Food photography has always been a passion of mine. Maybe it’s that the subject looks so delicious, or maybe it has more to do with the subject not complaining about bright flashes and having to sit still while the photographer gets the composition just right.
But food photography has also always been a significant challenge for me. It’s not enough to just set up your lights in a standard fashion and expect to capture your subject properly. Making food appear savory and tasty is not easy.
It takes just the right amount of lighting, in all the right spots. It takes careful selection of aperture and camera angle. And it often requires quite a bit of work on the background, choosing complimentary colors and using background items which create a more three-dimensional look.
Today, I will share my 5 favorite tips for producing savory food photographs.
Light from Behind, Scrape the Front
Getting just the right amount of light in the most important places requires that you use smaller light sources. I use small flashes, or larger flashes with a snoot affixed. When photographing food, we want to maximize the contrast of the subject so that we enhance the food item’s texture. But at the same time, we want to minimize harsh shadows. And we want to bounce some light back toward the front of our subject to enhance its appearance.
The way we accomplish this is by placing our main light behind the subject at an angle. Then we bounce some of that light back toward our subject so that it just scrapes the sides and/or top of the food item.
You can use bounce cards for this purpose, but I prefer small mirrors. Small mirrors give greater control of the bounced light, allowing us to scrape exactly as we prefer. You
can get such mirrors very cheaply at your local crafts store. I have a set which cost me just a few dollars, and they work great.
Food photos just look better when you get up close and personal with your subject. I also like to throw the background out of focus (more on this later), so a shallow depth of field is important. One of my favorite lenses for food photography is my Canon macro 100mm.
My macro lens gives me a shallow depth of field, and a lot of sharpness at the focal point. It also allows me to get very close to a food subject if I need to. Try filling the screen with your subject and see how much better it looks than when you are pulled all the way back.
By getting close, we allow the viewer to almost taste the food subject.
No Harsh Shadows
Soft shadows add a lot of dimension to a food photo. It’s the harsh shadows that we need to deal with. Harsh shadows are not just a distraction. They will completely kill a food photograph.
There are a lot of ways to control shadows, and each situation will call for a different strategy. I like to begin with a larger side light with a soft box attached to diffuse the light. You can bounce this soft light from the other side using a large white board, or even another flash bulb set to a lower intensity.
This will get you on the correct path, but eventually you will need to directly attack harsh shadows. For this, I like to use small bounce cards positioned to spread a little light where it is needed. In a typical food shoot, I will have several small bounce cards positioned around the shot just out of the camera view.
It takes time to set this up, but it is the best way to get the lighting the way you want it.
Shallow Depth of Field
Food photography has converged on the use of wide open apertures and shallow depths of field. The reason this strategy works so well is it places the focus exactly where it needs to be on the main food subject, while pushing the background into a supporting role.
However, that supporting background can make or break your shot. Splashes of color and highlights from the lights create a wonderful background blur or bokeh. Think about complimentary colors. What complimentary colors will enhance your food subject? How can you integrate them in such a way to create an interesting composition?
RAW vs JPEG
The RAW vs JPEG debate is an easy one when it comes to food photography. Getting white balance perfect is very important in food photography, as just the slightest tint of yellow or blue can make a food item look absolutely inedible.
I always shoot in RAW mode when it comes to food photography. I can get the white balance perfect, accounting for that ambient light which is throwing things off just slightly. And I also have greater control over dealing with leftover shadows or highlights which might need to be tweaked.
If you are inexperienced at photographing food, be prepared for a learning curve. Patience is a virtue. Plan your shots ahead of time, including complimentary background items and color combinations. Consider consulting with a food stylist if you are having problems with your table setting, or the look of the food item.