As the world of food blogging gains in popularity, you start to notice certain things about the ones that stand out. The most obvious way they make you take notice is their food photography. Well known blogs like Steamy Kitchen, Rasa Malaysia, and Smitten Kitchen stun you with their photos that make you absolutely convinced they must be highly trained professional photographers and there's no way you could ever take photos as drool worthy. Or perhaps you want to rush out and use up the last of your credit card balance on expensive photo equipment or a new camera. Don't be ashamed, I've had the same urges! But fortunately, I resisted (mostly because I knew my husband would not be a fan of us going into debt) and decided to do some research. I found ways to improve my photography and though I'm certainly not an expert, I'm excited to share the things that I've learned in my food photography journey. As you can see, I've definitely improved from my very first food photo a year ago, to the photos I take now. I mean really, could you even tell one was a quiche?
The first tip I learned about food photography is that it's all about the lighting. You can't rely on your basic overhead lighting or camera flash, one's not enough light, the other is too harsh. Your best bet is natural light, coming in a window. I take most of my pictures on the dining room table where the sun shines in the morning and early afternoon, or the bathroom floor where it shines in the late afternoon and evening. You don't want to be directly in the light which will cause harsh shadows and severe contrast, so if the sun is actually shining directly through your window, set up your food just outside where the direct light falls.
Now don't stop with a strong light source, you typically need light coming from more than one direction to fill in shadows. There are a few ways to do this but one of my favorites is simply cookie sheets covered in foil. You can prop them up between canned goods and use 1-3 to reflect light onto your food. I also got a large white foam board from a craft store for under a dollar that is great for bouncing light onto your food.
Some other lighting options that I haven't tried yet, but know work from reading other blogs, are making your own light box, and using multiple desk or work lights up close with the same bulb type (you don't want to use different types or your colors will be off). I've made myself a couple of photography lights using daylight bulbs for taking photos at night, but I still prefer natural light.
Another tip is to really look at how your photo is composed before you even get your food out there. This is very important for those of us who are planning to serve the food we're photographing (isn’t that all food bloggers?) because it saves time and keeps your food from getting cold. I just stick the empty dish where I think I want it, set my camera on a tripod and look at the shot. You should definitely use a tripod, I got a nice one for $15 from Craigslist and I've seen some at Goodwill too. The tiniest shake of your hands can ruin your photo, and with a tripod you can set your shot up ahead of time.
It can make a huge difference in the quality of your photo. It’s also great to set a 2 sec timer so that you’re not even touching the camera when the photo’s taken. Decide if you'll be in extreme focus on just the food (if so you definitely need a macro setting on your camera, or a macro lens if you have an SLR) or if you'll be showing a little bit of what's around the food (like silverware, a drink, flowers, placemat, or other props).
You don’t have to use a plain white dish, but you want to make sure any color or pattern compliments the food rather than taking attention away from it. The same goes for your props, you want the food to be the first thing the eye is drawn to, if your props or background are distracting, move them, trade them for something else, or try it without them. Use some paper or something to mark where your dish is before you remove it to plate your food. Once your food is on the dish, make sure to look at your composition again. You may need to make slight changes because of the height, shape or color of your food.
Before you put your food on the dish, think about food styling. It takes practice to find the difference between boring and overdone. Play with different colors and textures of food, as well as arranging your food in different levels. A plain green salad can be boring, but if you add some different colored vegetables, croutons or cheese, it makes it interesting to look at. Instead of simply putting your steak on a plate, try slicing it and fanning or arranging it over wild rice or a quinoa salad. When using rice or other grains on a plate, you may want to press it into a small bowl or cup first then turn it over onto the plate for a neater look. Keep an eye out for drips, spills or smudges of food. Sometimes it looks great and natural, sometimes it’s simply messy. If your plate is too neat you might want to add some drips, streaks, or crumbs, or perhaps spread the food out differently.
Sometimes small plates are better for food photography because your shot won’t be filled with empty space on the plate. You can also play with garnishes to add some color and interest to your photo, but make sure the garnish fits the food; you can put a sprig of parsley on the plate next to your chicken, but it would not make any sense next to a slice of cake. You can use herbs, slices of fruits or vegetables, grapes, spices, or anything else you can think of. I tend to use parsley for savory dishes because it keeps well in the fridge, and I love the look of citrus zest because it’s so colorful. Don’t just practice food styling when you plan to photograph the food, it only takes an extra minute or two to make your food look good before serving it and the more you practice the more confidence you’ll gain.
The best advice I’ve received from every photographer I’ve studied or asked is to practice. Take LOTS of pictures of your food and keep track of what techniques you try with which pictures so you can know what works and what doesn’t. Study photos that you admire. Sites like Tastespotting, Foodgawker, and Photograzing are pages and pages of food photos and are full of creative ways to photograph a variety of dishes. There are also a lot of great books on photography, plating food, and food styling. Keep in mind some food styling books contain techniques that render food inedible, but they can have valuable tips on arrangement and lighting. I’ve also checked out a lot of books from my local library on digital photography, lighting, and macro photography. You can read up on editing digital photos, but if you take great photos, you don’t need to do as much with them afterwards. I hope my discoveries have helped give you some ideas, now go take some photos!