As beautiful as food can be, it's not always that easy to photograph--especially if there's no food stylist on call or elaborate studio space to occupy. Here at Chow Bella, we've compiled a list of tips to keep in mind when out shooting, regardless of how attractive the dish or how sophisticated the equipment on hand may be.
5. Focus on the Details
A lot of chefs treat each dish like a presentation, so handle it with care. Really take a look at the food before hitting the shutter button on the camera. Consider the composition. Does the entire plate need to be in the shot? Do you need to get in tighter, cropping out some of the food in order to get the nitty gritty details? Does the garnish need to be included? It's a call that you can only make after seeing what's in front of you. But we'd suggest taking a variety of shots, just in case. And from different angles. When focusing, we suggest shooting with a wider aperture if your camera has the option to adjust those settings (maybe an f-stop of 2.8). That allows for a shallow depth of field, which will better control where the viewers' eyes go in the photograph.
4. Know When to Use Props--And When Not To
Some folks may be tempted to pair silverware with every dish photographed, but try to fight that urge. Props can be lovely when incorporated in the right manner. And forks, spoons and knives aren't the only items available to use. What's the scene of the restaurant like? Implementing that into the photo can be a nice change of pace from the usual super tight shot, but don't get too hung up on trying to always squeeze the environment in. For food photography, less is usually more. The tighter the better, but every now and then, if the opportunity presents itself, zoom out (if you do decide to incorporate a background, make sure the image isn't overly chaotic and confusing.).
3. Sometimes, You Just Have to MacGyver It
We understand that not everyone is toting around thousands of dollars worth of equipment--and even those who are may still be lacking in some pretty basic tools to make the job easier. That's why it pays to be resourceful and inventive. Don't have a diffuser to filter light? Buy a white sheet or use white napkins. No lightstand to balance a reflector? Use a chair at the restaurant. No tripod? Position the camera on a table, maybe with a stack of camera manuels or menus under it to vary the height. Just remember to always have rubber bands, duct tape and a cool head on your shoulders.
2. Behold the Wonders of Natural Light!
You cannot underestimate the beauty of natural light. Don't get us wrong, being able to control the exact amount of power released from strobes in a studio run under your orders is a fantastic thing. But not all of us have that luxury, or some of us are being sent to the restaurants to photograph the dishes. Kindly request that the dish be brought to you at a table close to a window while you set up. And by "set up," I mean you're pulling out a reflector and a tripod--if you've got it.
Say you've got a plate of pita chips and hummus to photograph and you place it with the window to its left. Light travels in straight lines that don't curve at your will--unless you make them. Chances are you'll need a fill light for the right side of the dish so the shadows aren't too heavy and the other side of the food still has enough light. This is where a reflector is perfect, or even a white napkin. Either will help bounce light back into the scene. Reflectors range in price and can cost anywhere from $12 to pushing $100. There's no need to spend more than $12-$20, because it's a simple enough device that can be created on your own (remember that whole resourceful thing?).
Do not use a flash. Please, just don't do it. It will look overbearing and can either wash out the dish or create heavy, distracting shadows. If you do still find yourself really wanting to use a flash, put a gel over it so that it matches the color temperature of the room and put a diffuser over that so the light isn't too powerful. And it would probably be best to have the flash off-camera (still tempted to use flash over natural light??).
We'd ditch the flash for a reflector and a tripod. The tripod is great to have because, even with the natural light and restaurant lights, the room may still be too dim for a handheld shot. If you're using an iPhone camera, steady hands will go a long way here. Or check out tripods made for iPhones, if you really want to pimp out your camera phone gear.
1. Technical Proficiency Is a Must
As basic as this sounds, well, you need to know the basics. Otherwise, it gets difficult to produce quality work. Proper exposure, focus, composition, white balance--these are essential points to understand. If your shot is underexposed, there's only so much you can do in post-production work (i.e. software like Photoshop) to adjust that. But there's not a whole lot that can be done to fix a badly composed or blurry shot after it's been taken. So, as our photo instructors in college would ask, Why not just get it right the first time around? Make sure the food is well lit and that the camera settings are adjusted to read the light properly, and go from there. Is it in focus? Try to use that shallow depth of field as mentioned in previous tips.
And don't forget color balance.
A filet mignon will not look all that appetizing if the photo is murky and green. Proper color balance of a photo is essential in food photography. Avoid having that color cast over the image by setting your camera to automatic white balance before shooting, or manually adjust it depending on the color temperature of the light (tungsten, which often casts orange tones, will have a different color temperature than shooting under florescent, which can give photos a green-like-The-Matrix look if you're not careful). If you find yourself with a photo that you've taken that does have a strange off-color look to it, it's an easy fix in Photoshop and/or other software. It can be fixed by adjusting the balance of colors (for example, adding magenta will help to take away green from an overly-green image). Check with the program you're using for more details on how to do go about the different methods of color correction.
And although we've already touched on composition in preview tips, we have something to add: For the love of God, don't tilt the camera for that stupid diagonal horizon effect. It rarely (if ever) adds anything to the photograph.