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by Bart Arondson

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I'd like to get started in food photography, and my first attempts are worlds apart from the examples we see all around us on food labels, in cookbooks, and in advertising. What are some tips to someone getting started?

I know that background blurring and good color management is a good start, but I'm not sure about other things, e.g. lighting and styling.

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A wide aperture lens doesn't do background compression. It does background blurring (bokeh). You'll find that you'll need a pretty good close-up lens (perhaps even macro) and at those distances getting that shallow-depth-of-field effect isn't all that hard, even at less-than-wide apertures. I would invest in a light tent. That will get you the quickest results if you want to go for a high-key look. –  Dave Van den Eynde Aug 16 '10 at 17:48
    
I have heard that macro+focus stacking is best to get those perfect focus detailed shots. –  BBischof Aug 16 '10 at 18:57
    
On lighting: I've since learned from a professional food photographer that lighting for food is typically done from the rear or side. If looking overhead with the camera at 6 o'clock, the main light is typically at 1 o'clock, with a reflector around 7 o'clock for fill. –  jfklein13 Nov 4 '10 at 13:33
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See also photo.stackexchange.com/questions/12665/… –  mattdm Jun 16 '11 at 11:46

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Well there are two types of food photography: product shots (for menus), and food documentation for blogs, recipes etc.

Product shots are a whole different ball game. Often these "models" are constructed using materials that simulate the look and texture of the food--designed to stand up to rigors of product shots. For example, using lard to for shots Ice Cream--since Ice Cream melts quickly, it's hard to take multiple shots under hot lights. So the next time you're at a Burger King and you wonder why your Whopper looks nothing like what you see on the menu, it's because they used something like beets instead of tomatoes.

The other type, is more of a documentation style, in which you try to present dishes served in an appealing way. To me, this is more fun (since I'm a total foodie), so these tips are geared towards photographers who wish to document meals and dishes, as opposed to making images that look like food.

Here is the first attempt I made at food photography. Shot with a 5D2/Canon 50mm f1.4.
And here is the second attempt. Shot with a 5D2/Canon 50mm 2.0 Macro.

Some tips that have worked for me:

  • Natural light is so much better than flash. If you are shooting your own creations, place them on the table near a window during the day and get up on that lovely light!

  • Shoot the dishes right as they're plated. Since this isn't food science type, you don't have much time. Shoot the food quickly.

  • Shoot from a just-above table perspective. Photographs that look like images we see every day aren't as visually pleasing, so a top-down shot of a bowl of soup looks worlds apart from a shot from just above the table.

  • Gorilla Pod or Handholding. Since the 5D2 has awesome high-iso performance, I can shoot in dim lighting. If your camera doesn't have stellar high-iso, then invest in a gorilla pod, or other similar pocket tripod. Handholding is much easier to frame the shot in, so thats what I stick with.

  • Set the image properly. Move other dishes, glasses, and silverware in and out of the frame as desired. During the 35 courses at elBulli, I was constantly shifting things around to get an image I thought would be compelling.

  • Look for interesting angles. This may be personal preference, but food lends itself well to angles. For each dish you shoot, try a shot from a different angle.

From the techincal side of things:

  • I try to shoot with the largest aperture available to give a nice DOF, and to produce a nice bokeh (background blurring).

  • I use 50mm for a nice tight-crop of the dish.

  • Macro lenses will let you get a nice in-close focus of your subject.

Specific to photographing your own food:

  • Use a cloth to clean up any aberrant sauces, food particles etc. You can clean these up in post-process, but much faster if you don't have to.

  • Garnish is key. The sprinkle of green onions offer a nice contrast to a bowl of New England clam chowdah.

  • Think about your dishes. White dishes are fairly pleasing as they brighten up the dish, and give good contrast to the food contents.

  • Think about your table setting. White table cloths, like white dishes, will brighten up your image.

  • If you're at home, you can use your own tripod, and forgo buying a table top one.

Most importantly: Have fun. Food is a social experience that is so much more than just a combination of nutrients. Keep that in mind, enjoy your food, and have a good time taking pictures of what you're eating.

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Nice photos, were the second set natural lighting?! –  BBischof Aug 16 '10 at 18:59
    
The 2nd set was lit with the ambient light from the restaurant. –  Alan Aug 16 '10 at 19:05
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"Natural light is so much better than flash. If you are shooting your own creations, place them on the table near a window during the day and get up on that lovely light!" This should be double bold! :) My wife is a chef now and I was turning my photography skills to a food blog for her and I tried shooting in a studio setup but everything looked so fake. Then I tried shooting near a window, wow! Massive difference in lighting quality and 'tastiness'. chef.smugmug.com/Other/foods/9205999_h2kt3#1074722337_p4zUm –  Shizam Nov 4 '10 at 14:43
    
I d like to buy a new lens. The choice as i Understand is between a f/1.4 lens which are cheap, and zoom lens which are 3-4 times more expensive. i have cannon 550d. Do zoom lens produce much better results? Will I have great pictures with f/1.4? Could you please explain in details this issue? thanks –  john Jun 2 '11 at 21:16
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@John: In general, Primes produce much better results in nearly every aspect compared to Zoom's. For food photography, that general statement holds. I do all my food photography with 50mm primes. I experimented with a 50mm macro, and while close focus is nice, the extra light from my 50 1.4 more than compensated for it. –  Alan Jun 3 '11 at 17:36

Styling is an art unto itself when it comes to food photography. Essentially, you're basically not photographing food! For example, motor oil is often used as a substitute for various syrups, white glue for milk, and more.

The Photocritic website has a good rundown on some of the styling tricks used in food photography. Just be warned, you may never quite get hungry looking at those pictures again!

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2  
Glue for milk in cereal shots? That makes another reason they label it "Serving Suggestion". –  jfklein13 Aug 16 '10 at 19:04
    
Most people have no idea how fake most food product shots are! Hamburgers get as much fussing up as a fashion model. –  DarenW Feb 10 '11 at 17:53

I find in food photography a good trick is to frame tightly, so that some food or dish does not fit the frame entirely. It gives a a nice feeling of abundance.

For example (two random shots taken from the Flickr food group), for me this dish looks more attractive:

Shiitake Mushroom and Corn Quiche

And this dish looks less interesting:

Banana Bread French Toast

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Does the rule of thirds apply here? –  john Oct 7 '11 at 23:58

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