When I started Spoonshine in January this year, I thought that taking the photographs would be the easiest part of it all. I naively thought that it was all about creating lovely food, and that the photos would speak for themselves. But I soon discovered that creating great dishes will only get you halfway there. Which is why I found myself having a little existential crisis a few posts in, when I couldn’t work out why on earth my pictures hadn’t turned out like I’d hoped they would!
It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to operate a camera. In my day job as a TV producer I use stills and video cameras all the time. I know my f-stops from my ISOs and how to manage my depth of field, exposure and focus. But all of that wasn’t enough to help me take beautiful shots of my food.
My first port of call was to head to google and see if I could glean any wisdom from my fellow bloggers. What I found were great tutorials about how to operate a camera – and some had some brilliant tips too (like Better with Butter‘s top 10 tips for food photography which touches on aperture and depth of field, or this post on Sally’s Baking Addiction which talks you through camera kit as well). But what I needed – and what I ended up learning the hard way – was how to make photography work for taking pictures of food. And especially how to master the dark art of taking photographs that would be accepted on sites like foodgawker and tastespotting. I had a lot of rejections along the way!
I’m not pretending that I’ve cracked it – but I think I’ve come a long way. So it seemed like an appropriate time to pause and share what I’ve found out by learning the hard way, so that hopefully you don’t have to!
(Oh, and like all the best rules, these are obviously meant to be broken. But hopefully after reading this you’ll be able to break them intentionally as part of your creative process, rather than unintentionally like I did when I started out!)
TIP #1: WAIT
I know this might seem silly, but don’t take those pictures straight away. First, if your dish is hot, those big clouds of rising steam are going to fog up your lens! But also, more fundamentally, after a session in the kitchen, especially when devising a new recipe and the mental cogs have been turning for a while, I’m usually pretty tired. I’m ready for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
Don’t ignore this instinct! I’ve found that when I force myself to forge on and take the pictures straight away, my heart’s just not in it. I’m rushing and not enjoying the process any more. And often the light is fading anyway, meaning that I’m shooting in less than perfect conditions.
Instead, I’ve found that things go much better if I leave at least an hour (if not a day!) between cooking and taking my photographs. I can choose to shoot in the best light, when I’ve really thought things through and am not frazzled from the heat of the kitchen. And best of all, it means that I can truly enjoy the process – and I think that shows in the finished results.
TIP #2: THINK COMPOSITION
Composition is really important, and you’ll start to get an eye for what you like as you go along – for instance I often like to move my food off-centre like in this photo, and this one. But it’s also important to think about the final format your photos will take.
For instance, foodgawker, tastespotting and other similar sites tend to only accept square format photos. When I first started out I’d just upload one of my regular 6×4 photos and move it around to find a pretty square frame within it, but I soon realised this was not working for me! I needed to think about shooting for a square frame before I hit the shutter, not after!
Now I shoot a separate set of photographs just for the square frame. Obviously they’re rectangular when I shoot them and I crop them in my editing software. But as I’m lining up the shot, I’m thinking square frame, square frame, square frame!
It’s also worth thinking about how people will ultimately view those photos. For instance, just this week I got burned when I viewed my hot cross scone submission on the foodgawker iphone app and realised that it was being half obscured by the white banner at the bottom! I was kicking myself because I could easily have moved it up in the frame if I had thought about this, but now it was too late. This is a mistake that I certainly won’t be making twice!
TIP #3: DITCH THE TRIPOD!
Staying on the subject of composition, this is a tip that will raise a few eyebrows, so first I’ll tell you why you should use a tripod. Let’s say you’ve got all your camera settings just where you want them – your aperture just right to give you the correct depth of field in your photo – but you’re struggling to get enough light to make it correctly exposed. You could decrease the shutter speed, so the shutter stays open for longer and more light ends up in your camera. But if you go below 1/60th of a second, you’ll start to struggle to hold your camera still enough to avoid seeing motion blur in your pictures. This is when it would make sense to put your camera on a tripod.
All of that said, I think you’re better off ditching the tripod! I found that holding the camera in my hands left me so much freer to experiment with composition and angles. With a tripod I just felt too locked in, and re-setting it between shots was a faff I just couldn’t be bothered with!
So what about the scenario I just outlined above? Well, if you find yourself struggling to get an exposure, I would advocate either getting some more light in (by either bouncing natural light onto your food – see tip #4 or putting up another artificial light), opening your aperture up some more to let more light into your camera or increasing your ISO to make your camera’s sensor more sensitive to the light it is getting. You’ll feel so much freer once you’ve ditched the tripod, and your composition is sure to improve too.
TIP #4: POLY BOARD IS YOUR FRIEND
There is a big place in my heart for arty shadows, but most of the time, when it comes to photographing food, you really want to see all of it. Which means that you need to find a way of eliminating the shadows that appear on the side of your food that isn’t being directly lit by the sun or your artificial light(s).
This is where polystyrene board becomes your friend. You can buy it from art and hardware stores or you can save it from packaging (I got mine when my new kitchen units were delivered) but basically it’s the perfect low-cost reflector, that bounces a beautifully diffuse light. Place it on the side of your food where the shadows are (out of frame, obviously!) and angle it around until it catches the light. All of a sudden, you’ll see the shadows lift, and if you’re lucky – completely disappear!
TIP #5: PAINT A PICTURE
This took me a while to get the hang of. But when you’re making someone fall in love with your food in a photograph, it’s about so much more than the food. Take the time to think about the lifestyle you’re ‘selling’ – if I make your bircher muesli will I float through life like a Scandi fitness instructor? If I make your pulled pork carnitas for my next dinner party, will all my guests bask in the warm glow of effusive Mexican hospitality? Or will your definitive recipe for roast chicken make me the ultimate Tuscan kitchen goddess?
Obviously these are all fantasies, and no matter how wonderful your recipe is it’s probably not going to totally deliver on any of these things. But it doesn’t hurt to dream, and making and eating food is one of the most transporting things we can do. So think about what your dishes promise, how they make you feel when you cook and eat them, and paint that picture in your photographs too, by choosing your props, tableware and location carefully! And don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll ‘find’ your images once you start looking through the viewfinder. Picture the finished article before you even pick up your camera, and then focus your efforts on making that vision a reality!
TIP #6: KEEP A MENTAL ‘SHOT LIST’
When I first started, I’d shoot randomly and never be quite sure when I’d ‘got it’. But over time, I’ve developed a sort of mental ‘shot list’ of the angles I need to take. First of all I keep my camera to hand while I’m cooking the dish, to capture shots of the process of making it. And then there’s the aforementioned ‘square photo’ for submission to the foodgawker / tastespotting crop of sites. But even this I usually shoot three or four ways:
1) Top shot: Put the dish on the ground or stand on a box and shoot from directly overhead.
2) The point of view shot: Angle your camera at about 45 degrees, to capture the food from the angle that you’d normally see it if you were about to eat it!
3) The action shot: I’ve only just started doing this so I don’t have a great example to show you… but this one’s all about getting stuck in and getting a bit of action and reality into your shot. So drizzle some syrup, pick up a forkful or shake over some icing sugar – and capture your food in motion.
4) The broken into shot: This is pretty useful if you want to show the internal texture of your food – for instance how fluffy and light your dumplings are, or how your chocolate cookies ooze deliciously when you bite into them. It’s not rocket science – open those beauties up and shoot them in all their glory!
And then once you’ve got all of these in square format (and have chosen your favourite to upload to the photo sharing sites), take them again in regular 6×4 format for the actual body of your blog post too!
TIP #7: GET TO GRIPS WITH YOUR EDITING SOFTWARE
I don’t need to tell you which of the photos below is the before, and which is the after…
But I should explain why the ‘before’ looks so awful! It’s mostly because I broke rule #1, and started shooting my food straight out of the oven, as the light was fading. Not only that but I didn’t have my artificial lights to hand (they were out with K on a job), so I ended up shooting under my kitchen’s regular lighting. And I also ended up breaking rule #2 because this was never meant to be my square format photo. I only decided it would have to be later when none of my other square format images worked out so well.
All in all, I think you’ll agree, an unmitigated disaster – and usually these things combined would make this image unusable. But there was one thing that saved me. I shot the image in RAW – which meant that there was a lot of detail hiding in that image, if I could just find a way to get it out.
And get it out I did, using my photo editing software – in this case photoshop. As you’ll see I was able to lift the shadows, change the colour temperature to correct for the orangey lights of my kitchen, and increase the exposure overall. And I was also able to airbrush out the inconvenient bit of scone lurking in the background that was a casualty of my not intending for this to be my square format photo.
This is a pretty extreme example, but I found that all of my images started improving when I got to grips with my photo editing software. For Photoshop there are some great books you can get, like Photoshop CS6 For Dummies that will bring you up to speed, but you’ll find similarly helpful manuals whatever software you use. And if you really can’t afford to shell out yet, I’m a big fan of online photo editor pixlr which has many of the basic functions available on the professional software.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting you should rely on photo editing entirely. For one, correcting these images took me loads longer than shooting them well in the first place would have done! But the better your skills with the software, the better your photos are going to look overall. And if you do have an off day, you can rest assured that there’s always a hope of rescuing your shots later. Which is pretty handy when all your lovely food has already been eaten, and there’s no hope of a reshoot!
TIP #8: KEEP SOME FOOD STYLING TRICKS UP YOUR SLEEVE
Styling food is one of the trickiest things to do, and to be honest I’m still learning. But I’ve begun to understand what the elements are that I need to get right:
The first thing I usually think about is the surface I’m going to shoot on. Are we going for rustic wood, sophisticated marble, sunny terracotta? Now obviously I don’t actually have all of those surfaces in my home, but you can buy tiles or wood planks in small quantities to make it look as though you do. And I’d also highly recommend checking out this ingenious list here – which gives you a few more ideas of interesting surfaces you can create and use!
Next I usually think about the plates and cutlery. As a general rule it’s best to err on the small side with your plates. You don’t want your lovely food to be dwarfed by great swathes of sad empty plate. White plates make a good staple, but don’t be afraid of a contrasting colour either. For instance when I was cooking my Malaga salad I just knew I wanted a blue plate to set off the orange in the salad, and I don’t think it would have looked nearly as nice on a plain white plate! I’m addicted to my local TK MAXX‘s cookware section, which is always full of gorgeous and reasonably priced tableware. But I also like to mix my new acquisitions up with a few charity shop finds…
Finally, you want to think about what you’re going to put around your food. I often like to style my food with some of the ingredients that have gone into it. It means that people can see at a glance what the key flavours are, and get a sense of the process of making it. But it’s also nice to create a scene in your head and then make that a reality with your styling. If your dish is perfect for sharing at a sunny barbecue, bring that to life with a wooden bench, colourful paper napkins and beautiful jug of iced water. Whereas if it’s a simple home made digestive biscuit, far better to accessorise with a nice cup of tea and a good book!
I hope these tips are helpful, and that they save you a few of the head-scratching moments I had when I first started the blog. But in case you want any more information, can I recommend the following resources:
Pinch of Yum’s Tasty Food Photography eBook
And Helene Dujardin’s wonderful Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling