Food photography is a wonderfully satisfying art form but it requires that the photographer be aware of every little detail in the image, all while the subject is either melting, wilting, or losing its freshness. There is no substitute for practice and making mistakes, but this list — and one of CreativeLive’s many food photography classes — can help you overcome a few common pitfalls before your next shoot.
Highlights that don’t match the overall color temperature of the image.
This is something I see all the time, even in big budget food shoots! There are usually two scenarios where the highlight’s color cast won’t match the image.
1.) Window light on a sunny day
When I started out as food photographer, I used window light for everything I shot. I enjoyed the way it consistently gave me acceptable results, but as my personal photographic style developed and became vibrant and punchy with more direction to the lighting, the inconsistent, overwhelming, and sometime bland nature of window light became an issue. The first thing I noticed about natural light is that when the skies were blue, the color cast worked its way into the highlights of my image. Blue is known to be the least appetizing color so I considered this to be unacceptable. The quickest way to fix this issue is to lower the blue saturation slider on the HSL panel in Lightroom or Camera RAW to and be sure to mask out just the highlight areas if there are any blue elements or props in the image.
2.) Tungsten Contamination
The second scenario which I see all the time in magazines is when a photographer is shooting a plate of food inside a restaurant and the tungsten bulbs from the interior cast orange highlights on an image that is most likely receiving window light from the side or the rear. This isn’t as easily fixed in post-production but can easily be fixed by adding a black flag above the plate to control what light hits the set. Not only does flagging the top of the set help in removing unwanted highlights, but it adds a more focused direction to the light which I personally find interesting and pleasing. Window light is a texture-killer so adding a flag is a two for one deal!
The plane of focus isn’t clearly thought out.
With all of the pressures that surround a food photographer during a shoot, it is extremely important to maintain a clear focus towards the goal of capturing the image you intended to create. One of the issues I desperately needed to work on early in my career was obtaining critical sharpness exactly where I wanted it in order to direct the viewer’s eye exactly where I wanted it to go.
Using a lens with the tilt and shift movements was a crucial step in composing the image the way I envisioned. I rarely use any fixed-plane lenses these days as the movements along with the quality of the glass give me everything I need on set. Gear is no substitute for talent though, and even when shooting with a point-and-shoot, and incredible image can be created when some planning is put in place. When you take your first shot of a scene you want to capture, ask yourself what should be in perfect focus, near perfect focus, and out of focus and why. “Why?” is the most important question to ask.
Once you know what you want, continue to work with the lens and check your results at 100% magnification (preferably while tethered to a computer), until you have achieved the result you want. There’s no worse feeling than capturing an image you fall in love with only to view it later and realize there’s something better you could have done in regards to the focal plane.
Cluttered propping and backgrounds.
When you are setting up a shoot, you first want to create a stand-in subject whether it is a piece of pie or a hamburger that resembles the “hero” so that you can finesse your lighting with the real thing but also so that you can address any conflicts with the way in which the colors and textures of the background and props interact with the food. Less is more in this regard and while there are no rules in art that can’t be broken, you always want the subject to be the star of the show. If something on set isn’t adding to the desired impact of the image, then it’s taking away from it and you should consider removing or replacing it. Color is usually the biggest offender.
If you’re photographing a loaf of bread and you have a bright red background, your eye will go to the background first. If that’s not your intent, a change would be in order. In this case, I wouldn’t necessarily transition to a duller color because then you would have the dull color of the bread and the dull color of the background cancelling each other out. I would try stainless steel, or a really dark cutting board. Something neutral but something that still provides separation for the eye. You also want to be on the lookout for errant highlights especially near the outside edges of the image which will immediately invite the eye to leave the frame. I like to use dulling spray on shiny props and I also cut the light in certain portions of the image to make the subject pop even more.
Not understanding what you’re photographing.
It’s one thing to simply place a bunch of beautiful food and props into an image, add some window light, and click the shutter. As a former chef, I have the added advantage of understanding how food is made. I always preach the importance of researching what you are shooting just as a portrait photographer would research a celebrity’s background to allow the photographer to break the ice in the limited amount of time they have with the subject.
In the image below, I photographed the preparation of Cassoulet, a French classic. As I arranged the props and food, I was constantly asking myself “Why would this be here?” or “What size would this be cut?” or “If the beef wasn’t yet cut, how far along would the rest of the food be?” etc., etc. These are extremely important questions to ask, and to combine this understanding of what is supposed to be taking place in an image, with the artistic considerations, can be a daunting challenge. Just remember, when you place a spoon in an image to create a leading line or to break up a background, ask yourself first, “Why is this here?”
Propping like everyone else.
I am definitely guilty of this and along with branding considerations, there are always prevailing styles which magazines, catalogs, and ad agencies tend to follow at any given time. But if the point of being an artist is to express your vision (especially when shooting for your portfolio), and if the goal of advertising is to stand out from the pack and attract the viewer’s attention, then working on developing your own style when it comes to propping, food styling, and photographic technique is crucial to survive in this business. I would recommend to all food photographers if you have the time and resources is to train yourself to style and prop the way that you want to be known as an artist. Then work to find and train cooks, interior designers, etc. in your own style to work with you when you need them. That way you are always on the same page and working with someone you have personally trained on set can prove to be an exceptional and extremely efficient working relationship.
Not asking “Why?”
The last tip simply expands on tip number four. Crafting an image for your personal portfolio or even the occasional client, can be an opportunity to push yourself artistically and the most important part of creating an image that has lasting impact in the viewer’s mind is answering the question “Why?”. Why am I making this image? I love capturing images in a series of three or five because the “Why?” becomes even more evident. It can sometimes be easy to tell a story with street photography or other disciplines because the characters are all lined up and the photographer uses their trained eye and experience to know when to the press the shutter.
As a food photographer you have little longer to capture “the moment”, but with inanimate objects and especially food, a story, or “reason” for capturing the image besides “this is pretty, eat this!” can be a challenge but one that can really help you develop as a food photographer. There will be many times where you are asked to simply shoot a simple product for the sake of having a workable piece of final art, but the work you create that has a defined style, vision, and a story that can clearly be told in a matter of seconds, speaks volumes about you as a photographer and what you can bring to the table.
One Free Tip
Have fun and experiment, experiment, experiment. The next big thing in food photography might be blue and tungsten highlights in the same shot!