I know I’ll sound superficial when I say this, but I think investing in a good camera is (one of) the first step to taking good food photographs. Since a major part of it is about capturing the different details of a dish, you’d want a camera that will do it justice.
- In terms of lenses, as far as general food photography is concerned, standard ones will suffice especially when paired with manual focus manipulation.
- Tripod and reflectors are handy, but not necessary if you have steady hands and live in a well-lit area.
My equipment: Canon EOS 400D. No other additional equipments.
Background: A wooden table
Light Source: Sunlight diffused by double plexiglass window panes.
Lighting is crucial:
- Food photographers usually use diffuse light and this can either be natural or artificial and you can almost always tell by looking at the end photos.
- In terms of light source for food photography, sunlight beats them all. There’s nothing quite like it because it just illuminates the food in all the right places, although beware of shooting outdoor as the sunlight can get too harsh and “flatten” an image or cast strong shadows (this is where reflectors - car window reflector, home-made reflector [see how to make one yourself below] or bought ones) are handy.
Props: Inexpensive plates, silverware and basic kitchen tools and equipments.
Methodology, Cheats & Secret Handshakes of Basic Food Photography:
This is simply to introduce the basics of food photography to fellow novice photographers, primarily those with the availability of low-moderate lighting from natural sources (a.k.a. windowze). There’s no talk about ISO, DOF or apertures in this and all the pictures here have not gone through post-editing just to illustrate the points made.
Now that that’s clear, let’s get down to the general rules and know-hows of basic food photography.
#1: Know your limitations - Lighting & Space.
Knowing what source of lighting and space dimensions are available to you is a key step in determining expectations on how your photos will look.
Let me show you my work space:
Light source: the blinding light is a glare - it’s not actually that bright. It’s from an almost floor-to-ceiling double plexiglass panes. It’s also the only light source in the room.
Space & Surface area available: my wood table is about 1 metre long and 40cm wide, give or take a few cm. There’s a 22cm space between my photography table and my actual desk, where I stand to take the photographs.
VERDICT: Relatively poor lighting, limited space.
The majority of home photographers who have no designated room for photography will encounter this problem, so here’s how to make do with this situation.
What should you aim for?
Knowing the available means to me, I know I won’t be aiming for a studio-like photography - where the white background looks solid due to the stronger light source and there are no shadows cast due to the reflectors.
If it’s possible, try to take your photographs with natural lighting, as it will give a significantly different result to indoor lighting (everyone has a window, right?)
When I take a picture with a white background in the available lighting, it will look something like this:
Not very pretty, is it?
If you have a low light source, I suggest backing it up with a dark surface, be it with wood panels or backdrops (avoid shiny surfaces!). It will hide the shadows cast by the object, and will provide the needed contrast.
If you still insist on achieving the studio look, then you can either:
- Buy a light source (this is a must, unless your natural light is bright enough)
- Buy a reflector, OR
- Make a reflector:
You’ll need a piece of cardboard. Just go out to the garage and cut up an old cardboard box. The size of your new reflector is only limited by the size of the box.
You’ll need some aluminum foil for a silver reflector, or some white paper for a white reflector (like the one I made below)
Get your piece of cardboard and spray an even coat of the adhesive over one side
Cut off a piece of foil or white paper larger than the cardboard, and lay it on top. Smooth it out with your hands to spread out the adhesive. If you chose a really big piece of cardboard, just use as many pieces of foil or paper as needed
Wrap the overlap around the cardboard and glue the flaps to the back of it. That’s it, you’ve got a reflector!
I made a 3 sided reflector so that it reflects all the lights to the center, where my object would be - this is to counteract the low level of light. Just make sure the “opening” of the reflector faces the light source.
Once you made the reflector, it will eliminate the shadows cast by the food, making it go from this:
You can see the differences more clearly here:
With the aid of post-editing, you can adjust the lighting and white-balance to achieve a much cleaner, sharper look.
It’s not perfect, but this is pretty much as good as it gets without the proper lighting and equipment.
Lighting aside, I also know that I won’t be aiming to photograph wide angles, or “situational” photographs - i.e. photographing scenes of a meal or a long table of preparations - because the small distance between me (or my camera lens) and my object won’t allow it.
If you’re looking to do wide angle shots, then I suggest doing it outdoors or in a wide spaced kitchen.
#2: Basic styling and angling:
a. Colour combination:
The general rule of colour combination can be achieved by looking at the colour wheel.
(Image source: Sugarcraft)
As you can see above, the colour combination is really up to you and the theme or look you are trying to achieve.
b. Plating & Set-ups:
These are almost as important as the actual dish. Do go the extra length of nicely piling up the food. From my own experience, I learnt that:
– Pasta dishes looks best when the pasta is tossed with some of the sauce and piled with a bit of height on a plate, then the actual sauce spooned on top and finished off with some sort of topping or garnish - nothing too pretentious.
- Desserts almost always never look good with an overhead shot. I recommend shooting at eye-level or at 45-50o (degrees).
- “Too tight” cropping or framing doesn’t work with food – though the food needs to be the centre of attention, it also needs a little negative space or subdued decorated background/surroundings to complement it.
- Get up close and personal: The biggest mistake most novice photographers make when shooting food is that they take pictures from too big of a distance. Get in there with your camera and catch all the details - food don’t have personal space, they won’t complain.
- Stay with one axis: Don’t be tempted to take pictures at a slant. What I mean by this is make sure the bottom of your food follows one axis (preferrably horizontal) on the camera viewfinder. You don’t want viewers to get a crick on their neck while trying to move their head to follow the orientation of (extremely) slanted pictures.
c. Auto Vs. Manual Focus:
By principle, I only use Auto focus when I’m shooting from overhead (above the dish to get a bird’s eye view). This is because auto focus will give a wide distribution of focus on all the details of the dish.
There is a downside to this though:
When you’re shooting from above and you’re shooting a number of things as opposed to only one thing, then you have to make sure that they’re of the same height, or at least make sure the primary object is the one that is placed the highest.
This is because when shooting from above, Auto focus will primarily capture and focus on the object with the higher topography - so prop that plate of pasta or pot of roast with a piece of wood if you’re taking a picture of it being surrounded by side dishes or whatnots.
Auto focus also puts you in a disadvantage when trying to take a picture of something inside a container with a relatively small opening. The principle is the same - the rim of the container is at a higher position and easier to capture with Auto focus.
So take that Auto focus training wheel off and practice manipulating your lens so that your pictures will go from this:
Forget fancy Chinas or whatever, get yourself a set of inexpensive white plates and bowls. This is one of the fundamental props for food photography because they’re so versatile and fits with the colours in the majority of food (be it sweet or savoury) and backdrops.
Once you get your hands on those and are comfortable shooting with them, start branching out and experimenting with combining plates of other colours and patterns to create the effect you want.
b. Cooking Equipments & Utensils:
If you’re looking to photograph the actual process of making food instead of just the finished product, then I suggest buying neutral handled utensils - preferrably ones that are made of wood or metals. Avoid those with cute cartoons or drawings as they tend to look unprofessional and are harder to incorporate into a shoot.
c. Cups and crystals:
Unless you’re planning to do an editorial on wine or spirits, I suggest you skip this entirely except for maybe a nice set of wine glass, some porcelain mugs and a plain glass pitcher (for lemonades etc).
Again, once you feel comfortable shooting with these, branch out to flea-market glass bottles and whatnots just to make the picture more interesting.
I personally don’t use additional props like flowers, ribbons or wrapping papers because I think the food is able to stand on its own with its intricacy, but this depends on the theme and preferences of each photographer.
That’s really as much tricks I can give out since I’m also looking to learn more about food photography. Play around and get to know your camera settings and what works best for you by taking pictures of anything and everything.