My hope is that this post will serve as a primer to help out budding food photographers, people who want to remember the good meals they have, and share great stories with their friends. If you want to learn how to take good photos of food, read on:
If you can believe it, this photo of delicious sushi was shot inside a dimly-lit, very busy restaurant with only the available light- no flash. The nice thing about being able to take a clear, bright photo of food is that you can look back on that photo and remember the restaurant, the atmosphere, and best of all- the taste. Those are good memories, the kind I want to last.
In order to take great food photos, you don’t need a professional camera. You can even take great photos with a small point-and-shoot made by almost any brand. Small tripods like this one from amazon.com can be purchased for less than $10 and will help you steady your camera to prevent blur and shake. Other than that, you don’t need much equipment to make good photos.
The first step to taking good photos is to test your skills in the prime conditions. Try going to a café or restaurant during brunch, even better if you can get a seat on the patio where you can harness some indirect sunlight on your food. I was able to take this picture of a tomato and bocconcini sandwich at a café where the sun was shining through a big picture window:
Even though the picture was taken while I was inside, the morning sun gave me enough light that I was able to set my shutter speed high and my aperture very low. If you have a point-and-shoot, try to use the manual mode to its highest capacity. If you’re shooting in lots of light, you’ll want to set your shutter speed (how fast the camera opens its shutter to let light in to hit the sensor) very fast, ideally in the 250-1000th of a second range. The aperture or f-stop (how wide the lens opens up to let light in) should also be kept very low, a number like 1.8 or 2.8 is great. These two features are important when it comes to achieving an attractive depth of field or the focus of a photo.
Shooting in low light:
Ideally, you’ll want your subject (the food) to take precedence over the background, so you’ll want the food to be sharp in focus and the background to be soft and blurry. A small number for your aperture will make this happen. When it comes to taking attractive pictures of food, you want to shoot for a beautiful DoF, a small f-stop, and a fast shutter speed. Keep in mind, this is all the ideal for what you want to shoot. Chances are if you’re shooting in a restaurant with no flash and only ambient light, you’re not going to be so lucky.
As a person who loves to experience good restaurants and try new food, I know how hard it is to also take photos of every meal. No matter how good your camera is, sometimes there just isn’t enough light to capture a good image without incorporating outside light (from bounced flashes or softboxes.) The best piece of advice I can give you as a person who takes lots of photos of food is that you’re not always going to get a great shot. Sometimes you’re going to come home from dinner and load up your memory card only to find that every shot is a miss. That’s okay, stay positive. You can’t win all the time!
If you want to avoid the disappointment every time, though, here’s some advice for shooting in low-light situations:
- On a camera with good manual settings, you can find the setting for the ISO. If you’ve ever shot with 35mm film, you might recognize that the ISO is the “speed” of the film. The “faster” the film, the better it will be to get good photos in low-light situations. To get good photos of food in darker places, set your ISO to 1000 or higher. Remember that the higher you set the ISO, the more grainy or “noisy” your photo will be.
- If you want to use a flash, try to dim the flash brightness, and compensate with other controls in the camera (like shooting more open, with a higher f-stop.) If you use the built-in flash on your camera and shoot too close to the food, you risk washing out the entire photo and creating too much reflection/glare.
- Use a little tripod and your auto-timer! At 1/60th of a second and slower for your shutter speed, your camera can’t counter the natural shakyness of your hand. You’ll get blurry photos if you can’t hold your hand steady, and that won’t help the food to look good. If you use a tripod, you can guarantee a reduction in the amount of human error in your photos and you’ll be able to set the f-stop lower and shutter speed faster. Using an auto-timer on your camera further helps reduce problems.
- More light! If you’ve got it, use it. Position yourself as close to overhead lights as you can, and if there’s candles on the table, use the gentle light to accent your photos. Turn the dish of food at different angles to see which way it looks best to frame your shot, taking into consideration the direction the light is pointing. If you’re eating a prime rib with garlic mash, you don’t want to spotlight your mashed potatoes- highlight the meat instead.
Framing your food:
Food photographers make a living by taking photos of food that looks almost too pretty to eat! Here’s a dirty little secret about the industry: most of the food that photographers shoot isn’t even edible at all. Food stylists and photographers use glycerin commonly to make food look more shiny, dry ice to make it steamy, and post production programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate, sharpen, blur and saturate the images. How is an amateur photographer at a restaurant supposed to compete with that?
One major element you can rely on as a foodie photographer is your ability to frame your photograph attractively. I won’t get into the basics of the rule-of-thirds or colour theory, both of which are concepts that are easily googled. In terms of food photography, though, there are definitely things you can do to help your images look more attractive in an artistic sense:
- First and foremost, keep the food as your subject. If there are any distracting elements in your image (like faces, hands, and purses) try to avoid including them in your photo. Take purses off the table or move them away from your dish. If there is cutlery on the plate, move it around so that it isn’t a distraction, or place it behind the food so that it gets blurred out in your DoF.
- Clear crumbs off the table. If there are any spills on the tablecloth, or beads of water from sweating glasses, do your best to dry them up so that they don’t create interference in your picture. The more attention you pay to your surroundings, the more you can do to clean up your picture without having to take it into a post-production program.
- Set up your camera and tripod before the food arrives. If you’re ordering something hot, you’ll want to capture a photo of it being steamy and fresh from the grill. If you waste your time fiddling with controls, your food will get cold. That’s no good! Plan in advance so that you can take your photo and get on with the eating.
- Unless you think it’ll be a great shot, try to avoid taking photos of half-eaten food. For the most part, bite marks and spilled messiness just isn’t very attractive. The exception to this rule is if you want to show a picture of the inside of food, like a beautifully layered cake.
- If “props” are available, feel free to use them. Don’t go overboard, though. If you’re photographing food that looks complicated, like a plate of curry or a pasta salad, you don’t want to clash the food with the background. White plates are awesome, though sometimes boring. Plates with “busy” patterns might highlight food that normally looks dull, like a beautiful bowl filled with mushroom soup. Think about what information you’re neighbouring, and don’t use it if it conflicts or confuses.
- Work the DoF to your advantage. If you open up any magazine with recipes or pictures of food, you’re bound to see a lot of images that focus on the food but blur out the background. If you capture every element of the image in sharp focus, your viewer’s eye will get confused and want to pay as much attention to the background as they will to the foreground. It might take a while to get good at this, but you will have more friendly, attractive, and delicious looking photographs if you pay attention to the foreground and background.
I hope that this short guide will help you to take better photos of the food you eat. You don’t have to have professional equipment or know your camera inside-out to be able to take great pictures. Hopefully you’ll be able to share pictures from your next dinner party and make your friends and neighbours salivate.