God bless the digital camera, that turned documenting everything you have for lunch into a viable option; the minutiae of everyday life into viable subjects. Face it, most of us take the food we eat for granted, not paying it much more attention than whether it arrives on our plates hot and on time and if it’s tasty. But to those among us who are happy to call ourselves gourmands and foodies, the food we eat is a thing of beauty, to be cherished, considered, and respected.
One of the things I never thought I’d ever be good at, let alone be asked for tips on, is food photography. But life takes us in unexpected directions, and over six years of having a digital camera, food photography has become and important and enjoyable part of my photo-taking. In the film days I was always curious about it, and would drool over beautifully-photographed cookbooks, but I don’t ever recall taking any food photos.
Now I take food photos nearly every day. It doesn’t seem like a special thing to me: I have no fancy light boxes or complex studio set-ups — like a lot of you out there I simply take pictures of the food I eat for lunch or dinner in the available light I have with either my compact camera or digital SLR, whichever suits my mood. So when people compliment me on my food photos and ask me, “How do you do it?” …well, I’m both amused and slightly baffled.
Just such a thing occurred on Twitter a few weeks ago. I was looking through an old folder of unwritten blog posts and tweeted offhand about coming across a food photography post I had planned and abandoned years ago. Soon people were asking me to post these tips, and I promised to, but it slowly slipped out of my mind. Then people started reminding me, saying they were looking forward to it, and I was even more intrigued.
So I gave it a long hard think, and came to the conclusion that I would need a whole book to talk about food photography. Maybe I will write one some day, but for now I needed to make a blog post!
So I asked myself, “What are the basic elements of good food photos? What are the essential factors people should look for, a mental checklist to tick off when they’re taking photos of their lunch?”
And so I came up with these:
Photography is the art of light, so it stands to reason that one of the major factors to consider in food photography is what kind of photons are bouncing off your lunch.
As a good rule of thumb, using natural light is a good way to ensure better food photos. Think about it: when have you ever looked at a meal in a drab fast-food restaurant or food court lit by fluorescent lights and thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful!”? And candle-lit dinners may be romantic, but could you even see what the food looked like? No, your memories of great meals usually involve al fresco dining, or lunches in restaurants with big windows. And that’s because the sun is one of the photographer’s best friends.
Almost every picture on this page was taken during the day, with available light. And while you can certainly take good food photos in artificial light (I might even do a post on it some time), for now make your life a lot easier (and your food photos better) and take them during the day.
This doesn’t mean you should just throw the plate into the path of the scorching afternoon sun, though — you’ll end up with harsh, flat pictures. Keep the plate just out of direct sunlight, or filter it through something, such as a curtain, or where you see trees casting shadows. Dappled sunlight creates lovely light displays in which to showcase your food.
On the other hand, don’t give up when you’re faced with limited light. This picture on the right of a piece of fern I found, was taken in a corner of a gloomy highway dhaba lit by (you guessed it) fluorescent tube lights. It was taken as we were waiting for our lunch, and instead of go out and place the fern in a better light, I went with what I had. You can’t tell it’s taken on a drab plastic table with chipped plates, can you?
When low light is an issue, make sure to steady your shot using a tripod, or resting the camera on a table, or using a bean-bag (a soft hand-bag or purse can sometimes substitute. Experiment with what you have around!)
And finally with regards to light, turn off that flash! Unless you’ve got a complex external flash set-up, chances are you’re using your camera’s built-in flash. It may be okay to take pictures of drunk people partying in clubs for your Facebook memories, but in-built flashes are notorious for making photos cold and flat. The light is harsh and doesn’t play with the inherent translucence of most food, making it seem dull, lifeless, and unappetising.
We love colours. Black may always be the new black, and the man in the shiny striped tie may be the butt of office jokes, but admit it: it’s hard to ignore someone in a clown suit, is it?
And food is the same way. Bright, warm colours make food appetising (this is why we don’t have many blue foods), and a few strawberries can make dull grey oatmeal something to look forward to. Look for the colourful parts of your meal, and highlight them. Push that piece of tomato around to the front in your burger. Sure, you think you’re there for the meat, but the photo is about so much more than that. And sitting next to that tomato, it’s going to make the meat seem that much tastier.
Speaking of which, when discussing food contrast probably warrants its own point — heck, its own seperate post — but I’m putting it here, because I’m looking at it from a colour point-of-view. Using contrasting colours between your food and the things around it — and in different components of the dish itself — is one of the easiest ways to make nicer food photos. This is one reason you see a lot of food photos are taken on white plates, and rarely on heavily patterned and colourful ones. In this case, the lack of colour in the plate brings the colours in the food out more.
So put soft against sharp, warm against cold, red against blue and dark on light. It works wonders. Nobody’s going to notice your food if it’s lost in a bland setting of sameness, or hidden in a muddle of colours.
But hang on, what about sameness? Just what do you do all those times you want a picture of something that kinda looks all the same, colour-wise? You can’t take everything and put it on a plate: it’s just going to look clinical & antiseptic. Well, embrace the sameness. Go in close. It may look all brown to you, but unless it came out of a factory chances are it has a lot more colour range than you think. Use the tips we discussed in the previous point, and let the light find every little piece of colour in your subject and bring it out. You may be very surprised by the results.
And one final tip: change your camera’s White Balance settings from Auto to Daylight for instantly warmer-looking pictures.
We’ve talked about how things look, but how do they feel? Great food photographs instantly make your mouth water. You can’t help but imagine what they taste like, your mind flooded with thoughts on how that particular food will be to touch, to roll around your tongue.
That, my friends, is texture.
It’s a bit of an indirect element; after all, we can’t actually feel the picture (Touch-O-Vision™ hasn’t been invented — yet!), but a photo can make the viewer have exactly that kind of visceral reaction to the food, highlighting the more tactile elements.
When taking your food photos, take a moment to imagine what the food is like to touch with your fingers and tongue. Touch and taste it, if you want to. What are the feelings that stand out? Crunchy? Smooth? Soft? Then, look for those elements in the plate and make sure you include them. Texture is everywhere. These examples are just the more direct ones that I had taken. From the ridges on potato chips to the unctuous sheen of hot pasta tossed in olive oil, the patterns on fruit and even the clarity of plain water — every food tells you what it’s made of, and we all instinctively know what something will feel like when we look at it. That is what you should try to highlight.
Of course, you can convey texture without ever showing any food. The experience of eating food involves so many textures that aren’t of things we ingest: the ceramic of the plate, the smoothness of a fork, the wrapper on your favourite chocolate. One look at some of these elements, and you can lead your viewer to think about exactly the food you want them to. There are no sweets in the photo to the left. But we’ve all prized that roll of toffees when we were kids, clutched it in our hands, delicately unwrapped each piece from its wax-paper cover (here converted into an origami swan). Even without the brand-name, I’m pretty sure most of us would know what we are looking at. And hopefully, you’re now craving toffees.
The human brain is a fantastic information processing engine, filtering through millions of different stimuli so we can concentrate on what’s important. Scientists have realised that if we were consciously aware of everything in the world around us, we’d go crazy. A good food photo is a bit like the human brain, picking out elements that are important and shoving others to the side, still keeping the awareness that they’re there, but not letting it all overwhelm.
In order to focus on some parts of the dish more than others, you need to understand a little about Aperture & Depth of Field. Don’t worry, I won’t be going into a science lesson here: all you need to know is that if your camera has an ‘A’ or ‘ASM’ mode on its dial you can switch it to ‘Aperture Priority‘ mode.
In Aperture Priority mode you can affect a number denoted by F (F2.8, F3.5 etc). Higher numbers mean that more of the image will be focus, so in order to get a very shallow depth of field like in these photos here, set it to the lowest you can. If everything you want in focus isn’t, adjust the F number a step or two up. You’ll soon get the hang of it.
Many compact cameras unfortunately still do not come with an Aperture Priority mode, but this is getting rarer as people’s enthusiasm for more control over photos grows. Still, do consult you camera’s manual for specific instructions on how to set Aperture Priority.
While you’re at it, you may want to see if it can do ‘Manual Focus’ too. This way you can not only get the correct depth of field, but precisely get just what you need in focus.
A note about using these more manual features: as the aperture goes up, the shutter needs to be open longer, leading to more chances of a shaky shot. So use a tripod or bean-bag as mentioned before to get clear, crisp shots.
To mangle a phrase: No plate is an island.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, so don’t assume your food does either. A lot of our memories to do with great food we’ve had has as much to do with where we had something as what we had. Try to include bits of background in your picture. It doesn’t need to be much: a few props on the table, or an angle that shows the surrounding. Give your food photos a sense of place.
The photo above was taken on vacation two years ago, and every time I see this picture I not only remember the excellent upma & kanda poha the hotel served, but also the view from our room of the hilly Maharashtrian coast, and a flood of other memories. Don’t just take photos for others: do them for yourself as well, to keep memories of places and events in your life alive. It’s odd to think that a plate of food and a little out-of-focus scenery does more to remind you of a place than other, more direct holiday snaps, but it does.
A little background can add a lot of personality and character to food photos.
But the background isn’t just useful for, well, background. As above, so below — or so they say. In food photography terms its means you can use the background to further convey information about the food itself. For example, this shot of some salad I made for lunch a couple of days ago. You can show a close-up of the food in the foreground and a similar whole plate in the background, thereby — in a single photo — conveying how the food looks at an individual component level, and how it all comes together on the plate. Two for the price of one, and other such things (my, isn’t this section getting massively punny?)
Focus isn’t just something you should use within aspects of the plate, however. Placing food against an out-of-focus background does a good job of ‘framing’ the food in an interesting way, while still keeping the whole picture interesting. It also adds a tremendous amount of mood without overwhelming the picture with detail and clutter.
Keep your background in mind, but don’t let it overwhelm the important thing: the food!
I hope this post has helped you idenitify the basic elements of good food photography. Certainly, on an unconscious level, I’m always keeping these five things in mind when I’m taking any food photo. Sometimes I want to emphasise one element over the other, and that’s fine — every food photo you take need not have equal parts of every facet.
And hey, if there’s one sixth element, it is: Experiment! Take more photos. In this digital age with multi-gigabyte memory cards and instant-reviews, there’s really no excuse to be stingy with your photos, especially when you’re learning. Do make mistakes, do try whatever comes in your head, because that can lead to some happy accidents — and great photos!