The food inevitably came first, primarily from a love of eating. My mum was a great cook and I grew up in a rural area where several of my parents’ friends were farmers and in the late seventies my parents made the move to Cornwall and opened a farm shop. Looking back, food was really important but I doubt I fully appreciated that at the time.
I think the first time I picked up a camera with any real intent was also around then, a family holiday to the Cotswolds with an old Agfamatic! Not long after, I bought a Pentax K1000, my first 35mm SLR and I can still visualise it in its glass cabinet at the retailer, and remember the excitement of making the purchase.
That was all over 40 years ago and certainly, for the last 25 years, food and photography have become inextricably linked. My wife and I ran a small restaurant for 12 years, gaining a Michelin star along the way, and since selling the restaurant in 2015 I have been doing more and more food photography and video. I really do feel the depth of understanding I have around ingredients and cooking has helped with the photography, and there are many areas where the skills needed for both cross over.
In this blog, I am going to look at some of the tips and ideas that I feel are important when it comes to food photography. In many ways it’s all very subjective and, as with cooking, it’s about picking and choosing the bits that resonate with you.
As with all photography this has to be the major consideration. I have a preference for artificial light as it allows me greater control and solves practical issues around when and where you can shoot. Often restaurants and particularly kitchens aren’t blessed with abundant soft daylight. A north facing window does make a wonderful light source if available and simple diffusers and reflectors can further enhance that light.
Generally lighting from behind or to the side gives the best shape to the food and if you are using strobes, a big soft box possibly with some extra diffusion can replicate the feel of that soft northern window light.
My basic set up would be a strobe with a 120cm Octabox set back left or right and a 90cm strip box opposite the key light to help fill in any shadows. If I do use more lights it will generally be to light the background in a specific way. Bounce cards, black cards, flags and extra layers of diffusion all have their place at times but good images can be had with just a single light. Shot 1 below was taken with just the 120cm Octabox and shot 2 was with a white reflector to bounce some light back into the shadows.
Of course you can also use a really hard light source to dramatic effect, the two images below show this clearly, both shot with a single hard light source.
If I could identify a single thing that improved my food photography it would be starting to shoot tethered. Being able to see the images so much larger made a huge difference. It isn’t so much about critical focus and depth of field but composition. Clearly seeing the edges of the frame, understanding the difference moving a fork one centimetre makes, seeing leading lines and how the hero food item sits in the frame is so much easier on a laptop than the back of the camera.
In many ways this is similar to the tethering, shooting from a tripod gives so much more control and is so much more considered. A good solid tripod that is easily adjustable and has flexibility on shooting angles is a vital part of my kit. Being able to make small adjustments in the framing can make or break an image. Even if you are taking food photos on a smart phone, using some sort of tripod will often give much better results. You can pick your focus point more accurately and it frees your hands up to hold a reflector or diffuser if you are shooting alone.
The multi angle central column on the Vanguard VEO 3+ 263CB 160S makes overhead shots considerably easier, the dual axis ball head offers more control in framing the shot, and the multi mount adaptor works well for holding a tether table if you are shooting lots of images without changing your set-up.
The 105mm macro on a full frame camera is the lens I use most often. It gives a really nice balance of compression, shallow depth of field and field of view, added to which it keeps you a bit further away from the subject which can be an advantage when you are trying to avoid being in the way in a kitchen.
The fact that it is a macro lens also allows you to exploit the beauty that is present in so many food details, whether it is the pattern on a melon skin, delicate herbs or the marbling through a piece of beef - I often find these are my favourite shots coming out of a shoot.
It is also a good focal length for portraits, again working well for those candid shots in a kitchen. I do use other lenses, the 60mm macro and a 24-70 2.8 or a 50mm 1.4. The 50mm 1.4 with that wide aperture does come into its own when you can’t light a space for whatever reason.
ANGLES AND ASPECTS
Shooting at a lower angle, say 30 degrees off the horizontal will make food items seem larger and as such is a good choice for hero shots of a burger, sandwich or drink. An overhead flat lay shot is another really popular shooting angle, too - great for showing a range of dishes, conveying a sense of generosity.
Because so much of the content I shoot currently has multiple uses, I often shoot in a 16:9 ratio to fit stills into videos more easily. And, of course, vertical shots are key for most social media platforms.
Don’t go too tight is the simple statement. Give yourself some room around the edges of the frame; it is always possible to crop in later in post. This is advice I need to take more often myself!
Shooting in RAW really does make sense. I know the file sizes are much larger but you have so much greater latitude to alter the images in post. Setting a custom white balance isn’t always practical in a busy kitchen and there is often a mix of tungsten, fluorescent and LED lighting. Being able to push temperature and tint in post is a huge advantage. Highlights and shadows are also more easily manipulated.
COOKING AND INGREDIENTS
Choosing the best possible ingredients will make a vast impact on your images. If it is you who is doing the cooking, spend the time to source and prepare the best ingredients you can get.
If I am talking to a chef before a shoot, I will ask them to cook and plate slightly differently than they would for a customer. It all depends on the dish but cooking things slightly less, dressing salads with just oil not a vinaigrette, saucing a dish lightly when it is on set and putting a little less on the plate to give more space will all make the food look better in a photograph.
Often a photograph will be looked at more closely and for longer than a plate of food itself so the detail is even more important. A brown stem on a salad leaf, a spot of grease on the plate or a skin on a sauce will all stand out. Some of this can be fixed in post but it is much better to get it right in camera if possible.
There is a misconception that food for food photography is often fake, mashed potato as a stand in for ice cream and motor oil for maple syrup are a couple that spring to mind, but in my experience this very rarely happens now. It is just about working with the chef or home economist and being ready to shoot when the food is at its best. Work out all the details with a dummy plate and then swap in the real plate as soon as the food is ready.
Having a kit of tweezers, small brushes, paper towel, droppers or syringes, straws and some vinegar for cleaning plates is really useful.
BACKGROUNDS AND PROPS
These can enhance food photographs immensely and are a real aid in telling the story you are conveying but equally they can confuse and spoil. For me, so often less is more and here this is a real cross over with my cooking, when working on a new dish often the most important question is what can we leave off? And I would pose the same question around props and backgrounds too - is the surface too fussy? Do the potato peelings belong in the shot of the finished dish? Do I include all the ingredients or just the key ingredients?
Much of this is a style choice but for my own preference when I am shooting editorial style food images I like things to look real, to create the impression that this is something you might actually see in a restaurant, in someone’s home kitchen or on their garden table. It is a balance between the elements you introduce to tell the story and creating something that is muddled.
The below image of the steak depicts a generous table with the cutlery, glasses, etc. framing the steak, just as you would see it in a restaurant, while the quince image uses lighting and the focus/depth of field to highlight the quince jelly. The basket and quince in the background help to tell the story of making the jelly but aren’t too obvious.
We have already touched on the idea of doing as much in camera as possible and for the vast majority of my shots I can do all the processing necessary in Lightroom. A pre-set gets me most of the way there with minor adjustments to saturation, vibrancy, highlights, shadows, clarity and sharpening.
If I do need to take something into Photoshop it is often to remove a splash or crumb on a plate, maybe to remove a scratch on a piece of crockery or remove a distracting reflection in a spoon (dulling spray works wonders on cutlery as does a polarising filter).
If I am shooting something more stylised then Photoshop does come into its own; compositing various elements into one image, detailed colour changes and sometimes re-shaping items can all be done but it is a very specific style of photography, albeit one I really enjoy.
To sum up, you can produce amazing food images with very little kit, one large soft light source, a solid tripod and your camera and you are on your way. Other items will help you achieve different results but there is a lot that can be achieved with a basic set up. Paying as much attention to the ingredients, the cooking and the plating will bring huge dividends.
If you are starting out on your food photography journey, just remember that a lot of the amazing images you see will have had a whole team of people behind them, prop stylists, food stylists, art directors, photographers, assistants, etc. but equally there are really excellent food photographs taken with natural light a few reflectors and a mobile phone.
Below we've listed some products that you may be interested in to support your food photography:
- VEO 3+ Tripods - the most versatile tripods available today
- VEO MT-12 - a horizontal arm for those who already have a tripod
- VEO Tripod Support Arms - ideal for turning your tripod into a studio
- VEO Clamps - where you can attach accessories to almost any object
- VEO Cold Shoe Mounts - ideal for attaching accessories to your camera
- VEO SPH - for those who want to take their smartphonography to another level