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I have often marveled (and gotten hungry) at the beautiful pictures in the blog Smitten Kitchen. It documents mostly baking recipe, and chocolate spreads, ganaches, and pure molten chocolate are often present. On the the blogger's pictures, it looks glossy, shiny and yummy. It is smooth, but has a discernible texture caused by the pouring/spreading. See for example this chocolate peanut butter cake post, and the chocolate stout cake post.

The only time I tried to photograph chocolate, I ended up with

bad chocolate picture

Note that it had looked just like hers in my kitchen (this is very dark chocolate, probably 85%). I also made sure that the white balance is more or less correct (that's what the white t-shirt in the corner was for). The color is still unappealing, and the surface looks terrible. (I am aware that the composition and the smearing of the chocolate on the glass bowl are a bad idea, but assume that I will avoid them next time).

How could I have made it silky-smooth and mouthwatering instead?

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Just ship it to me and I'll eat it. No questions. –  Paul Cezanne Feb 15 '12 at 19:24
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As an aside, it looks like the chocolate may have seized slightly –  Rowland Shaw Feb 15 '12 at 20:30
    
@RowlandShaw don't you dare saying such things about my chocolate, it is always perfectly tempered. (The times it isn't don't count, because I don't photograph it then) –  rumtscho Feb 15 '12 at 21:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Let's start with the obvious, which you already know: Smitten Kitchen's photos firstly look good because they show off good food. Your photo looks unappealing because it's a pile of chocolate smeared in a bowl. Presentation is such an important part to making food look good -- if you can make it look good to eat in real life, then you at least have the opportunity to take a good photo of it.

Shooting into the bowl creates a technical problem that your photo shows off: the bowl is deep and harder to light evenly. This was a problem for Smitten Kitchen, too: both of the linked recipes have photos of bowls in them, but notice how they're different from your shot: she got closer to the bowls so that they can be more evenly lit and she positioned the camera so that you are less likely to notice the difference. Also notice the content of the bowl: yours is swirled and showing all sorts of highlights; hers is smooth and flowing.

"Get closer" is a great mantra. Somebody famous said "if it's not interesting, you're not close enough." Get closer. Crop out the table top. Put that chocolate up-front, perhaps larger-than-life. As you noted, this is how you found the smooth but noticeable texture of the chocolate.

How are you lighting this? I would start by setting a softbox directly over the bowl to light it, which would give some soft diffused light. It occurs to me that having the white balance ever so slightly warm could make this more enticing; I'd note it for later because I always fiddle with white balance in post.

Also of note: Smitten Kitchen shares some photography tips.

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+1 - Great answer! –  rfusca Feb 15 '12 at 19:03
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+1 - nice answer. The famous somebody was Robert Capa, incidentally. –  ElendilTheTall Feb 15 '12 at 19:27
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Good to know where that quote comes from. I will promptly forget it. –  Dan Wolfgang Feb 15 '12 at 19:41

Putting it on a surface (like a cake) would be a start. That bowl is doing you no favors - it's casting shadows on half of it, and acting like a parabolic mirror to reflect glare off the surfaces, which is why it looks so bright.

I'd suggest a lower angle of view, with more diffuse light above and behind the subject. Light from the side (or behind) will bring out the texture more. Diffuse light will result in softer, creamier look to the surface, rather than harsh highlights.

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While the bowl may be causing problems in my case, I don't think that "remove the bowl" is a generally valid solution. The same blogs has some beautiful examples of chocolate photographed in a bowl, e.g. smittenkitchen.com/2011/04/heavenly-chocolate-cake-roll –  rumtscho Feb 15 '12 at 18:49
    
They've shot straight down, with what looks like diffuse light (off a white ceiling?) plus some highlights. If you can get some soft light (window or ceiling) as fill, then pop some flash in from the side I think you'll get a better look. I have no answer for why theirs is so much darker. Is the color of yours not representative of the way it actually looks to the eye? –  MikeW Feb 15 '12 at 19:07
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None of those pictures show food in a bowl. They are all on a plate. The overhead of chocolate in a bowl, is showing you the bowl filled to the top with swirls in it. –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Feb 15 '12 at 20:07
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@KendallHelmstetterGelner no, it is nowhere near full. The spatula is around 5 cm wide, and it is standing diagonally here, so the chocolate on the stove is probably 6-7 cm below the rim. It is only the perspective which doesn't show the pot walls. –  rumtscho Feb 15 '12 at 21:21
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That's still way different than being many inches inside a mostly empty bowl. It's still a flat surface (with most of the sides as they are lost at that angle) as opposed to a curved surface. It's still high enough the light falls evenly across the surface instead of being shadowed by the edges, plus it looks from the highlights as though they used flash from above... –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Feb 15 '12 at 21:28

You've already gotten some advice about how to change the shooting. I'd note, however, that you can probably improve things at least a little bit just by adjusting your processing a bit. In this case, you've adjusted the white balance, but most of the chocolate is just way too bright. It takes only a minor adjustment to at least make it look something like chocolate instead of almost like some sort of strange caramel:

enter image description here

Now, it's certainly true that the uneven lighting makes it hard to get this even close to what you probably want. Right now, the left side (toward the rim of the bowl in particular) is still pretty light colored, but the right side (in the shadow) is so dark we can no longer see any detail. Obviously, you need much more even lighting.

Also note that darkening the chocolate makes the highlights (e.g., bottom of the bowl, left of center) stand out quite a bit more. This is a large part of what makes us perceive something as smooth and shiny. Something that's "soft" or "fuzzy" will generally have highlights that are very muted and spread out. A smoother, shinier surface will generally show highlights that are somewhat smaller and much more clearly delineated.

Assuming this is closer to what you're hoping for, the mechanics of it are pretty simple. For this exercise, I used Photoshop. Its "Levels" dialog" started out looking like this:

enter image description here

I adjusted that to this:

enter image description here

That's it -- nothing else involved at all (in this particular case). Of course, I'm only taking a wild guess at how dark the chocolate really is, but at 85%, I'd guess this is at least a lot closer. If anything it's probably even darker than I've placed it, but it's hard to guess exactly how much darker it might really be. Like I said earlier though, at least this way it does look like chocolate...

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I liked the part about the dull highlights making surfaces less shiny - makes sense when you think of it, I just don't yet have the right mindset to arrive at such thoughts by myself –  rumtscho Feb 16 '12 at 13:27

I don't have any experience photographing chocolate but there are several thing that just jump at me from the pictures on Smitten Kitchen.

  • Chocolate on a surface looks way better than chocolate in a bowl, there are good chocolate in a bowl pictures on the blog but they are never as good as the picture right next to it showing it on the cake.

  • In all the chocolate in a bowl pictures on the blog the bowl is nearly full - this helps with the the lighting (you don't have such a deep hole to light) and with the smearing (some smearing on the edges may make the picture look more authentic but a bowl full of smearing just looks bad).

  • Put a spoon or something in the bowl, your chocolate looks hard a spoon sunk in the chocolate would make it look like a liquid, a spoon in the process of sinking would make it look soft and fluid, so will a spoon above the bowl with chocolate dripping from it (but a spoon resting on top of the chocolate would make it look worse).

  • Change your angle, all the chocolate melted in a pot pictures on the blog are shot from strait above and the picture in chocolate roll post are shot from a very low angle - the middle of the road angle you used is not helping you (try from above showing the entire bowl or very close from a low angle, but fill the bowl first).

  • And last and definitely least important - If you want to get the correct color for dark chocolate use your exposure compensation, switch the camera to spot metering mode, make sure you are metering only on the chocolate and adjust you exposure compensation down, about -2 stops will make it black - but probably too black, take a series of pictures at 1/3 stop difference all the way from -1/3 to -2 and choose the one you like on the computer (the camera LCD is worthless for this, trust me) you only have to make this experiment once and you can use the same compensation value for all future dark chocolate pictures forever.

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Add some butter when melting the chocolate and melt it very slowly above boiling water and that will make it more liquid. For colour use darker chocolate with higher amounts of cacao.

I'd recommend watching videos of "Fat duck's" chef Herston Blumental for inspiration.

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The question was about how to use the best possible technique for documenting existing chocolate creations, not how to create more photogenic chocolate. –  rumtscho Jan 7 '13 at 14:55

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