm but this is not a set rule. To get wider shots professionals sometimes go as low as 35mm considering the frame and items of be captured. A quick tip here, a faster lens (F1.4 to F3.6) would work wonderfully in terms of a food shoot as it gives you an option to play around with the depth of field while still maintain the quality of the image.
A tripod is an essential instrument in food photography while shooting for longer exposures (shutter speed of 1/30 and below). At slower shutter speeds, one tends to have a difficult time keeping their arms stable which might result in shaky images. A tripod is a must for stable and crisp images above a certain shutter speed.
The Best Lighting Options for Food Photography?
As good as natural light is for shooting, it isn’t always available and/or controllable. For this specific reason, good quality light modifiers are required to evenly light the image. How you should light a subject in food photography is mostly the dependent of the following:
- Brand Guidelines – Darker or Brighter tones
- Type of Cuisine – Not a thumb rule though, but some type of dishes come out very well when shot with a tinge of dark tones (Italian cuisine) while others look appealing when the image has a lot of brightness. This is true for juices and South Asian dishes. Again, this isn’t a thumb rule, the photographer can use all the creativity in terms of lighting.
A professional would usually use a single source of light with the right modifiers and reflectors to light the image. Contrary to belief, shadows play a very important role in giving the image and the subject in it the requisite depth and size impact usually required for a certain kind of food (cakes and pastries)
Composition and Camera Settings in Food Photography
The Best Angles for Food Photography
This again is one of those things that is not a thumb rule to be followed but one can be creative in terms of the angle of view. As a general rule, flat items like pizza’s and flatbreads are shot from a 90-degree angle or a top shot as used widely in the industry.
Any food item like Wraps, Sushi etc where the depth and height need to be emphasized, one needs to shoot at an angle of anywhere between 30 degrees to 60 degrees. Again, these are not rules you have to obey. You can play around with angles as you want.
One thing to always take care of is that the whole food item should be shown irrespective of the angle used. Picturing a whole food item gives the audience an understanding of what they are buying into or ordering to.
You have likely seen many images where the pizza or the curry form up one half of the image and the other half as some other food item or left blank. It is your choice as a photographer, but make sure that the essentials of the dish are captured. I.e for a pizza the essentials would be the amount of cheese and its toppings. For a curry the color and consistency of the liquid are essential.
How to Use Negative Space in Food Photography
As much as filling a frame is important in photography, it is also important to know what space should be kept blank in order to direct the viewer to see the subject rather than the blank frame. Negative space is generally used in 90-degree shots as it helps in giving a distinct perspective to any image. Keep too much space and one tends to lose the objective of the image, keep too little space and one tends to lose the aspect of negative space in the image.
With respect to negative space, always trust your eye, if the space feels “blank” then it is so, trust your instinct.
What Shutter Speed and Depth of Field to Use in Food Photography?
Another avenue to experiment and explore! A slower shutter speed is great when one needs to capture a fluid-like motion. A faster shutter helps capture amazing action shots (flames or tossing vegetables).
Depth of field or as many like to address it as “the background blur effect” has its own takers. Many times, you don’t need to have the whole image in focus. A blurred background (even foreground) helps the viewer to concentrate on the food item which needs to be highlighted.
A quick note here: Excess blurring would lead to items in the frame being obsolete hence they won’t have the requisite impact as they would have otherwise. It’s a fine line between a very shallow depth of field vs the apt depth of field (one where the objects blurred still have relevance).
Styling and Props That Lifts Your Food Photography
Styling food is very distinct from plating! Plating is largely the job of a chef, it’s the way a dish is presented. On the other side, styling is accessorizing the dish to make it visually palpable. Food styling involves elements like backdrops and props.
The importance of a backdrop can never be understated! Backdrops add the much-needed glamour to an image. A good backdrop does its job silently- imparts an aesthetic look without stealing the attention from the subject, so the food the star of the show. A backdrop should be a contrast to the subject and overall setting. Alongside the contrast, its essential the textures and tones of a backdrop are not distracting enough. An easy way to start exploring backdrops is to start with regular colored papers and slowly graduate to specialized backdrops, which are available in abundance online. Another way to explore backdrops is by creating a DIY Backdrop
Anything that enhances an image aesthetically, can be used as a prop. A prop for a food photography assignment could be the ingredients, some table elements like salt pepper shakers, forks, spoons or some kitchen elements like ingredients, utensils, etc. While deploying props, the balance has to be maintained – a balance of the props in context to the food. The props are to add imagery to the dish and not overpower the subject.
The props deployed need to be relevant to the setting – A kitchen setting has to have props relevant to a kitchen and likewise for others. When in doubt on props, the easiest and safest to rescue is using food ingredients which predominate the dish.
Well, seldom the idea would be to focus only on the food dish and refrain from using elements in the photograph. However, this is a very personal choice, a professional makes and to an extent it’s about the professional’s style and the subject demands. A well-plated food will rarely require allied styling elements, the focus is to photograph the food in its truest essence.
Everything said and done, all images were taken as per the client expectations, every angle covered, every style tried, post-production plays a very important role when it comes to food shots.
Not all the images would be clean in terms of cutlery or background, there are chances that the image one feels is the best, might for some unforeseen reason have distractions (this happens in case one doesn’t tether the camera to a laptop). Some food items have a very dull undertone during the shoot, and color correction plays a major role in food shots because of this.
The final image has to show the food in its truest form in terms of color and substance hence pay close attention while editing the images so as to keep everything constant and consistent with the brand.
Want to learn more?
To sum it up, food photography requires effort to make food look visually appealing and creating a visual gastronomic fanfare. As long as the image captures the food rightly and balance the allied elements, there are no right or wrong premises. Each cuisine comes with its own set of challenges and that’s precisely what makes it engaging. As you progress, you will develop your own style of shooting, which goes on to become your professional “signature style”
Neel Vyas is an India based commercial photographer specializing in food, people and still life. A chartered accountant by qualification and a photographer by passion is what best describes him.