A lot of people that really love food, like talking about it online. If that weren't the case, cheftalk.com might be reduced to just a professional discussion board with a post a day discussing the latest professional equipment, or religiously zealous debates over which knife manufacturer is superior. So to fulfill this need, many have turned to online blogging, or something like cheftalk, where they can go and share with others their unique take on food. One thing is certain, images go a very long way toward expressing those food experiences. I wanted to take a moment to share with others a few pointers for doing food photography at home; hoping it will give you a new voice, one with visuals as enticing as your words!
Throughout this article I'd like to maintain an easy read, without diving too deep into details. After all, if you really wanted to be inundated with all of the science of photography you probably wouldn't have started your research at a food site. However, I do think that knowledge of the techniques and science involved in photography will help develop you as a food photographer, even if you don't ever plan to expand beyond your own kitchen. So where appropriate, I will link to wikipedia articles that go much further into explaining some of the concepts I just briefly touch on.
No matter what type of photography you are doing, two of the most important elements that determine whether a shot is successful or not are:
If you get those two things down, even with a basic point and shoot digital camera, you can take some surprisingly good shots of food.
I’ll tackle composition first, as it is probably a bit easier to follow. Composition with photography refers to how the subject is framed within the final image. In food photography, the magic lies in the details. The little nuances in the crumb of fresh baked bread, the glistening reflection from basted olive oil, the intricacy of veins running through fresh greens; these things are what make people see food images and start salivating!
So the first general rule with food photography is to get in close enough to capture the details of your subject. In this example I wanted to convey that the pasta was fresh (even though it was dried) and a big part of that is the presence of flour. I wanted to capture that detailed texture of the flour. The pasta was also whole wheat, so the texture was important to convey in the shot. See if those details come across in this example:
If you notice in this shot, getting in close for details doesn’t mean you have to exclude surrounding elements in the shot. To find out how to focus detail on your subject while "blurring" some of the background for effect, you should read more about depth of field (DOF)
A big part of food photography is setting the stage. In many professional food photography operations, you have two very distinct roles involved in a shot, a food stylist, and a photographer. The food stylist is in charge of the “setting the stage” requirements for a shot. In the previous example, even though everything was sitting on a small card table nowhere near my kitchen, you might have noticed various items in the background that hopefully seem related to the experience of pasta making. This is usually the job of the food stylist but since you are an at home food photographer, you need to think about these elements when composing your shots.
So in short composition is something that takes practice, creativity, an understanding of what you are truly attempting to convey, etc. It is not an exact science and no one format is perfect for all shots.
Now on to lighting as this is probably the most difficult aspect for home food photographers to perfect, yet it is without a doubt the most important element in photography. Remember, you are capturing light, not food. In order for your food to look its best, it has to be lit to look its best.
I want to use another example to discuss lighting, because I have a shot of the setup I used to achieve the shot, which I hope ultimately illustrates how you can elevate your food photography lighting at home. In this shot, I wanted to capture a still life of garlic, showing its natural state (including the growth) and in my mind I wanted to capture something you might see if a cookbook had a page on garlic:
I want you to pay particular attention to the fact that the shadows that are present are not “hard”, that is, they sort of taper away softly around their edges. This is considered a fairly natural lighting look, something you might see if you were looking at the same subject in the shade of an oak tree at some Sunday picnic.
As an example, compare the shadows and lighting of a shot I did outside. The sun was behind a cloud which is just about the same as my directional lights being placed behind a scrim. I did use a simple bounce reflector to light the face of the avocado but other than that this was natural atmospheric light. Here's a tip, want a great bounce reflector and don't want to break the bank? Go to your local big box store or auto-parts store and pick up the collapsible "reflector" style windshield sunshades. It's perfect for our needs - light.. easy to carry.. large.. highly reflective.. etc.
First, notice that there are two primary light sources, one at left, and one at right. Also notice that I have placed a large white foam-core board in the background. Using multiple sources of light in this shot allowed me to avoid overly directional shadows. In a way, each light source cancels out opposing light sources when it comes to shadows that are cast.
The light at the left was a bit more involved because I constructed it using a large Tupperware container and actually wired together 4 switches and individual light receptacles so that I could vary the amount of light cast. The top of the Tupperware was cut out so that I could place cloth as a screen in front of the lights.
Another point to make, is that of color temperature. The really important thing you want to keep in mind, is to make sure that unless you are going for an effect, that your light sources are all of the same temperature. You may not realize it but the "color" of light is measured in units of temperature called Kelvin. Light that we see from the sun is a very different temperature than that of a typical indoor light bulb. Light from sunlight is typically very "cool" whereas light from an indoor light, like an incandescent light, is much warmer.
You want to avoid combining these different temperatures if possible (example: taking a food shot next to a window, while having your dining room lights on). Otherwise you will never be able to adjust your image so that you are happy with the levels of “cool” colors versus the levels of “warm” colors. If you look for it most light bulbs list their color temperature (measured in kelvins) on the box, just be sure you are getting the same temperature across the different bulbs you purchase. Note that in my setup, the room is essentially dark except for the light sources I introduced, and this was to avoid any variances in color temperature.
Now, I want to make a major point about my lighting gear. Everything I used for lighting I purchased at home improvement stores (light housings, bulbs) and big box stores (cloth) and I never spent very much on any one item. The lighting at the right, is a simple clip-on style light housing that can be had for less than 10.00. The bulb used was a compact fluorescent daylight bulb. More importantly, using curtain style material from the fabric department in a big box store, I created a diffusion screen for the light.
Safety Note: Never introduce fabrics in close proximity to high-heat output lights such as incandescent or halogen lamps; combustion may occur. Always obey manufacturer instructions and warnings with the equipment you purchase and utilize.
My main working surface is a small folding card table. You can obtain many different colors of fabric from fabric stores, or fabric departments in big box stores. When you are setting up your work area, you should think about maneuverability and the ability to position your various lights. Use your imagination, I had a sheet music stand, keyboard stand, and a boom microphone stand that served double duty as photography light positioning equipment. Look around your home, and if you have helpful family and friends, that works even better!
With the setup I use, I can take shots for hours, and try many different compositions, tweak lighting, etc. If that isn't really up your ally, you should know that some of the best light comes from windows around your home. Do some experimental shots around your windows and take notice of how the light looks and what time of day it is. A window is less reliable as a light source than fixed lights, but natural light often produces nice results if everything works out and there isn't any more investment than moving a table over to the window.
That will conclude this installment of the article. If you have specific question, please don't hesitate to send me a PM, I'll help if I can.