Food Photography 101
My food photography journey has come a long, long way. As amusing as it is to reminisce, I'm not ashamed nor would I ever go back and delete my older work because it stands as proof of what years of effort can achieve. Trial and error. Studying photos of artists I admire. Practise, practise, practise.
We all have to start somewhere so, if you are a newbie, here are some food photography tips that I've found useful along the journey to finding my own style.
Light is by far the most important element of any photograph, and especially so for food. Nothing beats natural light. Even a serious set-up of professional equipment can't quite replicate it. That's why you'll rarely see night-time food shots on my Instagram feed. Regardless whether you're going for light and airy or dark and moody, you'll need plenty of natural light.
Decide on the focal point of your photo. A particular bit of the main dish, perhaps? Now play around with the angle from which your light source hits it. I find that side light works well to bring dimension to a flat scene; while backlight is useful for bringing out the colour in translucent drinks.
In low-light situations, don’t be tempted to use the in-built flash in your smartphone, as it will be head-on and harsh. Try to create another source of light, for example by moving a candle next to your food. If you’re struggling with blurriness, you can balance your phone or camera on a flat surface and set the shutter to self-timer mode. On a decent DSLR, pushing your ISO high allows you to take sharp photos. I've found the Google Pixel also performs amazingly at night.
Sometimes a close-up of a beautiful dish brings out details and textures, whereas a wider shot would better convey the story of the scene. Thinking about the reason you want to share a particular photo can help you decide how to frame it.
Negative space can be a powerful tool in composing a photograph. Leaving part of your image empty draws your audience's eyes to the focus, making the overall scene more interesting than if you had filled the entire photo.
I recently shot some photos for a Mauritian chef. Though the food was incredibly delicious, a lot of it was brown or monochrome. A good tip is to add brightness by way of garnishes. Some freshly chopped parsley or red chilli can bring life to a monochrome dish. Keep fresh herbs in an ice water bath until the last minute, or they'll start to wilt after a few minutes. Top tip: quality ingredients will always be more photogenic than cheap ones.
If you have many elements of a photo to style together, start with a leading line. Our eyes are naturally drawn to lines and patterns to make sense of a scene, so it can be an effective way to draw your audience's attention. Study a food 'flat lay' photo that you admire. Even if elements seem randomly scattered, they seldom are. Food styling is a difficult skill – I'm still learning after many years – but the only way to improve is with practise.
You can incorporate hands, people and actions to tell a story. Food is about sharing and creating so, to me, the cook and the process are just as important as the actual dishes. I love a good shot of family or friends tucking into a feast – it makes me want to reach through my computer or phone to join in.
Introduce contrasting textures and dimensions by using cutlery, linen napkins, table decorations or attractive ingredients that were used in the dish. You can also get creative with backdrops; I use wood, blackboards, coffee tables, and a range of patterned paper to mimic different materials. Avoid the temptation of going overboard and creating a cluttered scene, though my prop collection at home is getting a little out of hand...
Apps & Editing
There are so many wonderful apps out there, many available for free, so it is tempting to go overboard with the editing process. Keep in mind that food looks best when it is natural and true-to-colour. The purpose of apps is to enhance, rather than to alter, so it's always to try and get the real-life situation as close to your vision as possible.
My go-to apps are Priime for their filters, Snapseed for minor tweaks, and SKRWT for correcting skew. To maintain a professional look, I would recommend avoiding: borders, fake lens flares and blur effects.
There are so many more "rules" and guidelines to food photography but I’m also a firm believer that rules are made to be broken. It’s fun to experiment to find your own style. Be patient, step outside the comfort zone of your usual style or process, take a lot of photos (and keep all the outtakes) and – most importantly – have fun with it.