Introduction: Food Photography: What I Learned

About: Inspired by my cat Chili, who is full of fun and energy, I like to share about food and other home crafts with a new twist of 'chili'-fun. (This user was previously called Snowball10)

Already when I got my first camera at the age of 10, I started shooting food. I think that picture of the tomatoes is the first picture ever that I took of an edible subject.

I have come a long way since then. Just compare the first picture of a burger with the second picture taken three years earlier. Currently, I think the first two pictures are some of my favorite from my portfolio.

Having worked on a cookbook for a very long time in addition to having been the author of a food blog for some time, I have gotten lots of opportunities for practice. It has been a frustrating journey, and I am far from perfect, but I want to share what I have learned with those of you who are struggling with the same things I have struggled with.

Step 1: Angle Above All

The first picture shows how I started taking food photographs -- standing up, shooting straight down on the food just the way you see it when you sit at the table. But notice how the perspective changes in the pictures with the bread!

I usually like getting right down on level with the food, as it feels much closer that way, right in your face, almost touching your tongue.... Sometimes, looking down from above (bird view) is great, but here, I really think the third picture of the bread, shot from the side, does most justice to the subject of the shot. The last picture shows the final photoshopped result. What do you think?

Step 2: Flash Crash!

Another big error I did in the beginning was to use flash. It just turned on by itself, and I never thought much about it. A simple comparison of pictures with (nr. 1) and without (nr. 2), however, shows that flash flattens the picture by destroying contrast and crucial shadows while creating unsightly highlights.

Point is: turn off the flash and use other light sources instead. It is a great idea to use a tripod or rest the camera on something while shooting, as the shutter speed will usually get slower with the lower light, resulting in blurry pictures if the camera is not held completely still. Slightly dark pictures can, however, easily be adjusted in photoshop, as can be seen in the last picture.

Step 3: Natural Light

Since I just told you to turn the flash off, you might be struggling with what light sources to use instead.

I find that natural light from a window is usually best. And I prefer it coming from the side. As you can see in the first picture, light coming directly from the front somewhat destroys the depth in the picture, and light coming from the back (2nd picture) easily causes the picture to become overexposed or the part of the food that you see to become too dark. Even though what I just said is not always true, light from the side (3rd picture) is easier to work with, and I think it creates a really nice play of highlights and shadows.

Last is an edited version of my picture of choice.

Step 4: Photo Famine

Does your mouth water at sight of the first picture? Your stomach rumble? No, I think someone is starving themselves here!

You get the idea? Fill up with food or use a smaller plate! Also, make sure to fill the frame with the food (that is, do not shoot too far away).

Here is why: When you see a plate full of food and a picture full of food, your brain immediately feels happy, as it senses abundance, plenty, and good times. On the other hand, if it sees a scanty supply of food, what do you think happens? Famine around the corner.

Step 5: Food for Photos

One thing you need to keep in mind when photographing food is that even though the food in the picture should resemble real life food, it is often necessary that it is in some ways presented slightly modified.

Take for eksample the first picture of the sandwich. That is how I ate it after I took the photo, and it tasted great, but it does not look very appetizing, does it?

The second picture features a pâté, and usually I will eat it smeared on the bread just like in the first picture, but just for the shooting, I chose to present it gathered in a nice slice at the center of the bread. Do you see how it suddenly stands much more out, and you can see the texture of the spread in a much clearer way?

Now, let us go to the second example (4th picture). This is how much sauce I like on my rice. But wait, where is the rice? Do you see the problem? It looks like just a puddle of sauce on the plate. Instead, hold back on the sauce just for the photo. Shooting from the side also helps reveal that there IS something underneath the sauce!

Step 6: Color Pop

Here is a point that I sometimes find difficult when I cook with just what I have on hand: color contrast. But do you see how drab the first picture of the pizza looks?

Try, really try, to get some colors in you food photo. Red-green, purple-yellow, and blue-orange are great pairs.

In the second picture, colors are implemented throught the veggies that surround the (vegan) meatloaf. In the third picture, notice how the purple hue of the background contrasts with the orange of the enchilada. In the fourth picture, the colors actually have nothing to do with the food in focus (cookies), but still, the orange juice and blue background (called props) just really make the picture pop! In the last picture, the color contrast is a photoshopped purple background.

Step 7: Controlled Mess

Now, we are getting onto advanced ground. What is acceptable mess and what is not?

In the first picture, it constantly annoys me that I did not wipe off the sides of the pot -- spills should be cleaned up, remember that! (Noting to myself...)

The second picture is also disgusting....

Now, look at the third. What do you think? What if I tell you that that is actually the peanut butter from the previous picture cropped onto an isolated lid from another picture?

What do you think about the fourth picture. Is it on the boundary of what is acceptable?

And then we have finger-licking peanut-butter cigars (actually tortillas with pb and honey). Is it just because I am a peanut addict? Or does your mouth also water?

Now to spills ... totally ooops mess (6th picture) and neat spills (7th picture).

This is risky ground!

Step 8: Some Editing Tips

When I have finally created a satisfactory photograph following (or trying to follow) all the tips I just mentioned, it is time for some post-processing. I used to think photoshopping a photo was cheating, but I have changed my mind! It really does make a big difference, as I have already showed you with a few examples.

Here are the things I usually do if the photo is already decent:

1. Crop the picture to your liking. Use everything you have learned about picture composition in art classes, etc., but most importantly, use your good judgment!

2. Increase the contrast and then the brightness. This adds extra depth and vividity to the picture.

3. Increase the saturation a bit if not already enough with the contrast adjustment. This helps green food be more green, red food be more red, etc.

4. If there are white areas in the photo, I sometimes go into the levels adjustment slider in photoshop and decrease the white threshold a bit to make the white more white.

And you are done with your beautiful food photograph!

Step 9: Lastly ... Have Fun!

... and remember, rules are there to be broken (at least when talking photography!).

I hope I have showed you a little of how many possibilities there are in food photography. What tips can you add to these?

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