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10 things I've learnt about food photography

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

One genre of photography I didn't think I'd try or be interested in was 'Food'. It always seemed like you needed lots of equipment, special lighting and not only be a photographer, but some kind of chef. I then got a phone call from an agency who were looking for photographers in Asia to take photos of delivery company menus (you know the companies like Grab Food, Deliveroo, Food Panda and so on). So I figured "why not!?", there's no harm in trying.

The first thing I did was to look study the subject. I think that's important for any new venture into a photographic subject as you'd be going in blind, possibly holding up a kitchen (in this case) or look totally lost while the food slowly goes cold and limp. There's plenty of great online resources for food photography as well as eBooks and web articles. Food is one of those ones that's great to practice on as the food doesn't care how long you take, and isn't paid by the hour. It does however start to look no-so-great quite quickly depending on what it is.

So with that, I thought I'd do quite a high-level top 10 of things I've personally found useful, or learned from (my errors) over the shoots I've done. I actually really enjoy food photography now too (plus you often get to eat it after!). You can see some of my food photos here.

  1. Have a plan before you shoot (or read the shoot list) If you're shooting for a client, or even just yourself, make sure you know what you are going to do before you start. It sounds obvious, but it's easy to think you can just get the food and put it on the table and start clicking away merrily. Even for something like a basic "lay flat" (where you position the camera above the food), if you don't know what decoration or props go with the food you are about to shoot, you can end up hunting around for things whilst the fresh food goes less-than-fresh. Have a plan, or even sketch some storyboards so you can be ready as soon as the food comes out.

  2. Fresh Ingredients Another one that seems obvious is to use fresh ingredients. On camera any raw ingredients you have in focus will show up any imperfections, including wrinkles from being a bit dry, or bruising and even firmness you can see on the photo. Of course you could edit this later, but if you have access to fresh, then fresh looks great and colourful on the photo.

  1. Collect props and decoration items Quite often I go to a food shoot for a client and they don't have any suitable decorations. Where I'm based in Singapore there's a food culture, but not so much about what the food is on (the food quality doesn't need to hide in fancy crockery). But that doesn't mean the food photo has to suffer. If you know the cuisine you are shooting, it's slightly easier to prepare. For Western I might pack some nice cloth-wear, cutlery or even some backgrounds that would work for the type of food. For Asian I would maybe take chopsticks, fork and spoon or some Asian crockery (I also use Asian crockery for Western sometimes as it looks really nice... especially the Japanese items.

  2. Water Spray If you are shooting a lot of dishes, and the chef is firing them out of the kitchen at a rate of knots, it isn't unusual that some dishes will be sat for a while before their shoot. For things like soups, rice, pasta, salads... well, pretty much all dishes that don't have a matte finish, you can spray with a fine mist water spray to rejuvenate the shine. N.B. Assure your chef that it's just water as I often get funny looks spraying their planned dinner.

  3. Long Tweezers (Or narrow tongs) This is another essential item to carry with you. Though many kitchens will have these, or you can even use a chopstick, you will likely at some point need to move some food or remove errant pieces of food from a plate. For me, but fingers are always dainty enough, but also I don't want to grease up my camera buttons.

  4. Lighting For some of my shoots, the client insists I don't use artificial lighting. This is often times very hard to get good looking shots. So make sure you get a good spot near the best light, not too overhead (you'll get the shadow of you and the camera) or even better find a good spot outside. Even using a bounce board will help. Just be really mindful of shadows cast by the camera (particularly when doing a lay flat). There's about 5,000 online guides for food lighting, so I won't go into the details, but lighting is really important for making food look great.

  1. Use an off-camera trigger If you're taking any static photos I'd probably say this applies. It's worth investing in an off camera trigger (a button to release the shutter without you touching the camera). You can get fancy ones with timers and wire-free, or you can get a basic plug-in one that works just as well. By using this you eliminate camera shake and means you can use a higher ISO and slower shutter speed, getting you cleaner shots

  2. Get a 90 degree arm for your tripod I'd probably list getting a good quality tripod too, but you'd know that. However a 90 degree arm is quite a cheap addition, and many can be used with other brands so you don't have to get the carbon fibre top of the range one. But having one sure beats leaning over the food, or even trying to position your tripod precariously to get 90 degrees above the shot. You can of course take them free-hand, but if you want to get a consistent frame each time, it's better to lock everything off, and you'll eliminate even more shake.

  3. Don't get too hung up on the tricks Of course, you should study the 'tricks' like how to make pasta look plump, or coffee look steamy and fresh or shooting ice-cold drinks. But before you get into all that, use the food as it comes. Like model photography there's a trend of the food looking how it looks in real life. No restaurant wants customers demanding their money back because the burger looked 5 inches tall in the photo. Later you can 'enhance' food, but try to avoid making it look so unbelievable you might as well have created the shot with a 3D printer

  4. Practice This one is probably the most important. If you don't practice at home where there's no financial pressure, then you won't get better at the photos. I enjoy cooking at home, so sometimes how I'd take a photo of the food, even if I eat it before I go anywhere near my camera. But if you can wait to eat, try taking some test shots, see if you can make the food look as good as it tastes or even get the camera in the kitchen while food is being prepared to catch moments.

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