What makes a good food photo?
Showcasing the dish’s best traits is essential to any successful food image. Its colors and textures are the key details that make you want to take a bite, so you want to have them all clearly in focus.
Food photography trends change as often as fashion trends and the more you can familiarize yourself with what industry leaders are doing, the more successful your images will be. Take a look at the websites and feeds from companies like Williams-Sonoma, Martha Stewart, Food & Wine, Donna Hay (Australia), Bon Appetite, Sur La Table, etc. and see what color schemes are of the moment. Is it the light bright or is it moody and based in shadow? Is the food messy and broken up, strewn about the plate, or is it tidy, tight and neat? Does the food have a homemade appeal or does it look highly constructed by a professional chef? Is the look attainable or aspirational? Are the props simple or highly stylized? Is the food the focus or is the scene and story that the props create more significant? As you continue to pour though these publications and ask yourself these questions, your eye will become stronger and your own imagery will improve.
In the 1980s, the ideal aesthetic throughout editorial magazines were overly stylized, heavily propped, studio-lit photography. That has been replaced with beautiful natural light food photography, in most cases. Of course, companies like McDonalds, Hidden Valley Ranch and others continue to use studio light for food photography, however, trendsetters and magazines alike produce food imagery with a more natural and organic feel. Trends in food photography also mirror trends in cuisine, so you can look to top restaurants as well to get a sense of what will make your imagery a success.
For best results with your food photography, natural light is key and indirect daylight will give your food a bright even look. Find a table by a window on an overcast day or a shady spot on a sunny day. If you are in your home, you might need to find a room that isn’t your dining room or kitchen. If you are in a restaurant, you may want to find a spot outside or request a table by a window. If you aren’t lucky enough to have your light filtered by a giant cloud, then you can use white drapery, or hang a piece of silk or other photography diffusion tools on the window to cut the severity of the light and create stunning imagery.
Composition is key to the success of any image. In a well-composed image, the viewer can immediately understand what the subject of the photograph is. In food photography, the subject can be anything from the main dish to a small detail in the dish, like tomatoes in a salad, or even the person who made the dish.
Using the “Rule of Thirds” will make any image stronger and more translatable to the viewer. Imagine the frame (what you see through the viewfinder) divided into a nine-part grid. In this guideline, your subject can be placed along the lines or at their intersections. The eye is naturally drawn to the intersection points and those are the areas of most impact in an image. An image is always strongest when the subject is on a “power point” or intersecting point in this grid, rather than centered in the frame. So ask yourself: What’s the focal point of interest in the dish that you are photographing? Place that focal point on one of the grid’s “power points” and draw the viewer’s eye to the point of interest in your frame.
In additional to the use of Rule of Thirds in composition, you will need to decide on an angle to photograph the food. Some dishes are better photographed from bird’s eye view overhead, like a flat pizza or a cutting board full of ingredients and utensils. A juicy burger is best from eye level to really give notice to the stacks of lettuce, tomato, and meat. You might consider a 45-degree angle for a scene like a cup of tea and frosted cookies to showcase the side of the cup and also the design on top of the cookies.
Keep your camera level and keep any strong lines in your camera straight as well. This will help the focus of the image fall onto your subject, rather than be distracted by the lines.
How you position food in relation to the light source is very important. Ask yourself where the “front” and “best” side of the dish is. Rotate the food around until you have gotten its best feature or angle to the camera. Where is the food’s best “face?” Find its most flattering side and if you are in a restaurant or working with a chef, they will always have an opinion on this. Take photographs from multiple angles and look at each of them. What looks most appealing to your eye?
Travel photography can provide some of the most inspiring and intriguing imagery. Photographs trigger our memories, help us to illustrate a story, and show us a sense of place. When we travel, those memories can often seem richer, more vibrant, and more significant to us than when we are at home.
First impressions aren’t something that we only get when we meet new people. Each minute impression that you get from seeing a new country, a new town, or a new restaurant is something that you can express visually. When you travel (or play tourist at home), what are your first impressions of the place? What colors, scents, or sounds stand out? Each of these experiences can be expressed through the visual medium of photography.
When you hear the sound of horse hooves clacking against cobblestone streets or the deep horn of a passing ship in the sea, you can bring those memories and experience to life through your imagery. When you smell fresh baked bread wafting down a street, or feel the warmth of the sand beneath your feet, each of these moments tells a story and creates a sense of place. Bringing that sense of place through to your photography is what makes a travel image a lasting moment, rather than a fleeting snap shot, and your memories will be so much more vibrant for it. Not only is it important to capture the literal look of a place in travel photography, but for strong and memorable imagery, capturing the ambiance is important as well.
Knowing your place first
Before any trip, even one that you plan to do spontaneously, doing a bit of research to understand the customs and traditions is helpful. Photographers working for editorial publications will always do their research to know key items about a location before they arrive.
It is always important as a photographer to “gain access” for the best shots. Access can mean many things, but the more you know about a culture and the friendlier you are, the more doors (figuratively and literally) will open for you. Some of the most incredible photographs happen because you took a moment to say “hello” to a stranger, and they welcomed you to their world.
Knowing niceties in another language can always be useful, and knowing how to not offend in another culture will put everyone more at ease. Learning how to say, “please,” “thank you,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “This meal is excellent!” in another language has gotten me seamlessly though hundreds of trips with a smile.
Contemplate these questions and let them guide your photography:
- What made you go to this place?
- What season are you in? Is there something that only occurs during this time of year? How can you photograph the seasonality of your visit? Is there snow? Fallen leaves, or blooming flowers?
- How is this place similar to your home and how is it different? Can you illustrate these differences and similarities in a visual way? Try to look intelligential, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, and truly see what makes this spot so unique.
When you arrive, notice your first impressions and write them down. Use this list as a preliminary checklist for your photography. What is the temperature, what do you smell, what can you hear, what can you feel? Capturing a photograph to illustrate each of your five senses will set your imagery apart.
What you see can be anything from shapes and colors to specific architecture, to people dressed in a certain way. How is this different from or similar to what you see at home? Show these differences through your imagery and imagine having someone look at your photographs without you there to explain them.
Do you smell hot baked bread? Find the bakery and the baker, offer to purchase a piece, if you can afford it, and take it all in. In many cultures, people have little in the way of money, and offering to purchase something from their shop or street stand is an appreciated gesture when you ask to take a photograph. You are getting something and giving something in return, and that is often greatly appreciated.
What you hear surely comes from something that you can see. Find the source of that sound and make an image. Is it clanging bells? Show those bells in motion to illustrate the idea that they create sound. You can use Shutter Priority (Tv mode on a Canon EOS camera), a slow shutter speed, and a tripod to slow the movement down, which helps visually express the ding-dong of the bells.