Last Updated on February 19, 2018 by Audrey Scott
How do you get food to look like that? What kind of camera do you use? Do you use any special lenses?
Go to a big food website and the food glistens, the light is perfect and everything is in its place. But let's say you are a traveler carrying a pocket or DSLR camera and you have a fascinating, colorful spread before you that you'd like to share with others or capture for your own memories. Conditions are tricky and time is limited.
What to do?
In the tips that follow, we'll do as we did in our piece on how to take great street and market photos: show that anyone armed with genuine curiosity and a little technical knowledge can take excellent food photos. It's important to note that although some of the following tips are more easily applied using a DSLR camera, we take many of our food photos with a pocket camera.
1. Go where the food is.
I'm going to expose my bias here: the food that is most culturally and visually interesting is usually found at street food stalls, delis, open markets and hole-in-the-wall restaurants run by mom and pop.
Rely on curiosity as your guide to finding the best food. Don't just stick to the guidebooks and the safe, shiny restaurants. As you walk the streets, keep your food eyes open. Even if you don't plan to eat at a given street stall or deli, make an approach and take a photo if something catches your eye.
2. Show genuine interest and curiosity.
Once you've found the food, show your interest.
We shoot food because we love it and we enjoy sharing our culinary discoveries. Food is a gateway to understanding a culture. The more intense your interest and curiosity about food, the better your food photo opportunities will be.
Let's say you're at a food stall and you are talking, camera in hand, to the vendor or another customer. If your passion and interest don't immediately convey, try and explain, “We don't have this in my country.” You may find people — vendors and customers both — explaining dishes and how to cook them.
If your interest is genuine, then your courage will usually be rewarded, not only with good food photos, but with some memorable experiences as well. Next thing you know, you'll be invited to a Cambodian wedding or you will make some new friends in India.
Food photography, too, is about people and relationships.
3. Experiment with composition.
The freedom you have with food: it will not move — unless you have a hungry eating partner, and it will never tire of your endless framing of it. Find the ideal angle and composition by moving around.
Keep your eye in the viewfinder (or on the LCD) as you move the camera around the subject. Take the bull's eye shot with the plate in the middle, but quickly move to the left of the plate and to the right. Don't just take the postcard shot. Move in (or zoom in) tight, then pull back. Show us a look that's not on the menu. Turn the plate around or to the side. Try a shot of the plate directly overhead then bring the camera down until the edge of the plate is at eye level.
Which angle looks best? You'll know when you see it. If you are unsure, take a few shots and choose the best one during your selection process.
4. Know your white balance.
The mood and color temperature of food photos is critical; the proper white balance setting can be the difference between a dish looking greasy and unappetizing or rich and delicious. This is especially important when you are shooting indoors in artificial light.
For compact cameras and DSLRs, put the camera in a mode that will allow you to adjust the white balance settings. On a DSLR camera, use Manual mode or Shutter or Aperture priority mode. You can also select a program mode (e.g, “Food”), then set the white balance.
If you are using an LCD or your DSLR's live view, focus on the subject and toggle through the white balance settings to see how the color temperature changes with each setting. For older DSLR cameras without live view, you'll have to take each shot on a different white balance setting and review the result in the LCD.
Here's the big secret when photographing food indoors in artificial light: take two shots, one on a white balance setting that matches the light source (or auto white balance) and a second on the cloudy setting.
First, determine whether the light source is incandescent, fluorescent or halogen lighting. Set the white balance accordingly and take the shot. Then change the white balance setting to cloudy and take a second shot. More often than not, you'll find that the cloudy white balance setting will add a bit of color saturation, making for a richer, tastier-looking image.
Note: For food shots taken at outdoor markets, apply the same principles using cloudy, shade, and daylight white balance settings.
5. Show some context.
The plate of food is the main event, but ask yourself: Will additional context influence the mood of the image or convey useful information to my audience?
For example, I often like to take photos of dishes with a bottle of beer, wine or soda in the background, particularly when the bottle features some foreign language or script. Even better – condiments! Take the photo with the plate to the left or right of the frame and some of the condiment bottles at the opposite corner.
Consider taking a shot of the plate with chopsticks on it or nearby. Or a close-up shot of the plate with waiters or other diners in the background.
Steam is nice, too. Or take a serving (if you are two, get your partner to do this) and lift the food off the plate. Food sensuality knows nothing more suggestive than a bite, a forkful of noodles, a square of tofu, or an open dumpling.
6. Remove visual distractions.
Remove distractions which might corrupt the image. I'm not talking about spending 30 minutes to create a food stage. Take 30 seconds (and no more since your hot food is getting cold) and turn the dish to highlight what you like and wipe the edge of the plate clean. When composing the image, beware of unnecessary visual fragments in the frame (e.g., grubby napkins, other plates or random pieces of silverware).
Be deliberate: include the props and context, exclude the extraneous bits.
7. Experiment with depth of field.
Without doing a technical deep dive, depth of field (DOF) is most apparent where only a portion of the image is in sharp focus.
To reduce depth of field (thereby reducing the portion of the photo in focus) you can do three things: 1) reduce the f-stop (i.e., open the aperture), 2) get closer to the subject you are photographing, and 3) increase the focal length (very roughly, use the zoom).
After you've taken a shot of the plate with everything in focus, use the above techniques to make the DOF more shallow. Select where you want to focus in the frame. For example, maybe you'd like to focus only on the edge of the plate or in the middle of the dish.
This will add depth (literally) and visual variation to your food photos.
Note: The technique of reducing the f-stop (opening the aperture) also complements shooting indoors in low light. How? To maintain your exposure, you'll likely want to compensate for the reduced f-stop (more light is coming in) by increasing the shutter speed (to decrease the light). The faster shutter speed will help mitigate the risk of blurred images due to hand movement.
8. Use the zoom to get around macro issues.
We almost never use a macro lens when photographing food. However, there are times when you'd like to get very close to your food, but are unable to focus because the distance between you and your subject is too little. In this case, pull away from your subject and use your zoom to frame your image, then focus.
Note: This technique may not work as well with some pocket cameras whose effective focal ranges are more limited in zoom mode.
9. Make light.
Particularly when it comes to shooting food, we try to avoid using flash. If you wish your food photos to look like hospital fare, by all means make copious use of the flash.
a. Begin with the flash off.
Get in the habit of first determining what's possible without the flash. If you are accustomed to shooting in manual mode, you are probably already doing this. If you aren't, educate yourself on your camera's flash settings and learn how to turn the flash off. If you are using a pocket camera or a DSLR with a program setting (e.g., “Food”), select the program first, then turn the flash off.
b. Know your ISO.
Increase the ISO setting. ISO is basically your camera sensor's sensitivity to light. What's important to know: the higher the ISO, the darker the condition you'll be able to shoot in without having to use the flash. The give and take: as you increase the ISO, image noise increases and your images may begin to appear grainy. The extent of this will depend on the quality of your camera's sensor. I find that the drawbacks of using flash often outweigh the drawbacks of a grainy image.
c. Steady hands.
If you find yourself having to shoot at a shutter speed below 1/60th, you'll have to hold the camera very steady. Otherwise, you run the risk of a blurry image. To mitigate this risk, you can use a mini tripod (we do not). Alternatively, use the table top to stabilize your elbows. If you cannot use the table, push your elbows into your tummy for stability and pull the viewfinder up to your eyes. Take a deep breath and shoot.
d. Move to the light.
Use table lamps and overhead lamps strategically; move the plate into the light. If you are able, position light sources at an appropriate distance from the subject to shed just enough of the light you need without frying the image.
e. Adjust flash intensity.
“Ugh, another setting to learn.” I know, I know. If you must use flash, experiment with adjusting the flash intensity — up in case the default intensity is insufficient or down in case it overpowers the subject. Additionally, you can increase or decrease your distance from the subject (moving in and out to simulate an additional increase or decrease in flash intensity). If you are using an external hot shoe flash that allows you to adjust the direction of the flash, point it at an angle to take some of the light directly off the subject.
Now that we have adequately bashed flash photography, we offer a caveat: if you are shooting food outdoors on a sunny day, by all means use flash strategically to remove shadows from your subject.
10. Don't forsake the experience for the metaphor.
Enjoy the process.
Happy shooting…and happy eating.