Along with writing my upcoming cookbook, Whole Bowls, I’ll be doing the photography. Today, I thought I’d share some of my food styling and photography essentials.
Clearly, if you want to get into photography of any sort, you’ll need to outfit yourself with a camera. I began when I was 16 in a photography class at my high school with a film SLR. There, I learned old-timey darkroom skills, as well as just how annoying non-digital cameras can be. I have two in my basement, both family “heirlooms,” that I never use. Nevertheless, they did teach me how to use SLR technology.
For digital, I began many years ago with a Canon Rebel and kit lens, which is how most get into photography now. Today, I use a Canon 6D. It’s my pride and joy. I recommend starting out with something like a Rebel to learn how DSLR cameras function. The benefits of a camera like the 6D include (to name just a few of the dozens): infinitely less time spent in photoshop, full-frame viewing, more control over the uncontrollable (light, speed of subject, etc.), and quick capturing/no blur without a tripod at a higher aperture setting.
The correct lens in food photography is everything. Food photography tends to look best using a 100mm to 105mm lens (macro) and 50mm lens. Going back to the camera, these lenses will react different in say, a Rebel (my training DSLR) versus a 6D (my current DSLR). I use a 105mm lenses for closeups, overheads, and when in a pinch, as a portrait lens. The photos taken with my 105mm lens will always be slightly crisper than with my 50mm, as well as giving it an entirely different overall look. The 50mm lens is wonderful for overhead shots or action shots of cooking in the kitchen. It creates that classic “creamy” look to photos. Yes, there are $50 versions of this lens available, but having purchased one many years ago, I can tell you that it’s not worth it. This is the 50mm lens I have now (I use this as my everyday, life-shot lens too).
A tripod will allow you to take sharper photos, action shots, or get the camera in a position that the human body is incapable of. I always prefer to hold my camera when I shoot, but I’m trying to use my tripod more. Slow learner, I guess (do as I say, not as I do). I’ll use my tripod for timed action shots of my cooking, like when I’m chopping food. I recently purchased a Vanguard and am just tickled by its multitude of functions.
Get a proper one, please, or you’ll risk having work deleted. If you’ve lost a client’s work because of a faulty memory card, that wouldn’t be good, to put it lightly. I use Lexar Professional cards. I’d avoid Transcend memory cards––I hear bad things, terrible things, horror stories, in fact, about clients’ work being deleted.
I use exclusively natural light. This means, when and where I shoot are dependent on the season and time of day. If I’m shooting in my house, I use my sunroom, because, well, it’s a sun-room. I prefer the afternoon light, around 2 to 4PM (and 4PM is cutting it close in the winter). If it’s a shooting day, I’ll need to make sure I have food prepared and ready to go at that time, otherwise, it won’t get done. In the fairer weather, I’ll use my back deck with indirect sunlight and maybe a lens hood. Using a flash or direct sunlight can make food look unappetizing and greasy. Natural, indirect light is your best friend for the perfect food photograph.
Food Styling Props
I have a lot of my family’s old dishes, utensils, and serving vessels, as well as new one’s I’ve acquired over the years from birthdays and christmases. Depending on the food, as well as the mood you’re trying to create, you’ll want your props to be inline with this. If I’m going rustic, I’ll use pottery and wood. If I’m going clean and simple, I’ll generally gravitate towards stark white dishes.
For surfaces, try beat-up boards, a back deck that needs re-staining (ahem, like I do…), well-loved baking sheets with natural patina, coffee tables, linens, potato sacks, crumpled brown bags––there’s really no rule to the surface you shoot on. If you want the surface to be part of the photo, you’ll need to increase the aperture and preferably, use a tripod.
To source a lot of my food styling props, I’ll head to antique markets. Last week, I found gorgeous, hand-thrown pottery bowls for $4 dollars a piece––score! In addition to this, antique and flea markets are excellent places to source kitschy props like old glass milk bottles, jars, rusted egg beaters, wooden utensils, and oxidized silver serving ware. These appendages, scattered in the background of a food photo, give that little something extra, without taking away from the star of the show: the food. If you’re worried about tetanus, just don’t actually eat with your rusty antique market finds––leave them as props only. When I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I’ll go to Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, and independent kitchen shops. My dream date includes wandering these stores for an entire afternoon with a large pistachio gelato in-hand––utter bliss *angelic harp music in background.*
In many shots, food really does look best with a touch of creaminess to the photo. To achieve blur, focus on the portion of food you want to stand out (e.g. look for the ‘perfect’ golden brown piece of squash to close in on), lower the aperture (2 to 4.5), and manually adjust the lighting in your camera to avoid overexposure (smaller number = wider aperture, which means more light seeps in).
Shooting Angles & Ingredients
This is dependent on the client, but if you’re shooting for your own blog (with unlimited space), go crazy. On Yummy Beet, I like to start with some ingredient shots, as well as shots during the actual cooking process. Not only do these “working” shots add character to your blog post, they can also be instructive, lending a visual cue to your recipe directions. When the recipe is complete, begin with an overhead shot, followed by a shot to the side, a shot with the food partially enjoyed, a shot with a human (very ‘in’ right now), and so on.
Like the food itself, food photography has trends. Photos of hands cupping a bowl with the subject dreamily blurred out, action shots of drizzling oil, “food porn” shots with ingredients melting(?) out of the centre (see above photo)––these are all so hot right now. Food trends will appear online and in print magazines before you see them in cookbooks, which can take years to come together. Or, vice versa, a specific cookbook’s photography may just ignite a food photography trend in the online community.
Colour, texture, temperature. People are more likely to make a recipe if that recipe has a great photo attached to it (okay, this hasn’t been studied, but I bet it’s at least partially true). Luckily, real, fresh food loves the camera with its array of colours and textures. If something looks flat and unappetizing (I’m looking at you, mushroom soup), a garnish will really draw the eye in and elevate the dish. The above photograph of cauliflower looked like a giant human brain in a dutch oven until I added its garnish. Greens (fresh herbs, lettuces, etc.) are my go-to, as I’m never without them in my bowl anyways. Garnishes (all edible, please, and preferably listed as an ingredient; see previous photo of soup) make a dish sing, sparkle, and pop. (I didn’t intend for that to sound like a cereal commercial, really.) If you’re shooting hot food, allow the steam to settle, or you’ll fog up your lens. Also, steam will dull the look of the food.
Yes, the food you see in cookbooks, online, and in magazines is photoshopped. When I first got Adobe Photoshop Elements Editor 12, I went insane. I was a wild child. Everything needed editing. Everything. I way, way over-photoshopped my photos. Learn from my abominable editing mistakes. Like I said in the Camera paragraph, a good camera will allow for a quick trip in and out of Elements. Currently, I just do a bit of RGB colour, midtone, and brightness corrections. Or, I’ll use Elements to add text and/or a watermark. I could write an entire blog on photoshop, but I have neither the time, nor drive to do that. However, you’re in luck––there are people that do have the time and drive. Google those people. I recommend researching as much as humanly possibly if you want to get the most out of Elements or any other photo editing program. I’m still learning techniques on that program and will likely never know its full reach. If you don’t like or understand computers or technology, you will (likely) not like or understand photoshop. But fear not, there are guided photo fixes in Elements! You can correct a photo with the click of a button. Computers are just the smartest.
Food Photography Recap
You’ll need: a camera, one to two food-friendly lenses, a tripod (optional), some light (natural, afternoon), props (see: Food Styling Props, above), subject matter (the food, a hand model holding the food), plenty of colour, a snazzy garnish, no steam, and a photoshopping program.
There are many informative blogs and videos out there for the budding food photographer. Take advantage of these free resources. For in-person help, if you buy your camera and equipment from a camera store, which I recommend (I go to Henry’s), these are often staffed by professional photographers. Grab their card (their business card, not their memory card…ahem) and be their new, best, pestering, information-hungry friend. These folks are camera nerds and in my experience, adore talking about things like f-stops and lenses.
Remember, you eat with your eyes first.