The Trials and Tribulations of a Modern Day Food Photographer
If you’re not taking pictures of everything you’re eating, at all times, are you really living your best life? Let’s be real for a minute: it’s 2019 and we’re all basically brand ambassadors, influencers, models and, yes, food photographers. And as you stand on your chair holding your phone in the middle of a crowded restaurant, awkwardly rearranging your arms so as to not catch shadows, forcing a friend to hold a white napkin at just the precise angle for faux lighting while pretending not to notice the eye-rolls of your ever-patient peers, all you can do is hope that nobody in close proximity of the shot so much as breathes and exiles your perfectly--and very deliberately--placed garnish from the frame.
Or maybe you’re not the person standing on a chair in a restaurant, but you still want to take pretty pictures of food (because isn’t life all about pretty food?) and have no idea where to start. Fear not, we’re here to break it all down for you step by step, and help develop your food photography skills. (Did that terrible pun make you shutter? Okay, I’ll (F)-stop.)
1. Set your background/backdrops
The first thing you’ll want to do is decide on a background. This can be anything from a kitchen counter, to a wooden board, to a flat-textured mat (you can easily find these on Amazon). We chose marble to balance the whites of the cake, and allow the reds and blues of the berries to pop.
2. Pick and position your props
Purposefully. Try saying that five times fast. This will end up being one of the most important steps of your entire shoot. You will want to pick props that are going to accentuate your food, not distract from it. For example, if you were going to photograph ratatouille, you wouldn’t want to place it on a checkered background, with polka-dot utensils, and a striped towel. The dish itself will be lost in the busyness of the patterns, and your brain will hurt from trying to figure out what’s even happening in the picture. We chose a few props for our shot:
- A small raised plate, for the full cake. We anchord it against a background that it could get lost in, yet add some dimension.
- A fork, placed next to the plate for a more realistic look. Chances are when you’re eating cake you’re using a utensil (hopefully!) and that should be represented within the picture. Note: It’s important to include props that you would actually use if you were to sit down and have a meal. It adds an air of authenticity.
- A simple, solid-colored napkin. We chose a pale blue to complement the blue of the blueberries without adding too much noise. It may take anywhere from one to 30,000 attempts, but try folding and softly tossing the napkin onto your staging area to make it look most natural while adding some texture to your shot. (Full disclosure, for this shoot we were closer to 30,000 napkin tossing attempts than one.)
- A small white plate, for a sliced piece of cake. We went with white to create contrast with the berries.
3. Situate your “hero”
Next, you’ll want to choose your “hero.” This can be a particularly attractive cookie or the side of a cake with the best piping. Whatever you want to show off! The hero is going to be the focal point of your shot, and where you’re going to oh-so-subtly direct the attention of your viewers. For our shoot, we chose a single slice of cake as our hero to showcase the layers.
4. Create a triangle.
Get geometric. After positioning your hero, it’s time to add visual interest and balance the composition using the rule of three. The idea is to create three points of relative focus, in a triangle. For our purposes, our three points are the full cake, the cupcakes, and the slice of cake. This triangulation, if you will, creates a path for your eyes to follow, moving from element to element.
5. Finishing touches.
Bring it home with any final touches or garnishes. In my opinion, it’s the most fun step by a landslide. This is when you really get to be creative and figure out how to artfully fill in any empty spaces (without overdoing it). The trick to this is drawing upon elements from the main dish, that can tie your hero and the other two corners of your triangle together. Since both the cake and cupcakes were topped with berries, we chose berries as our supplemental garnish. Again, the purpose of this step is to fill the negative space and connect all the elements in your shot. You want everything to look natural–trust me, the irony is not lost on us that we strategically placed each individual berry in in order to achieve a “natural look.” How did we get the berries so frosty and magical looking, you may ask? We froze them. Pro tip: use a spoon or chopsticks to pick up frozen berries and place them in your frame–the heat from your fingertips will make the berries lose their frost!
6. Start shooting!
If you have portrait or macro mode on your phone, it goes without saying that you’re going to want to use that for a shot like this, to make sure that your hero is in focus. It won’t necessarily apply to all your shoots-for example, with an overhead shot you might want to lean toward normal-shooting mode, versus portrait. Play around with it, switch up your angles, and feel free to rearrange any elements in your setup. Have fun with it!
- Lighting: Always use natural lighting if possible-achieve this by staging your shot directly under a window, or even moving it outside. Try to keep your shot out of direct rays of sunshine. The direct light tends to be too harsh, and should be diffused.
- Action: If it makes sense for your shot, throwing some action in is a great way to make your pictures a little more dynamic and break up the static. For example, to add action to this specific shot we could have had someone transferring a slice of cake to the plate, or cutting into the cake itself.
- Overhead: Nine times out of ten, you’re going to have to bring all the elements that you set up for an overhead shot closer together. Keep in mind that in a picture, everything is to scale. When you set up a shot like it’s a normal sit-down dinner, it’s unlikely to fit fully in the frame.
- “When the food wants to speak for itself, let it.” Wise words from our Test Kitchen Manager, Michael Kimball, and they could not be more true. Food is art, and sometimes that art speaks volumes enough on it’s own that you’ll have little else to do besides throw it in a dish, place it on a solid background, and snap a picture.