Members are always encouraged to submit food photos to our monthly SMF Throwdowns, but some of you have asked for help in beating the competition. This article sets out to level the field by providing you with truly easy tips and tricks.
You don’t need fancy equipment -- it’s the photographer who takes a great picture, not the camera. Here are tried and true recommendations:
(1) Never use a flash.
Your typical digital camera’s flash function has one setting, which is not the one that works best for food photography. Most folks don’t own professional lighting equipment, either, so use natural and indirect light whenever possible. Sunlight makes food --especially grilled meats -- appear succulent, delectable, and inviting. Remember, food photos shouldn’t resemble a police mug shot. If your table isn’t receiving enough light, move out of the shady side of the backyard to let more light into the shot.
Lights out? When the sun dips below the horizon, take your food indoors into a well-lit room. Turn on several lights, but try to avoid using just an overhead light, which can cast overly dramatic shadows (unless that’s your intent). Easy, right? Compare these pictures:
How do these two photos differ?
One features smoked salmon and the other is raw. What sets them apart is how the lighting choice affects the presentation and appeal.
(2) Dress up your food. A little effort goes a long way.
Food photographers call this “plating” or “food styling,” and basically this means you groom your food. Just like you get a little dressed up for date night, make the food look good by choosing colors that flatter and don’t clash. You don’t have to be overly fussy, but remember that a little effort goes a long way. You wouldn’t wear a shirt splattered with food stains to your daughter’s parent-teacher conference, right? So don’t let your food or serving tray look sloppy; wipe grease or sauce off the platter before taking photos. Most food stylists opt for solid, neutral colored plates, like white, beige, or pale blue, but a clean cutting board or fiery grill works great, too.
(3) Wipe off your hands before picking up your camera.
It sounds obvious, right? Being swept up in the moment is a beautiful thing, but repeated sticky fingers will smudge your lens and potentially gum up the works. If you’re a superstar shooter, keep a damp towel or box of wet wipes tableside so you can point and shoot when the urge strikes. Otherwise, pause for two seconds and use your napkin or, better yet, ask a friend or family member to help. You might inspire the next generation and get a free photo assistant to boot!
(4) Choose a perspective that flatters your food; get up close and personal!
Food photographs better when you treat it like a person or art object. “Take it from my good side,” is a commonly heard request, so treat your food the way you would a beloved and bossy relative. Hovering above the plate may be the fastest way to start eating, but getting down on one knee or reducing your angle will consistently produce better-looking shots.
(5) Pause to consider how you might frame the shot to best highlight a feature or aspect of the food.
Proud of your sear job? Zoom in to show texture and detail (many cameras have something called a “Macro” setting, but be sure to check your camera manual for specific instructions). Want to display the massiveness of those spareribs? Back away, zoom out, and consider adding a prop (such as a pair of tongs or clean dinner fork) to illustrate the sizeable serving. Take away or add an element of color (red-and-white checked napkin, broccoli stems, sliced tomatoes, baked potato, etc.) to make the food “pop out” of the frame or look delicious.
Evaluate the scene, then decide what’s most important. Do you want to show the whole BBQ setup, or just the flame-licked sausages on the grill? When you see snapshots of friends or even a poster tacked to the wall, ask yourself, “What do I first notice? What do I like about this scene?” and “What could I do without?” Often, cropping a photo will make it more appropriate or attractive.
Test your knowledge:
Photo by Jennifer Murawski, courtesy of Flickr.com
How would you alter the composition and styling of this photo to generate a more appetizing effect? Would you remove the plastic wrap? Take the food off the tray? Crop the photo to cutout the background scene?
Photography is an art form, and the success or failure of a photo is in the eyes of the beholder. Interested in seeing more examples of great food photography? Check out past SMF Throwdown winners or blogs dedicated entirely to food photography: http://www.stilllifewith.com/ and http://www.learnfoodphotography.com/
Play around with camera settings, try new angles and perspectives, don’t be afraid to let your passion and creativity shine, and most importantly, have fun!